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Mourning all creatures great and small

Friday, 20 April 2018  | Mick Pope




This is a piece out of time, out of sync. There are things that I either don’t hear about at the time, or learn of when it is happening on social media and it’s already tomorrow for us. So learning about
Remembrance Day for Lost Species in April, when it falls on November 30, is a bonus. Maybe this piece will get rerun then.

You may well wonder why I’d be writing about such a thing - unless of course you think I’m a hopeless greenie, then it’s easy to understand. But I think there are solid Christian reasons for us not only joining in on this secular day of remembrance (if it even makes sense to say such a thing) but also finding our own ways to engage in remembrance for lost species: liturgy, lament, repentance and activism.

Of course, species loss is a real problem. It is one of the nine planetary boundaries for a safe operating space for humanity, along with issues like climate change, ozone depletion, the pollution of our waterways with fertilisers and so on. (A planetary boundary represents a natural limit which, when pushed, threatens the integrity of part of the Earth system and its ability to support human flourishing.) The main drivers of species change are ‘the demand for food, water, and natural resources’, but when we look at the total loss of the Passenger Pigeon in the United States we see little more than gross stupidity – for this, along with the decimation of bison, our greed, the near genocidal control of Native Americans, and the extermination of badgers in the UK are products of fear and ignorance. Climate change is also a driver of extinction, with many species at risk, and Australia has the dubious honour of having lost the world’s first mammal to climate change.

So why is species loss a planetary boundary? At the moment, there is no evidence of a tipping point in ecosystem collapse and there is a lack of a clear boundary according to some scientists, but the boundaries do serve to highlight the risks. For example we know that, globally, pollinators are in decline, which is a real problem for agriculture. Loss of coral reefs means loss of major fisheries. Of course we get oxygen from marine phytoplankton, and carbon storage and water filtration from trees. And there are countless studies now showing the psychological health benefits of nature. The opposite of the psychological health benefits of nature is solastalgia, the mourning while things are still there or sense of homelessness while still at home. As we slowly destroy the world around us, some of us are mourning what is going, what has been lost and what might disappear. And mourning is an appropriate response for the Christian.

If it is nothing else, Genesis 1 is a liturgy. With its rhythmic prose, John Walton argues that it describes the setting up of a temple-cosmos, with humans as the images or idols of God there to care for it. Every creature has its relationships and functions. The lights in the sky mark time and seasons (verses 14-19), something lost to us moderns with too much lighting from our Babels we call cities. Remember these same heavens we can’t see due to light pollution, which also distract some migrating birds, are meant to declare the glory of God (Psalm 19)! Birds are meant to multiply on the earth (verses 21-22), and sea monsters, a symbol of chaos in the ancient world, are meant to swarm in the waters and sport with delight (Psalm 104:26). Psalm 104 declares that we are to ‘Praise the Lord’ and implies that creation joins in on this praise.

Liturgy is at the heart of the Old Testament (for God as creator) and of the New Testament (see Colossians 1, Revelation 4). So, in our gatherings, why doesn’t creation feature more? Some churches would appear to be rather Gnostic on their insistence that only what happens in the heart matters, or that salvation is a matter of the soul, implying that we are saved from rather than with creation as Paul tells us (Romans 8:19-23). So our first step is to liturgically bring to mind the wonders of God’s creation. We can then rightly liturgically become aware of and mourn the loss of creation, itself a blasphemy. And yes, we might not mourn the loss of diseases, but neither should our mourning be restricted to ‘All things bright and beautiful‘, but should also include ‘All things dull and ugly‘.

Mourning is appropriate. Vapid happiness in our services never brought anyone to repentance of their sins. There is a place for lament of the evil in the world, and to be sure there is much evil to lament about. But to ignore lamenting for our fellow creatures who are non-human is an oversight too far. The creation has been subjected to futility (Romans 8:20), but not of its own will, writes Paul, nor indeed of its own doing! But humans are given over to their sins and their consequences because of their idolatry, and this idolatry is the cause of the destruction of creation. The order that was brought out of chaos in Genesis 1 is being unleashed, just as it was at the Flood. And while the creation is subjected to frustration by God (though in hope), it is the result of human sinfulness. Its struggles will lead to its redemption when the dead in Christ are raised, but none of this is good in and of itself. So if identifiable human sin destroys habit, whole species or even whole ecosystems, both the sin itself and the losses are worth mourning over.

Our liturgical mourning can take many forms. For one performance in Brighton Park in the UK, it involved a procession of people dressed up like pollinators. This is no less daggy or less appropriate than many of the tired Nativity plays we’ve all sat through. Perhaps a song, a poem, a spoken word, a visual display. Given the flippant, trite and misunderstood references to heaven in so much of our hymnody that ignore the Resurrection and the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21:1), some new worship songs of praise and lament are in order.

Our liturgical lamenting also means repenting. To assume that our actions are not part of the problem is wishful thinking. To be sure, the desire for food, shelter and comfort are good things, but they come at a price for the world around us. In the west, our levels of consumption far outweigh most the rest of the world. Even those of us who do not openly embrace the prosperity gospel still don’t go the other way and embrace simplicity. The Babylonian captivity of the western church is to unquestioningly accept western values, good and bad. Extricating ourselves from it is no easy task, while trying not be Pharisaical about it or, indeed, exchanging one form of Gnosticism that rejects creation as a whole for another that rejects care of the body. Reducing our carbon footprint, thinking about what habitat was cleared for our food or caring about the ethics of our clothing are all important issues. These things begin with information that allows us to change our minds (the meaning of metanoia, the Greek word we translate as repentance).

Repentance leads to action, and not just individually. We live in a democracy, where information abounds for us to make decisions about who to vote for, who to write to, who to protest against. Activism has always been a part of the Evangelical movement, from temperance to abolition. We live in the Millennium, where God and the Lamb rule now from Heaven (Revelation 5). Our actions do not build the kingdom, but our actions are in line with the ethos of the kingdom. If the renewal of all things means that creation itself will be renewed, I wonder what that means for animals that are lost in the present. Are we not to work so that we do not add to their number by our own hands? Conservation is a fundamentally conservative action. The status quo of the natural world is God’s design.

Will the shape of your church gatherings reflect the elect only, or also engage in celebration of creation? This 30th of November, will you lament in liturgy, repent and act? But there are other dates, too. Last Sunday was Earth Day, and an act of repentance can be to commit to using less plastic. You can listen to a sermon I gave last year here. This year, I spoke to five and six year olds about caring for God’s earth; after all, it’s the world we will be leaving behind for them.


Mick Pope
is the Reviews Editor of Zadok Perspectives, and is currently studying a Masters at Whitley College on the Anthropocene. He is the author of A Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World with Claire Dawson (UNOH, 2014), and A Climate of Justice: Loving Your Neighbour in a Warming World (Morning Star Publishing, 2017). He is currently working on All Things New: God’s Plan to Renew Our World (Morning Star Publishing, 2018), to be launched at The Justice Conference Melbourne in late October.

Photo: The Bramble Cay melomys (Melomys rubicola), a rodent that lived in the eastern Torres Strait of the Great Barrier Reef, is the world’s first mammal to fall victim to climate change.


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