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  • Katie Davis-Crowder

Kinship with the Earth

A few months ago, as Chicago’s short-lived spring began to give way to the sunshiny freedom of summertime, I had the opportunity to write about Pentecost. In particular, I delved into Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s hidden gem, a lecture called Women, Earth, and Creator Spirit. Here Johnson explores the devaluing of women, creation, and the Holy Spirit that results from hierarchical, dualistic systems. In other words, our history of either/or, top-down thinking has separated women from men, feeling from thinking, body from spirit, vulnerability from strength, interdependence from freedom, and so on, and has assigned more value to one than the other. The elite have become privileged, while the others have become subordinated and perceived as valuable only insofar as they are useful to the elite (Johnson, 10-11). This way of proceeding has led to the subjugation of many of God’s creatures and even parts of Godself.


In 2022, perhaps even more so than when Johnson offered it in 1993, we need her vision of mutual liberation and conversion of heart to aid us in our work for environmental justice. So as the autumnal ache draws near, and we celebrate the Season of Creation, it’s worthwhile, I believe, to give this lecture another look.


In part one, Johnson reveals and assesses the worrisome ecological situation of the early 1990’s, forecasting the epic, rapidly-developing ecological disaster we know all-too-well today. She then articulates the Christian response by highlighting Jesus’ choices during his life on earth:


The living memory of the gospels…depicts Jesus preaching a non-violent ethic pervaded with compassion and mutual regard. He himself lives in tune with the natural world…His disciples are instructed to learn lessons about their relationship to God from the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Mt 6:25-33). His own exuberant desire to feed people and his creative use of bread and wine left communion in these earthly things as the living symbol of his presence to this very day (Ibid., 8-9).


Therefore, the great violence of humanity toward the earth emerges as severe sin that can only be referred to as ecocide (Ibid., 5-9).



Rooted in Christ and in the truths of the creation narratives found in Genesis, Johnson presents three different approaches to understanding this relationship between human beings and the earth: kingship, stewardship, and kinship. Unsurprisingly, she quickly dismisses the absolute kingship model, the aforementioned dominator/subordinate dynamic. What I find most meaningful and thought-provoking—just ask my sophomore Scripture students—is Johnson’s exploration of the stewardship and kinship models, both of which call humans to take care of all of God’s creation responsibly. For Johnson, stewardship, in all its goodness, is insufficient, because while it considers and respects the earth’s needs, the model still upholds hierarchical dualism. That is, according to the stewardship model, humans exist over and above the rest of creation, and creation is considered valuable insofar as it benefits humans. Unlike stewardship, the kinship model acknowledges that just as the earth depends upon human beings to survive and thrive, humanity depends on the earth for life even more. And since reality prizes connection, diversity, and mutuality over separation, dualism, and hierarchy, only kinship can help the universe reach its full potential (Ibid., 29-30; 47-49).


Johnson proposes that for both ethical and religious reasons, human beings must convert our hearts and minds to the circle of the earth, for the sake of today and for future generations. She calls for metanoia, a total change of heart and mind that enables every person to fall in love with the earth and to live relationally as members of the universal community. Johnson suggests contemplation – “a way of seeing that leads to communion” (Ibid., 63) – and prophecy – “a way of speaking and acting in the face of powerful, oppressive interests and that leads to repentance and renewal” (Ibid., 64) – as tools for experiencing true metanoia.


During this Season of Creation, I find myself moved by Johnson’s loving, prophetic challenge to religious folks who remain unconvinced of our call to environmental justice. “…[Earth] is entering into its passion and death, with newly victimized species and life-systems crying out from the depths, while too many of her disciples seem to think they can avoid what is going on by hiding in some isolated upper room” (Ibid., 10). Let us take seriously the urgency of this moment. As Johnson so poignantly poses, “If there be no more living earth, what else is possible?” (Ibid., 4).


 

Katie Davis-Crowder, MDiv, is a Chicago-based teacher, spiritual director, singer, writer, and presenter rooted in the Mercy and Ignatian traditions. She is passionate about spirituality, social justice, and the arts, and loves building home with her partner Kevin and pup Smartie. katiedaviscrowder.com

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