Christianity gets a bad rep for being insensitive to the environment. It gets blamed for a dualistic soul/body, earth/heaven dichotomy in our thinking, which privileges the spirtual and the heavenly over the material and the here and now. That isn’t Christianity, it’s neoplatonism, but quite often you do find Christians who fit that stereotype, and I’d like to spend this Lent thinking about it.
The traditional Ash Wednesday injunction ‘remember man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return’ seems to have gone by the board these days – we just can’t handle inclusive language in English and I do remember a priest saying he thought calling a woman ‘woman’ was quite rude (says it all, really) so he wouldn’t do it. It’s a shame, because it does highlight the fact that we are of the earth and have a responsibility to it.
I might talk about places where Christianity is a more rural phenomenon and redress a balance or two later on in Lent, but this week I want to consider something a bit more immediate. In this country Christianity (and especially Catholicism) has been a very urban experience – apart from in the Highlands and Islands, anyway. And with the exception of eg the Duke of Norfolk, it has been a poor people’s experience. It’s less so now, but we do keep what we call the preferential option for the poor, and this goes part way to explaining the lack of environmental awareness.
The poor don’t own land. The poor don’t have big gardens, can’t buy smallholdings, or holiday cottages, and are finding it hard even to rent homes in the country. There’s even competition for allotments.
What’s worse, the poor have been removed from the land by industrialisation, high prices, war, emigration and several different kinds of chicanery from the enclosure of the common land to compulsory purchase. And there isn’t much anyone can do about that now.
The Christian religion grew up among people who had been forcibly removed from the land. It was important that they developed a belief system which granted them dignity even without a home or a nation. They had to build new communities inspired by a God who cared for them even in the most radically deprived circumstances. It isn’t surprising that some people began to feel that the land doesn’t matter.
But this leaves people vulnerable. There are people who will use this attitude to justify stealing the land from under the feet of those who live there. Donald Trump, for instance, seems to feel that money can compensate for the loss of home and community any time he wants some. We only have to remember the outcry about the sale of forests in England to realise that this is a live issue. Land does matter. It has to be guarded, cherished. While we live, we are dependant on the land, and responsible for it.
But there is another point, and we have to make this clear too. There was a time when only landowners had the vote. They owned the land, they took care of it, they got to decide what was done with it, never mind what their tenants thought and felt about it. And this attitude hasn’t gone away. Now the owners may not be wicked squires and landed gentry; they might be agri-businesses or insurance companies or even conservation groups. But they can’t be allowed to behave as if the landless don’t matter. The environmental shake-up that is on its way has got to work as much for the urban landless working classes as for the suburban gardeners and allotment-holders, the farmers and landed gentry.