Today is Earth Day, a day for environmental advocacy and for celebrating humans’ relationship with the earth that sustains us. The number of anniversaries of violent tragedies this past week is coincidental but not unconnected to Earth Day.
April 19, 1993: the fiery siege by the FBI upon the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. Four government agents and eighty-seven Branch Davidians were killed.
April 19, 1995: the Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 and injured hundreds. The explosion measured 3.0 on the Richter scale. (One of Timothy McVeigh’s stated reasons for committing the Oklahoma City bombing was retaliation for the way the federal government handled its attack on the Branch Davidians, resulting in so many deaths.)
April 20, 1999: the shooting at Columbine High School. Fifteen killed.
April 16, 2007: the shooting at Virginia Tech. Thirty-three killed.
April 15, 2013: the Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured scores more.
In each of these cases, the perpetrators were called evil. In each of these cases, several of the usual suspects were blamed: violent video games, religion, mental illness, guns or lax gun laws, but the focus was on the individual perpetrators. These actions and their consequences were evil, no doubt, but I don’t think it’s right to call individuals evil. Sick, misguided, sinful—certainly, (totally depraved even), but these terms apply to all of us, just as we are all created good by God, loved by God as part of the creation, and in need of redemption. It’s too easy to call someone evil and then neglect the darkness in ourselves.
For example, people ignore that Timothy McVeigh intended by his violent actions to make visible the violence that the federal government committed near Waco and required of him as an Army soldier during the Gulf War—on behalf of the American people. McVeigh’s violence is deplorable, but systemic violence and our complicity in it should be visible.
The difference between us and these perpetrators is not in kind. Any difference in evildoing is only in degree, and the more significant difference has to do with disparities in privileges, stresses, circumstances, and graces.
Manhunts and armchair-psychoanalyzing the vilified unfortunately make good news, whereas violence without directly-intended victims doesn’t. These victims are the collateral damage of a society that is more pervasively if less visibly violent.
For example, two days after the Boston Marathon bombing, the West Fertilizer Company facility (near Waco) caught fire and exploded (2.1 on the Richter scale). Fifteen people were killed, scores more injured, and scores of buildings were destroyed. It’s impossible to compare tragedies, but the coverage of this tragedy was lost in the coverage of the Boston manhunt.
The fertilizer—ammonium nitrate—was the same explosive used in the Oklahoma City bombing. No doubt lax safety codes and enforcement played a role, but this fertilizer explosion was not intentionally criminal.
Anhydrous ammonia—used to make the fertilizer—is destructive stuff. It can violently explode and is dangerous to produce. But even worse is what it does to the land: soil sterility, erosion, hypertrophication and aquatic dead zones due to runoff. Yet this is the nitrogen-adding fertilizer that is pervasively used in industrial agriculture.
The nitrogen cycle is one of earth’s systems that humans depend on most directly. Yet the planetary nitrogen cycle is one of earth’s systems (along with climate change and biodiversity loss) that humans have most perilously disrupted, largely due to fertilizer use.
After only a few generations of farming, the soil of one of the world’s most fecund agricultural areas—the Midwest—is practically dead. Anhydrous ammonia fertilizer is chemically great for growing plants, but otherwise it is inhospitable to life. All those corn and soybeans are growing off the fertilizer (which comes from oil) put into the soil, not the soil itself.
The soil of the very productive North China Plain had been kept and tended for hundreds of generations until it was overtaxed during the twentieth century. Once China got fertilizer production technology in the 1970s, there was no looking back. Sacrificing the soil was just another step in Mao’s “war on nature” in the pursuit of industrial and economic progress.
The United States government is less overt about attacking nature for the sake of power and financial gain, but that is standard policy nonetheless. People, places, and patterns of life are routinely sacrificed for the purpose of profit. When value is primarily legible in abstract dollar amounts rather than as health, love, beauty, or justice, too much is devalued. Complex ecosystems and cultural systems are grossly simplified to be more easily controlled by the state and businesses to make money. The “economy” is expanded through ever more wasteful—that is, uneconomic—means (e.g. tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline).
This slow violence against the land is an unintended consequence of a great good: growing food. Yet it is far more destructive than any bomb. Growing up on a farm, I recognize the need for fertilizer and myriad other farming practices, but I don’t want to be blind to the victimization and violence either. They should be visible.
Slow violence does violence to the transparency of the connection between victims and perpetrators of violence. The poor and marginalized are often the victims. The perpetrators are not only the corporate/government robber-barons but probably everyone reading this as well. Perhaps we are all victims, too.
How should we think about violence that is done slowly and as a by-product of something good?
If I think of the clothes I’m wearing right now or the food I’ve eaten in the past day, and considered their past from fiber or food growth, extraction, processing, packaging, transportation, marketing, and so on, I know I would be appalled if I knew the injustices that took place along with and in order to get them to me. But I don’t know them. The system renders the injustice invisible to those of us privileged enough to benefit from it. Slavery in the United States did the same for the Northerners privileged enough to oppose slavery on principle yet continue to reap its economic benefits. We might not have chattel slavery today. But we drive cars, fly on planes, eat genetically-modified high-fructose corn syrup, buy sweatshop-made clothing, surf the internet, and the list goes on.
No politician (Chinese or American or otherwise) lasts long advocating for a steady-state economy or truly (socially or environmentally) sustainable policies. I am not optimistic about the state of things this Earth Day, but I’m not without hope. I want to consider what might be some steps in the right direction.
1. Practice Sabbath, for example, by resting periodically from our participation in destructive systems. Or by trying to relate to soil in non-destructive ways. (The Hebrew Bible from the beginning of Genesis makes abundantly clear that the drama of human life is inextricable from the life of the soil. Sabbath practices protect this relationship.) I could use chemical fertilizer on my garden, but I use sheep manure and a cover crop of clover instead. Or by reading some poems about soil and spirituality. Two gems: “Calvinist Farming” and “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”
2. Recognize complicity in violence, whoever you might be. Well-meaning, progressive, Christian—these don’t erase responsibility, just because we can afford to commit violence legally and indirectly. We as much as anyone are the violent of Matthew 11:12 who attack the kingdom of heaven.
3. Name violence when it is made visible, even in good things. Industrial food production, perhaps all industrial production, means violence. Climate change means violence. Globalization means violence. Resource extraction means violence. Genetic engineering means violence. Debt means violence. Violence against the poor; violence against nature; violence against health; violence against community; violence against peaceful social conditions; violence against the norms of the laws through which God sustains the world. The accused Boston Marathon bomber is being tried for use of “weapons of mass destruction.” Let’s not forget that the weapons of slow violence can be even more destructive.
4. Don’t give up hope that love and life are stronger than all these weapons. Let’s likewise not forget that this is also Easter season. Jesus Christ—God—took ALL violence, all death, whether inherent in creation or the result of sin, onto himself on the cross. And out of that comes resurrection and new creation.
Note: I was inspired to write this post in part by a sermon preached by Rev. Brent Was at Resurrection Episcopal in Eugene, OR.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”