All Souls Bethlehem Church
Rev. Tom Martinez
First Sunday of Lent
February 22, 2015
A Lenten reflection on the movie,
Avatar, and the E. B. White story,
Charlotte’s Web. The Biblical passage comes from
Paul’s letter to the Philippians about Jesus humbling
himself, even unto death on a cross.
I wanted to begin with that New York Times article (see below for link) about the Keystone Pipeline in order to broaden our reflection on the meaning of suffering to include the Earth and all her creatures. Traditionally the time of Lent focuses our attention on the suffering of Jesus. In the past we’ve explored how he suffered at the hands of Empire due to the radical nature of his teachings. Using the language of the Unitarian Universalist Association we could say he was persecuted for having the courage to stand on the side of love.
Jesus saw those on the margins of society and was drawn to them. Sinners and outcasts, people who suffered physically and emotionally and spiritually, whose value was diminished in the eyes of the world, were especially important to Jesus and his message of all-inclusive love. We could even point to sayings attributed to Jesus in defense of our expansion of this circle of concern to include all of creation. For example he reportedly said not one sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowledge, which implies an omniscient creator, intimately aware of and concerned with Her entire creation.
Environmental issues are on my mind more than usual lately, I suppose because the keystone Pipeline is in the news and also because I’m in a book group that’s reading Naomi Klein’s, This Changes Everything. Her premise is that the potentially catastrophic implications of the Climate crisis require a change so dramatic in how we organize our societies and cultures that, if successfully enacted, would involve a radical transformation of the world. That’s obviously a tall order but a corollary to her argument is that it is precisely such a potential crisis that can prompt the kind of coordinated action required.
In hopes of exploring the plight of creation I wanted to reflect a bit on the movie, Avatar, which serves in classic mythic fashion, diagnosing our cultural problem and pointing us in the direction of a solution. The problem of course, is that we’ve long come to view the Earth as an object to exploit. In the film this tendency is cast in a dystopian, futuristic sense, with a human army in collusion with corporate powers whose tentacles now reach far-flung planets in outer space. This army is invading a pristine and magnificently wild forest on such a planet. The overflowing abundance of the planet’s biosphere makes for a visually stunning clash between the mechanized world of machines and the lush and verdant natural world.
The tribe of indigenous sentient beings on the planet look enough like human beings to arouse our empathy. And like the First Nations peoples inhabiting the Americas at years of European invasion and conquest, their culture consists of rituals and patterns of activity that are intimately tied to the natural rhythms of their planet’s cycles and seasons. The mechanized advance of the human army into this wilderness paradise is depicted as a travesty against the sacred. In fact in the first major advance of the human army a squadron of massive helicopters circle a giant tree the size of the Empire State Building and fire rockets at it until its massive trunk bursts into flames. The indigenous people at first fight impotently with bows and arrows and then run for their lives when the giant tree collapses, crushing everyone and everything in it’s path. It is a great victory for the invaders and a crushing defeat for the indigenous peoples.
Needless to say it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots between this fictional tale and the real world in which we live. That same mindset of “drill baby drill” that seeks to extract anything and everything of monetary value is at work today, devouring forests and raping the land. The BP Deep Water Horizon catastrophe was simply an accidental spillage calling attention to the practice. As we heard through the reading of the New York Times article on the Keystone Pipeline, one of the reasons Nebraskan farmers are opposing it has to do with similar fears of the pipeline bursting, a possibility which could very well lead to an environmental disaster of Biblical proportions. In response to assurances from Big Oil reps that this would be the safest pipeline ever built, one farmer quoted in the article asked wryly, “And what was the safest ship ever built?”
If you’ve seen Avatar you may recall that the plot follows a relationship between a male soldier (Jake) in the invading army and Neytiri, a female indigenous being. As the tensions between these two opposing forces (the invading army and the indigenous tribe or Na’vi) escalate, Jake gradually realizes he’s fighting for the wrong side. If we view the story as a myth for our times we can take his modern day conversion experience as a deep awakening to collusion with the destructive forces attacking the Earth. As we’ve noted time and time again, it’s always easier to see that when the culprit is “someone else out there.” I suppose I’m as guilty of that as the next guy. I can blame “big oil” or corporate greed. But then I go out and get into my car, driving over to BP and “gas up.”
The point isn’t to make us all feel bad for driving cars and leaving the lights on. My point is the ultimate battle here is over hearts and minds, and our very own hearts and minds are being fought for along with everyone else’s. We humans are so deeply enmeshed in the oppression of the Earth it requires a Herculean effort to begin to wake up from the thrall cast by centuries of exploitation and increased technological comforts. It was a pleasant thought to think that we could simply keep manufacturing bigger and better machines that would do more and more for us and so what if some people got rich in the process—good for them.
Only we are beginning to see that those big machines spewing smoke are choking the planet and destabilizing Her ecosystems in ways that are setting off all the alarms in the room. And when we, like the soldier protagonist in Avatar start to ask who is responsible, we, like him, are confronted with the unpleasant realization, we are. The depth of our entanglement with the petroleum-based economy is hard to over-state. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein devotes a chapter to the ways in which even the most recognizable environmental organizations are themselves entangled. A particularly shocking example is how the Nature Conservancy was essentially “moonlighting as a gas driller” (p. 193), which is to say they allowed drilling on land it had acquired for a nature preserve. In fairness and to further emphasize my point I should say that our church has investments in big oil, so the salary I’m paid which makes it possible for me to research and preach these sermons is not unencumbered from collusion. To its credit, the larger UCC and UUA (two of the three religious bodies we are affiliated with) have divested from fossil fuel investments, a wise and courageous step sure to benefit future generations and all of creation.
The point here is that we tend to operate within an oversimplified model of the good guys against the bad guys, with the good guys accepting the scientific consensus concerning the Climate crisis and doing everything possible to curb greenhouse gas emissions. When in truth some of these more enlightened conversations are themselves being held over tea on the deck of the Titanic. Which brings us back to Avatar and the soldier’s literal transformation, meaning he doesn’t simply awaken to his role in the destruction of the planet. Like the Apostle Paul whose story we revisited while talking about American Sniper, the soldier undergoes a radical conversion experience which results in an entirely new way of seeing and being in the world.
Our challenge as a faith community is to continue this process of awakening to our collusion so that we might then continue to be transformed in our way of thinking and being in the world, both individually as seekers on our respective spiritual paths, and collectively as a faith community. The power of coming together from our respective places in community is precisely the relationship between the two. Each of us has insights to offer and feedback to give concerning this great struggle we face as a species. The very church we are a part of was formed in the historical wake of Paul’s great conversion experience and the relationships he formed which led to the founding and expansion of the first churches.
We saw how in Paul’s life this meant his transformation from someone who was going house to house arresting and persecuting innocent victims, to one who himself became a victim. Today’s passage comes from a letter Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, the first European church he founded and a congregation for which he felt great love. At the time he was writing in chains, reflecting on the humility of Christ who being like God, emptied and humbled himself unto death, “even death on a cross.” From the vantage point afforded by a sweeping overview of western civilization we can see here the emergence of a radically new type of consciousness: one in which the story is told from the perspective of the marginalized victim.
The trouble is we keep losing that perspective, so that when our European ancestors swept across North America we deluded ourselves into thinking we had somehow stumbled upon the Promised Land. Much like the invading army in Avatar, we viewed the original inhabitants as little more than collateral damage in our God-given domination and exploitation of the continent. Only now are we beginning to come to terms with the Trail of Tears and the great loss of vast civilizations whose wisdom concerning the rhythms of the Earth are now shrouded in the shadows of Genocide.
One important signpost directing us toward a more hopeful future, in full light of our current predicament, is the transformative power of relationships. In Avatar this is expressed in the aforementioned love story between the Jake and Neytiri. Another story that illuminates the transformative power of relationship against the backdrop of life’s mysterious interconnectedness is the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web.
That the story is told from the perspective of the would-be victim is clear from its opening pages, where we find a farmer by the name of Mr. Avery striding toward the barn, ax in hand, aiming to kill a little piglet. His young daughter, Fern, screams in protest and tries to pull the ax from his hands. When Mr. Avery tells her she has to learn to control herself, she says, “Control myself? This is a matter of life and death, and you talk about controlling myself!”
Her father is simply going about his work, doing what you do on a farm. It’s business as usual. But Fern is coming from a place of childhood wonder and awe at the miracle of life, so she reacts passionately when the life of a baby pig is threatened. To bring her father’s point of view around to her own she asks him, “If I had been very small at my birth, would you have killed me?”
Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another.”
“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging onto the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”
A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.
“All right,” he said. “You go back to the house and I will bring the runt wen I come in. I’ll let you start it on a bottle, like a baby. Then you’ll see what trouble a pig can be” (p. 3).
And so begins the enchanted life of a little piglet who grows up to be the pig named Wilbur. The tale unfolds within the warm and nurturing world of the farm, where everything happens in accordance to a predictable schedule that is itself in synch with the larger natural rhythms of its creatures and the land. There’s a herd of cows, a couple of stuttering geese and a rat named Templeton. And of course there’s Charlotte herself, an ordinary spider who comes to play an extraordinary role in the life of the farm.
Charlotte and Wilbur strike up a friendship, despite Wilbur’s initial revulsion over Charlotte’s blood-sucking existence feeding on flies. The idea disgusts him but Charlotte herself is so kind and smart and caring that over time Wilbur looks past her diet and lifestyle. This turns out to be a very good thing, since when Wilbur learns that he’s being fattened up for the slaughter, his friend Charlotte is his only hope. She’s not sure how she’s going to do it but she promises Wilbur she’ll see to it that his life is spared.
The absurdity of a little spider in the corner of a barn coming to the aid of an animal slated for slaughter only adds to the tension. Indeed, what could Charlotte possibly do? She thinks and thinks about their dilemma and then, in a sudden burst of inspiration, she seizes upon an idea. That night under the cover of darkness (i. e., with the help of the unconscious) she sets her plan into motion.
Those familiar with the book know what happens next. Lurvy, the hired hand on the farm was going about his morning duties bringing a bucket of slop to the trough for Wilbur when, marveling at the beauty of the morning he’s stopped dead in his tracks by the sight of something never before seen, there in the barn woven into a glistening spider’s web above Wilbur were the words, “SOME PIG.”
Lurvy runs and gets Mr. Zuckerman, who runs and gets his wife. Soon the entire community—including the local minister—has heard about what’s being described as nothing short of a full-on miracle. Charlotte is of course quite pleased with her newfound power of the word and goes about, with the help of the other farm animals, writing a few more messages that seal Wilbur’s fate as a most remarkable pig. It’s a wonderful story and I encourage you to read it or reread if it’s been a while for the pure pleasure of the experience.
For our purposes here today, I’d just like to emphasize a couple of points that seem especially salient to our historical moment. Like a healing dream that counters an imbalance in our waking consciousness, the story’s wisdom comes from below—from the passion and innocence of a child (whose name itself is an aspect of the natural world, “Fern”); from the collective wisdom of the animals on the farm (think of Jesus being born in a manger). What’s more the whole drama turns on the fate of a pig. This is not the kind of story you’re going to find on the evening news, meaning there are no celebrities or sex scandals or headline making financial mergers. It’s pretty much fifty shades of manure.
And yet as any farmer knows, manure is a great source of fertilizer. And if we allow it, this story and Avatar and other cultural manifestations of healing arising from the creative processes of our culture’s sensitive artists can help us awaken to this deep, mysteriously interconnected universe we find ourselves in. The reigning attitude of modern culture since the Industrial and Scientific revolutions has been one of ever more complex and aggressive extraction from the earth as an object to be plundered. Fern’s compassion for one little piglet and the interconnections running through all the animals and farmers and the larger community gathered at the fair suggest another way of being, one in which we gather together in reverence for the mystery. What do you know, it sounds more than a little bit like church.
May it be. Amen.
Here’s a link to the New York Times article mentioned above: