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A Reflection on Just Creation Sermon by Ashley Lewis and Kristen Sommerfeld

We attended the Just Creation conference as alumni of Columbia Theological Seminary and as representatives of two faith-based non-profits involved in food and ecological justice ministry. One of us is the garden-and-spiritual leader of a small, hyper-local Christian community that grows organic produce and donates it to offset food insecurity. The other, currently a freelance practical theologian and trained culinarian, worked for a web-based organization that asks Christians to re-examine both the theology and practice of eating animals in today’s food system.

With the opening sermon in our minds and hearts, we offer a response related to two themes named by Dr. Jerusha Neal. The first theme is a simple phrase with endlessly complex implications. “Civilized, civilizing benevolence” is such a hard-hitting, devastatingly accurate phrase that it has become a mantra in these authors’ ongoing critique of life under the Empire. We will share some observations of the toll such complacency takes on the food justice movement and how people of faith might respond.

The second theme is that God is not distant, relegated to some far-off perfect vision of a restored ecological paradise waiting for us to arrive – that God is not only there – but God is present with those who are resisting the might of the Empire, wherever such resistance is taking place. The imperial forces we critique are those of the industrialized agricultural complex, which is a top offender of ecological, animal, and human rights injustices but is too often spared from the condemnation it deserves.

Along with this reflection, we offer our deepest gratitude not only to Columbia Seminary and Dr. Jerusha Neal but especially to Indigenous wisdom-keepers and teachers, like Just Creation speaker Dr. George “Tink” Tinker. Dr. Tinker’s words challenge us to boldly name the harms of the Western worldview and how its persistence plagues all Creation. Though we, the authors, are products of the Western world – and, as cis white Euro-American women, are complicit in much injustice – we desire to denounce and forsake the rigid Westernized hierarchies and hegemonies that harm us all, seeking instead to partner with God and Creation in fruitful harmony. Even as we try to resist, we know we fall short. But try, we must—principally, for these authors, through better foodways here and now.

“Civilized, civilizing benevolence”

Like many circles where environmental advocates gather, the Just Creation conference was rich in valuable dialogue about both the dire ecological challenges of our day and what is required by people of faith in response to those challenges. In so many ways, the conference pushed back on the civilized, civilizing benevolence that can easily be observed in everyday life related to climate change and ecological devastation. “Out there,” we must not let our language be too disastrous or despairing. “Out there,” we must tie up our calls to action in neat packages with a bow and not ask folks to sacrifice too much or go out of their way. The compartmentalization required to put eco-grief on hold is civilized, civilizing benevolence at work. We invite youth groups to plant seeds in the church garden while we turn our backs on the ways that the corporate for-profit food system actively exploits Creation and puts all of us, like Ezekiel, on the banks of dry rivers.

Advocates for Creation crave and truly need spaces of brutal honesty about the Empire’s corrupt actions. We need to lament together, to wail and rage against the ways that Empire tears up the indigenous ecologies of our existence and replaces them with neatly manicured lawns, shrubs, and non-native trees. We bear the weight of being told we must keep unnatural landscapes pruned, weeded, and flowering even as forest fires and droughts seethe inside us, just as they do outside our windows. The conference offered a space of solace and hope without requiring us to hold up the imperial flag.

And yet, in these authors’ experience, food ranked especially low as a conversation topic at the conference. When naming environmental offenders, agriculture went unnamed as the top contributor to global deforestation. Industrial fishing was not mentioned as a leading cause of ocean pollution and marine habitat destruction. Concentrated animal feeding operations were absent from conversations regarding drought in the US West, red tides in the Gulf, or wetlands pollution in the Southeast. One of us even received a direct question about why our organization was present at the conference: “What does animal agriculture have to do with environmental issues?”

Even the most fervent attempts to dig out the roots of Empire will undoubtedly encounter the places where we haven’t yet dug deeply enough. The inability to turn our “table talk” to what’s on our plates is an especially sinister form of civilized, civilizing benevolence. Nearly one hundred years of industrial agriculture and the domination of corporatized and subsidized food systems have taken their toll, fragmenting our identities to the point of being unaware how deeply humans are related to the foods we eat, the beings we sacrifice, and the ecologies we plunder in the name of “good food.” Such fragmentation overrides any notion of self as a fellow created being who is designed to be at home in Creation, woven into the earth’s webs of creaturely relationships. Consequently, all these generations later, as products of Western Empire, we aren’t only exiled from a particular place to call home, we’re exiled from a way of being that would teach us what home is.

In alarming parallel to the banks of the dry river on which Ezekiel stands, today’s imperial corporate agricultural machine devastates the land by keeping farmers indebted to new technologies that promise to solve the very problems industrialized farming created. Soil degradation, drought, deforestation, and desertification leave previously lush ecosystems bone dry. Under the branding of feeding the world, industrial agriculture lays waste to the land as a means of maintaining its power. Even if all other environmentally invasive and extractive industries were drastically curtailed this decade, the world’s habitats would still be under such grave threat that they likely could not survive the next hundred years of human food production and consumption at today’s scale.  


Industrialized agriculture is laying waste to God’s Creation. At a pivotal moment in her sermon, Dr. Neal asked the congregation, “What good is Ezekiel’s vision when the world is being laid waste?” When the issues are so large, so obscured, so fraught with volatility and complexity; when the Empire is so practiced, adept, and crafty at preventing citizens from peeking behind the curtain to face the monumental problems that await; when the Empire’s vending machines and drive-through windows dole out chronic illness, depression, addiction, and despair while labeling it “happiness;” when gross violations against the rights of already-marginalized people are perpetually shrugged off:  what good is a prophet who speaks of a far-off paradise? Because not only are citizens too placated with the comforts of the day, but they’re also too exhausted by imperial demands to consider the true cost of complacency.

Dr. Neal’s response and the hope to which these authors cling is that God is not over there waiting for humanity to successfully navigate the desertified landscape and arrive in a restored paradise. God is with those who are resisting now – with faith communities in Fiji, Standing Rock, Charleston, and others who have fallen victim to the ravages of White Supremacy through direct and indirect political, economic, environmental, and racialized violence. With those who are holding up a mirror to reveal the cost of civilized, civilizing, benevolent lifestyles. Furthermore, we are graciously comforted by the reality that humans are not the only ones resisting. Creation is resisting. The land resists. Creatures resist.

The beautiful thing about resistance is that it can happen at every level, creating a kaleidoscope of entry points and experiences that enticing participation. From the subtle to the significant, God is present in every resistance that chips away at the grip of imperial force. What’s more, when we learn to notice all the subtle resistances already happening – farmed animals experiencing joy at rescues and sanctuaries, native meadow grasses scattering seeds on the wind, local food systems growing in popularity and accessibility – active resistance to promote structural change follows closely behind. Farm worker unions press to secure protections against deportation so that workers can safely speak out against abuses in the field. Forest defenders continue to fight the clearing of the Welaunee forest against increased police militarization. BIPOC food growers and culinarians reclaim plant-based dishes that were central to their heritage long before colonization. For those who want to take part in the Great Resistance, the invitation presents itself with each moment, each meal, and each attempt to pursue mutual flourishing.