The Great Turning: A Path toward Life by Mark Hathaway

Spirited Reflection — Sunday, September 7, 2014

Mark Hathaway, together with Leonardo Boff, is the author of The Tao of Liberation: Exploring the Ecology of Transformation (Orbis Books, 2009). He currently researches and teaches about ecological worldviews and transformative learning at the University of Toronto.

Social Summit for Peoples' Integration  in Bolivia in 2006

A “great turning” moment at the Social Summit for Peoples’ Integration in the stadium in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2006. Photo by Mark Hathaway.

In reading this week’s passage from Ezekiel 33, I was immediately struck by the word “wicked.” I don’t know about you, but it is not a word that I normally use. Indeed, I seldom think of anyone as being “wicked.” Certainly, I know that there is evil and injustice in the world. Ours is a time marked deep injustice, ecological devastation, and ongoing conflicts. Yet, is this all because some of us are “wicked?”

So, I decided to look up the original Hebrew text being used here. The word translated as “wicked” – rasha – carries the image of one who has departed from the path, either on purpose or because s/he has become lost. So, when the passage in Ezekiel speaks of “turning back,” it is calling us to turn from a path leading toward death to one that instead leads toward life.

To me, this indeed speaks to the times we live in. Certainly, we seem to have lost our way or been led far from the path of life. We are facing the greatest mass extinction since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, we spend far more money on weapons of destruction than on providing the essentials of life to those impoverished by exploitation and neglect, and we burn fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate while climate change accelerates and threatens the life of entire ecosystems and the communities (human and other-than-human) who depend upon them. Essentially, we are destroying the life-sustaining systems of the planet to enrich a small minority of humanity who cannot hope – in the longer term – to survive themselves if we continue on this path toward death.

One way of thinking of the central ethical challenge of our time is in terms of biocide, geocide, or ecocide. The great Earth scholar Thomas Berry spoke of this when he noted:

We find ourselves ethically destitute just when, for the first time, we are faced with ultimacy, the irreversible closing down of the Earth’s functioning in its major life systems. Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself. (Berry, 1999, p. 104)

Yet, we do not need to continue on this path. There is nothing “natural” – much less inevitable – about the course which we seem to have taken, a path that leads towards death – not only for humans, but also for countless of other species. We can turn aside, precisely as Ezekiel warns that we should.

One way of understanding the transformation required of us is to think of it in terms of the “Great Turning,” a term used by authors such as Joanna Macy and David Korten. This phrase certainly resonates with the reading from Ezekiel to “turn back” as well as the Psalm’s call to “turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.” Ps 119:36  The Great Turning also echoes the Christian tradition of metanoia, a turning of the whole self (as well, perhaps, with the idea of revolution, or even re-evolution).

Macy says there are three main stories, or narratives, competing in our time. The first is the story of “Business as Usual,” the story that says that we should continue on the path of ever growing consumption and accumulation of wealth so that this will eventually “trickle down” to all. Yet, in a world of finite resources already in ecological overshoot (i.e. where we already consume more than the Earth can regenerate), this story is a dangerous delusion that leads toward death – as can be seen in the current crises our world faces.

The second story is that of the “Great Unravelling,” the story of growing inequality, poverty, and conflict among humans as well as the destruction of countless other creatures, entire species and ecosystems, and many of the geo-biological system upon which complex life on our planet depends. This story, no doubt, is a reality, but it need not be the final word.

The Great Turning is the story of a new reality breaking into the old one. It resonates in me with Jesus’ announcement of the Reign of God. In Aramaic, the word we translate as “reign” or “kingdom” – malkuta – carries of “the image of a ‘fruitful arm’ poised to create, or a coiled spring that is ready to unwind with all the verdant potential of the Earth” (Douglas-Klotz, 1991, p. 20). The malkuta also is that that enables us to say “I can” against all odds as well as to live by the principles that guide us toward life. Similarly, the Great Turning calls us to seek a socially just, ecologically sustainable, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on Earth. It can be seen in the ongoing resilience and life-renewing capacity of nature itself as well in the millions of movements of people struggling to create a world where all have enough and where all can “live well” in harmony with the greater community of life.

What can motivate and sustain us to turn to a path toward life? The passage from Romans (13:8-14) provides a central insight by reminding us of the greatest commandment, that of loving our neighbours. The original word that Jesus probably used in Aramaic for “love” draws on the root rahm or womb, essentially a compassionate love that comes from the deepest place inside us and gives birth. The word for neighbour “literally refers to those who have, somewhat mysteriously, been drawn to live near one” (Douglas-Klotz, 1990, p. 82). I would suggest, then, that neighbours refers to both the people and other creatures we live with, to whom we are drawn, or who draw near to us in some way (not necessarily by physical proximity). Rather than working for change based on what we should not do, or even out of guilt or fear, work for the Great Turning that will be sustainable and fruitful if it is impelled by a deep sense of love and connection with the entire Earth community. If we can do this, guided by the grace and wisdom of the Creator, perhaps as a species we can turn aside from a path leading toward death and instead find a way leading toward life and well-being for all.

Filed in: Ecological Justice, Spirited Reflections


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