Choose Life: Protecting our oceans in these times
This reflection from the Christian tradition is drawn from a sermon at the Church of the Holy Trinity Toronto on August 18, 2019. That sermon was based on four readings:
“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut. 30:19).;And Psalm 104: 24-30; Rita Wong, “borrowed waters: the sea around us, the sea within us.” undercurrent (Kindle locations 49-56). Kindle Edition, 2015; and Matthew 14:22-33.
There is nothing like the ocean. I recall a particularly memorable encounter. If you have had the privilege of experiencing the ocean, maybe this has happened to you. It was a spectacular beach—greens and blues in so many differing hues. Breathtaking. I rushed happily right into that water in Nicaragua. Relishing the saltiness, I was suddenly hit with the kind of wave that rolls and knocks you over, while you struggle, cry out for help in sputters, tossed by wave after wave until you give up and, if you are lucky, come to the surface again, intact, gasping for breath. Then the wave that washes over you is relief. Gratitude. I have felt scared to death a couple of times—that was one of them. Beauty and Danger. Life and Death.
When my child was being born, I remember a tangible sense of connectedness to ocean, and to the life or death power that must be respected. The only way I could describe late stages in labour was the kind of relentlessness that you experience in that surf. There’s a point in a normal labour where you start to feel that if you just had a few minutes break—a time-out to catch your breath, reclaim your centre–you could do this, but the contractions keep coming, like wave upon powerful wave. At this time many women say “I can’t do this,” and so often must be coaxed, supported, entreated to believe that through their own waters—holy waters–life will indeed come. And then, the wave that washes is relief, yes, and joy. Gratitude.
Outside and inside. The connection of labour to ocean wave isn’t just a metaphor, of course, but the very real connection of the ebb and flows of the tides to the ebb and flows of menstruation, the universal and planetary scale of ocean a real presence in the intimate waters of individual women–the essence of unique lives. Planetary and intimate.
In her brilliant poem, “borrowed waters: the sea around us, the sea within us,” Rita Wong speaks of the ocean as both “outside” (to be viewed and experienced) and “inside” each of us (Wong). The ocean is our ancestor “our blood plasma sings the composition of seawater” and we exist even in the present as “liquid matrix, streaming and recombining through ingesting one another, as a child swallows a juicy plum” (Wong). To this life, many of us have returned, not in gratitude, but death. Creating “deadzones” of our plastics that, in so far as we are connected to that very water and its creatures, are our own self destruction (Wong). Outside and inside. Life and Death.
Tahlequah calling out for help
Just over a year ago, an Orca mother surrendered her dead newborn calf after carrying her lifeless body for seventeen days, over 1000 miles. This story of the Pacific Northwest made news all around the world. While scientists debated whether orcas could actually grieve, Indigenous voices suggested that Tahlequah, as she was called, was calling for help and begging us to pay attention: “can you not see what you are doing to the waters, to the creatures, to yourselves?” Her grief, a testimony, not only to her intimate pain, but to the planetary destruction of the water world. “I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deut 30:19).
Throughout scripture, water, even more particularly the ocean or the sea, holds these kinds of multiple meanings. It is “teeming with life” as in Psalm 104: “yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping with things innumerable.” Oceans are life, an original element of the world, foundational to all creation. But water is also danger and death as in the Great Flood or the drownings of Egyptians in the Red Sea. Through Hebrew scriptures, YHWH often holds back the waves of death to protect the people. We also get that sense of the interplay, outside and inside, where, in the mythic story of Jonah, the ocean tumult reflects the inner tumult of a reluctant prophet.
It is this ocean, this sea, surplus with meaning, whether biblical or contemporary, that Jesus comes striding across in gospel stories. How might we read this Jesus in a way that resonates even to our time? I suggest we resist the temptation to think of him as a kind of superhero Aqua man, thinking of him more like the water walkers of our time. More in the waters than on. I am thinking of the wonderful Grandmother Josephine Mandamin, Anishinaabe Mother Earth water walker of the Great Lakes and those who with deep respect are stepping into her ample sneakers. Perhaps Jesus is more like these water walkers, aware of the incredible power of water—in the Matthew’s story it was a wind whipped sea of tumult—expressing gratitude, reaching out across difference, inspiring courage. Humble, connected, voice for and to the waters and her creatures, entreating us to choose life for the sake of all our relations.
I find it interesting that this biblical story begins with Jesus in solitary prayer, not in temple but integrated in the natural world. He goes there to be regenerated, drawing from nature’s resilience for his own.
Or maybe we think of Berta Cáceres, water walker of the Lenka people of Honduras, water defender against corporate greed, against the despoilment of the sacred lands and waters that were her peoples’ birthright. Her faith the definition of courage. Murdered for choosing life. Her daughters who carry on her work feel their mother hands reaching out to them—“Come”–giving them courage in their own commitment to defending life. They say of her, “she did not die, she multiplied.”
Matthew’s version of the water walking story adds the experience of Peter, as representative of the disciples. It invites us to remember our journeys of committed action as collective, where fear, despair, and loss of will, requires a hand outstretched: “Come, it’s okay, you got this, we got this.” It is Peter, a later symbol of the church, whose courage initially falters in striving to walk with Jesus.
The work of ecological justice in these times—whatever the focus—is taxing. In communities on the very front lines, advocacy tasks turn to the work of mere survival, beating back fire and floods, managing painful relocations. Climate refugees are a face of suffering in our time. And for those a little farther away from the imminent harm, there is the newly named category of ecological grief–intense sadness, anxiety, anger of the unfolding ecocide.
It is perhaps not one choice, “I have set before you life and death” but hundreds of little choices that must be made every day— Remember my portable cup or water bottle. Bring those cloth bags. Avoid single use plastics. Reject overpackaging. Choose transit. Eat less meat. — Hundreds of little choices with lots of room for failure. Lots of room for forgiveness of self and others. Lots of need to acknowledge the privilege that can enable choice. But on balance, a trajectory towards the good, the right, the future, the care.
Hundreds of little but important choices, including to be in solidarity with others, to grab the hand offered by those on the front lines, those less alienated from the natural world, those with wisdom to teach about the waters and the lands, those who have always lived in balance with the diverse relatives that make up our planet (whether human or not).
“Come,” say the peoples of Grassy Narrows. “Come,” say 2019 Water Walkers. “Come,” say the Walkers of frozen water losing traditional livelihoods and home in the Arctic. “Come,” say the climate refugees of Pacific Islands. “Come,” say the water protectors of Colombia. Can we take their hand and in solidarity “keep the faith” with them?
This can mean summoning our own courage to stand up to Nestle or Coca Cola, to governments, to multilateral organizations and say “do better,” demanding a radical change in their ways, our collective ways: “You who hold the power to act on others’ behalf, do so much better, not tomorrow but yesterday.“ Systems change not climate change.
Whether our commitment is to the intimate, personal, or the planetary, political, or both, we are in this together as communities. Let’s give each other the strength to take some more steps on the water, along this ecological justice journey. Add a new ecological practice as spiritual discipline. Respond to a call for solidarity as a religious commitment.
Call out our corporations and governments as collective practice. Negotiations for the Global Ocean Treaty are continuing and need our attention. And the Global Climate Strike of September 27, 2019, proceeded by the youth action a week earlier, needs our presence. KAIROS has created a Climate Action Month calendar that offers resources and support as we walk towards this important day. Can we make this strike the largest global show of solidarity ever for our waters, our lands, our air, our planet, our relatives, ourselves?
Just last week, my partner and I were up at Georgian Bay, so vast it feels like a sea. And the waters were beautiful, blue green, with waves that could rival some oceans. We noticed how the water moved the rocks, picked them up and rolled them around. There is so much power there, even in a protected bay.
The prophets knew this when they said, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). May we fulfil the Creator’s dream of justice. May we join our power to that of that of the created world, the goodness of creation that bids us “come,” be regenerated, be renewed, be empowered to keep choosing life.
Jennifer Henry currently serves as the Executive Director of KAIROS, a role she took on in 2012. She has worked in ecumenical social justice for over 25 years, beginning in 1993 when she joined the Ecumenical Coalition for Economic Justice (ECEJ) as a popular education coordinator.