Sabrina Reyes-Peters

Christ & Creation

Here's a piece I wrote for St. Patrick's Day, with wise editorial input from Jad Baaklini. It is the basis for the series of reflections in SANCTUS Episode 5, which I've included after the text.

"Christ & Creation"

I've been thinking a lot about land, either directly or indirectly. In the past few years, I've been trying to catch up on the history of Puerto Rico, which is a piece of land that has been fought over for hundreds of years, ever since European explorers discovered it and its rich resources. This piece of land is important to me, because it is where half of my family comes from. I feel deeply for it, because the people of this archipelago have lacked self-determination for hundreds of years, and currently, the old story of conquerors trying to determine the status of their land commodity is repeating itself, with some government leadership clamoring for statehood, induction to the "official" United States.

As Christians, 1 Peter says, we are sojourners “on an earthly pilgrimage,” and many Christians take this to heart. We are in this world, but not of this world. So why should we care about where we live if this isn't our true home? Isn't the spiritual more important than the material? Is that where holiness lies? Isn’t there a very clear line separating Christ from Culture?

But, what if we thought about that life "in the world, but not of it" not as a question of citizenship or belonging, but as a question of allegiance -- a question of the systems-we-live-by? What are the patterns that we blindly accept, that may not be of Christ? These worldly powers?

I'm thinking of a narrative that was extrapolated from the Genesis creation myth: God gave Adam and Eve dominion over the rest of creation, so we have taken that to mean that humans are rulers over the rest of the living creatures, and we can do as we wish, even by force. This narrative has spread to divide and conquer even our fellow humans, based on attributes we believe make them inferior, or an "other" to dominate. So we turn to stewardship as an alternative, but does that work? As caretakers, or stewards of creation, this status still separates us. Maybe we need to take a different approach: partnership--earthcare--actual care for the earth that is co-produced.

In 2015, I picked up an infamous book, A People's History of the United States. I'm not sure what prompted this; I didn't even know much of the history I had been taught favored telling one narrative over the other. I read about one-third, became angry, and sad, and I still haven't finished it, but it started me on a journey of looking at historical events not from the place of the victors, or the dominant culture, but from a more marginalized perspective. This has connected with getting into the history of Puerto Rico from the time of Columbus and learning about the Taino, learning from ecotheologians, and my current endeavour is learning through the book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. In the introduction to her book, she sums up the history of the United States of America as a story about land. Here, in the US, there is a history of using the land for gain and profit: starting wars, cutting down trees, digging for oil and coal - dominating the land, bending it to the will of the empire.

That spirit of empire has been around since the dawn of time. Even the Church has been in that spirit. The Church's use of force and domination to establish God's Kingdom on earth should give us pause and make us weep. It has caused suffering to every aspect of God's creation: even the earth itself cries out. Here, in the US, the church at large has an ugly history of using the name of God to commit unspeakable atrocities: trafficking African human bodies in the names of otherness and profit, separating Indigenous children from their families, conquering and corralling Indigenous people to claim the great destiny of the United States of America...and in the worldly endeavor of acquiring more land, the Church has facilitated a separation of people from land.

The earth, the land weeps. Climate change isn't much of a question anymore, and it is intertwined with other systemic oppression. It could be argued that our separation from the land in these United States, in the spirit of domination, with the myopic goal of gain, at the cost of living things, has caused this suffering. We have started and continued wars because of certain commodities yielded from different lands. When and how does it end?

Most of us are familiar with the legend of St. Patrick, how he was kidnapped from his home in Britain and taken to Ireland, how he escaped back home, and then returned to Ireland as a missionary, responsible for the conversion of many Irish polytheists. He is often credited with being the first to bring Christianity to Ireland. But there is another story, one that says Ireland knew Christianity even before St. Patrick arrived on the scene, a story that says that Christianity came to Ireland by way of North Africa. And it didn't come through force, like the force that was born of Emperor Constantine's conversion, making Christianity the religion of the empire, and spreading through colonization, conquering land and people in the name of Christ.

There’s a metaphor here for Christian life: in many ways, we are to go out and “convert” this world--to challenge it, to call it to repent and turn to the Lord. And yet, just like Patrick of Ireland, we may venture out into a world where Christ is already present. We may be so caught up in our culture wars that we end up on the wrong side of that line--the side where Christ is not.

Just as there is more than one legend about historical St. Patrick, and more than one reading of St. Patrick's mission to Ireland, today St. Patrick is presented with different faces. On the one hand, we celebrate St. Patrick's Day in the middle of Lent, a penitential season, with parties and parades, lots of green beer, dancing with St. Patrick the Leprechaun. On the other hand, St. Patrick is portrayed as the somber, great savior of the Irish people.

St. Patrick himself resisted worldly systems in his mission to Ireland. He laid aside wealth and status, gave to the poor, and avoided the use of force to convert more Irish folk to Christianity, instead incorporating symbols and customs they were already familiar with. He partnered with the Irish people to spread the good news of Christ.

If Christ didn't regard his status as a thing to wield to any advantage, if he warned against relying on weapons and riches, if he healed the sick, and fed the hungry, bringing good news of God's kingdom, what does that mean for us as his followers?

What would rejecting worldly systems have looked like in our own context? If, instead of using domination and violence to carve out a space in a land already occupied, we strove to learn and speak a language already being used?

Watch the video: SANCTUS 2021 Feast of St. Patrick