In Christian news lately, Union Theological Seminary (UTS), a seminary in New York, recently posted a picture of a group of people seated near plants. The caption that went along with the picture read:
Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?
Christian social media went nuts, with many people calling Union’s practice strange, odd, or even pagan. I also found the photo and the caption to be quite amusing, and my brain easily was coming up with quips that mocked the worship experience. With such a huge backlash from Christian social media, UTS put out a follow-up statement, a very lengthy defense of their practice. Without making jokes about the plant liturgy, allow me to take their defense bit by bit and address why I have a genuine problem with offering our grief, joy, hope, guilt, and sorrow in prayer “to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor.”
The defense from UTS is in red, my response is in black.
We’ve had many questions about yesterday’s
chapel, conducted as part of
@ccarvalhaes‘ class, “Extractivism: A
Ritual/Liturgical Response.” In worship, our community confessed the harm
we’ve done to plants, speaking directly in repentance. This is a beautiful
At the outset, I have no issue with Union’s defense. Taking a look at the world around us, I see easily that humanity has done harm to the environment and ecosystem which God has tasked us to oversee. Bible-believing Christians must admit that creation is a gift from God, and God’s gift he declared good.
“And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.” (Genesis 1:11-13)
When God makes humanity, he gives us a task:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth…. And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:26, 29)
There you have it, our God-given appointment to care for the earth BUT ALSO to utilize the plants and fruit for our food. When we confess that we haven’t done a great job caring for God’s creation, though, our confession shouldn’t be to the food but to the ONE who created the earth and set us to task. Union has a point in the confession and repentance, but they fail in their understanding of to whom they repent and confess.
Their defense continues:
We are in the throes of a climate emergency, a crisis created by humanity’s arrogance, our disregard for Creation. Far too often, we see the natural world only as resources to be extracted for our use, not divinely created in their own right—worthy of honor, thanks and care.
Union is close, but they aren’t there. The climate emergency created by human disregard for creation is a serious issue, and I agree that Christians OUGHT to lead the charge in caring for the planet – it is our God-given role! I disagree, however, with the idea that plants are worthy of thanks. They are merely plants, and plants have no being or essence that makes them special. Yes, yes, I know this defies the teaching of Master Yoda and Obi-wan Kenobi, who tell Luke that the Force flows through all things. From a Christian perspective, however, plants are designed by God as food. If anyone is worthy of thanks, thank the God who created the earth and gave us the food, but don’t thank the bushes!
But their defense goes on:
We need to unlearn habits of sin and death. And part of that work must be building new bridges to the natural world. And that means creating new spiritual and intellectual frameworks by which we understand and relate to the plants and animals with whom we share the planet. Churches have a huge role to play in this endeavor. Theologies that encourage humans to dominate and master the Earth have played a deplorable role in degrading God’s creation. We must birth new theology, new liturgy to heal and sow, replacing ones that reap and destroy. When Robin Wall Kimmerer spoke at Union last year, she concluded her lecture by tasking us—and all faith communities—to develop new liturgies by which to mourn, grieve, heal and change in response to our climate emergency. We couldn’t be prouder to participate in this work.
To these points, Union and I are in total agreement. Churches SHOULD play a huge role in taking care of the creation God left in our care, a role that means we strive to cease destroying species of animal and plant life, actively seeking to protect and nurture God’s creative activity.
Please go on, Union:
And here’s the thing: At first, this work will seem weird. It won’t feel normal. It won’t look like how we’re used to worship looking and sounding. And that’s exactly the point. We don’t just need new wine, we need new wineskins. But it’s also important to note that this isn’t, really, that radical a break from tradition. Many faiths and denoms have liturgy through which we express and atone for the harm we’ve caused. No one would have blinked if our chapel featured students apologizing to each other. What’s different (and the source of so much derision) is that we’re treating plants as fully created beings, divine Creation in its own right—not just something to be consumed. Because plants aren’t capable of verbal response, does that mean we shouldn’t engage with them?
Aaaand they are off the rails again. Treating plants as fully created beings? No. Nope. No way. They’re plants. Out of all of God’s creative work, only humanity bears the divine image.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it….’” (Genesis 1:27-28)
While plants are a part of God’s created order, plants do NOT bear the Imago Dei (Image of God). Humanity stands alone in this regard. We apologize when we sin against other humans because we’re apologizing to beings that are also divine image bearers. I consider myself a dog lover. I have been my entire life. As much joy as pups bring me, they are still not on the same level as other humans. Respect the creation, sure, but recognize that the Creator has made plants and animals different than the Creator made people. Scripture says that humanity is created to have dominion over every animal and to have the plants for food. They are not equal beings.
Union finishes up:
So, if you’re poking fun, we’d ask only that you also spend a couple moments asking: Do I treat plants and animals as divinely created beings? What harm do I cause without thinking? How can I enter into new relationship with the natural world? Change isn’t easy: It’s no simple business to break free from comfortable habits and thoughts. But if we do not change, we will perish. And so will plants and animals God created and called “good.” We must lean into this discomfort; God waits for us there.
On a final note, I do believe that Union’s questions are worth asking. Do we treat plants and animals as divinely created beings? No, nor should we. They were created for humanity, not as equal to humanity. It IS valid to ask how we cause harm to the created order, how our carelessness can consumerism actually works to destroy what God placed under our care. Because all of creation IS good, and because God specifically tasked us with overseeing his creation, we have a responsibility to treat well the earth and everything upon it.
And lastly, if you like to talk to tomatoes…
have I got a show for you.