Humans have always had a close relationship with the earth. . the land. And it continues today .
As we see in the world around us – such a relationship can be healthy, life giving – of benefit for the earth and for ourselves. On the other hand the relationship can be problematic and even destructive. One only has to be aware of the issues at stake in the Islamic State movement to see how destructive it can be. There this group seeks to appeal to historic connections with land and not to any national state borders that exist today. They want this land, and seek it with untold violence and cruelty. Meanwhile in Scotland, in a very British sort of way – there is a referendum this week, on whether the Scottish people’s link with their land – Scotland is greater than to the United Kingdom or not?
As I said our relationship with land can be problematic.
On the one hand we need to affirm there is a link. From our indigenous brothers and sisters to Saint Francis, and that hymn we sang earlier – the earth is to be regarded as our mother. The earth sustains us and gives us life. As in fact the preamble of the Uniting Church constitution says:
Through this land of Australia God has nurtured and sustained the First Peoples of this country – the Aboriginal and Islander peoples. (Cl 2)
On the other hand, we could say there is no link: tjhere use to be a link but not any more. The land is there to be used. It is just a commodity and should be understood purely in economic terms. I guess the question today is – how should we - in this vast modern city, understand God, through the land, nurturing and sustaining us?
The bible is clear: there is a relationship. Genesis 2, the second creation account in that book of beginnings, provides a guide for our thinking. We read “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground”. (2:7) As you probably know, this is a Hebrew play on words. The Hebrew word for man – a man with no name, just a man, a lone male, is adam. The proper noun Adam, the name of the individual we hear in these creation accounts, is actually a representative name. However, the word “dust, or stuff of the earth” –in Hebrew is adamah – a related word. Man and the earth are of the same stuff. It is only with the Spirit of God, breath – again a play on words – breath and Spirit are interchangeable words, the man, adam, has life. From dust we come and to dust we return. And indeed this is what we say at the moment of committal in a funeral: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
In a real, palpable sense our very humanity emerges from the earth. The earth gives us life – and the flip side of that is that we humans can in turn destroy the life in the earth. I think here not just of how we can abuse the earth, pollute the earth, rape the earth , say with strip mining or overstocking, but that our own behaviour, say our warlike behaviour, scars the earth. For example, today in our Old Testament reading we heard again of the falling out between Cain and Abel, and in turn of Cain’s murder of Abel. Much could be said about that, however, simply note that after Cain murders Abel, and God observes
“What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground? And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (4:10)
The earth itself was affected by the failure of this human relationship. The earth was crying out.
Our disputes affect the earth – particularly in times of war. I am sure you have visited a place where there has been a battle, or loss of life, and have sensed the grief and the pain that place has seen. When I visited the Balibo Flag House, in East Timor just month or so ago, I sensed this. This was the site where those five Australian journalists were last seen alive at the time of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in late 1975. Our brothers blood seemed to be crying out from the ground. It was an eerie, moving place. The very earth reflected our human failing. Indeed if you attend any site of a battle, or atrocity – the very earth seems to grieve and cry out: Culloden –to continue a Scottish theme, the Western Front, Auschwitz, Myall Creek, Gallipoli or one of those many roadside crosses you see as you drive around this land.
We humans and the earth are intimately related.
That relationship however, over time has broken down. . . especially in our Western, internationalised capitalist economy. Land has moved from nurturing us and sustain us and having almost a mystical, certainly a spiritual relationship; to now we simply own the earth. Land is a commodity to be bought and sold; exploited, fought over, mined, degraded and polluted, built on and sold for a profit. Land, has come to be viewed basically in only in an economic sense. And we are left with little relationship with it.
One of the articles I have read on the forthcoming Scottish independence vote lamented that the whole argument for or against has been reduced to matters economic. Will Scotland be “better off” if it is independent? What will it lose financially – or gain financially? Land (if it was relevant at all) was linked to economics. For this commentator the question about the fullness of life (it was a Christian journal), and how the land itself would offer a sense of identity and purpose – life, was not being considered. Would the Scots social, even spiritual life be enhanced by being a smaller country or united with others – has not really been adequately canvassed.
And we have we not done the same with our mantra on border security. We have taken it as read that this land is ours, and to quote from the slogan, “we shall determine who comes to Australia”. It is about our control of the earth, and the wealth this land of Australia has. Do we want to share that with guests, even struggling guests? And the answer is no. A totally different way of understanding the earth and the land would be to say, here is this land, God given land for all, can it sustain and nurture a full life for all – and true perhaps are there limits to that. However, at the end of the cay we all are just sojourners in this land, and for all of us our task is to build a full life together.
The problem is the English legal system saw that it was possible for an individual to own real property – the earth. There was much legal history to get to that point. Once the earth was effectively the king’s, the Crown’s wrapped around with sacred covenants and the like, and only gradually others were allowed to have a legal interest in that land. So when the British arrived here and claimed the land for the king, as one did in those days, all land became Crown land. Only then, by a variety of means, from illegally squatting, to being granted it, to purchasing it, to leasing it – this land became owned and controlled by individuals. Of course, our aboriginal brothers and sisters, with a different relationship with the land, did not seem to own or control the earth on which they lived. This land of Australia was viewed therefore to be empty, terra nullius. Only the determination of Eddie Mabo aand a few brave lawyers showed that all to be a fiction. Aboriginal people in fact related to their ancestral land – they just didn’t own it, it owned them. And yes it could be said to be theirs.
This legal understanding of land means we only see its economic aspect. So today, especially in the cities, we are just fixated as to how much property is worth. It drives our economy. Land, and its private ownership, becomes the basis of our wealth. It was a driver to imperialism – to gain more land and control. It led to such features back in England as the epoch defining enclosure legislation, which drove people off the commons, common lands, to become factory fodder in those “dark statanic mills” of the industrial revolution. Interestingly Australia actually provided a significant exception to all of this in the area of the law of mining. Unlike in England, where the Crown only owned the royal minerals of gold and silver, we early on said all minerals were owned by the Crown and the Crown could determine who had access to them. One actually only owns the top bit of your land – all that gold, silver, uranium, coal whatever buried beneath, belongs to all of us, and through a system of leases and royalties, mining companies have access to it. At this level we have had a delightful system of sharing all things in common – except we don’t seem to be able to have taken it through to its logical conclusion when we were thinking about the super profits tax for mining companies!
Indeed if you want a very close to home implication of all of this, there is the redevelopment of the Carlton Estate next door. There of course has been the concern that there was a selling off of public assets for private gain. However, more recently there is another issue. The 9 stage redevelopment – involving public and private accommodation, together with an aged care facility – which was actually opened last Wednesday – is nearing completion. What has occupied the government has been the building of the project. Meanwhile little or no thought, planning , or any endeavour really has gone into developing a new community of public and private residents together with a new, large cohort of older folk at the new aged care facility. How will this large group of folk live and work together and together have fulfilled lives? In social planning parlance it is called “place management”. Place management is not about the built environment and how much it will cost, and how much you can make financially – it is about so called soft values like safety, enjoyment of life and a diversity in opportunities for learning, working and service. As a congregation, through our Mission and Outreach committee, we have are concerned about “place management” for our neighbourhood.
At the end of the day it is perhaps “place management” we are talking about for all of God’s earth? The earth is there. It gives us life. However, how do we best benefit from it, care for it, and respectfully treat it? We cannot roll back the ownership of land by individuals (though we can protest when we see community helpful aspects of land ownership being challenged: like with our mining laws and the push to have individuals “own” Native Title land ). What we can do is affirm there are important values that apply to humanity’s relationship with the earth.
In this, it is important to note that Christianity sits lightly with us needing to own, be in control of specific places, of specific bits of God’s earth. In Judaism and Islam –Jerusalem, Medina and Mecca - are sacred, and issues over these places, particularly Jerusalem, are fiercely contested. Those verses from Mathew’s gospel show that with Jesus, the link with the temple in Jerusalem and Jerusalem generally, is no longer front centre in the Christian faith. What is front and centre is a relationship with God through the life and death of Jesus himself. So despite those wretched phases of Church history with the Crusades in the Middle Ages, when armies fought to reclaim Jerusalem , we have a broader, and I think healthier, more nuanced relationship with the land. . . the earth. It is not that we have specific land – it is all God’s. Furthermore if we understand our relationship with other s – have a respect and love for others – automatically we will also appreciate the earth: recognising we are sustained by the earth while at the same time we have a responsibility towards it. If you like there needs to be place management, that recognises the social and as well as the land itself.
Lets us give thanks for the earth and care for it.