It seems whenever a new mine, pipeline or industrial plant is announced, it somewhat trespasses on lands held sacred by one Indian tribe or another. One might begin to wonder if there is any land at all that is not sacred to some tribe or group.
The answer is no, there is not land that isn’t sacred. All lands are sacred, not to somebody, but in and of themselves. For that matter, so is the air and all waters. All lands are sacred, but some hold a place of special reverence for some people. It may be a mountain, a river, a burial ground, or even a building like a church or temple. Such special places deserve special reverence because they symbolize the liminal space where the divine and humanity meet in special ways.
It does not mean that land, air and water cannot be used for utilitarian purpose. It does mean that every use must be made with respectful consideration for the sacredness of creation, and places held to have special sacred status cannot be appropriated without permission of those in whose territory it exists.
It’s an idea that runs headlong into the question of property rights. Preserving and protecting property rights has been a central function of government for many centuries, and no more fully expressed than in American jurisprudence. To own property is to have exclusive rights to its use, and American individualism asserts the added right to use it any way the owner wants. We have plenty of legal limitations to those rights, but every one has been fought against tooth and nail. Limitations on property rights were won, not out of respect for the sacredness of the land, but for the common good of the community, or the superior rights of government, which have sometimes been corrupted by private interests. Nevertheless, private property and the rights that go with it are an essential element of the American way.
It’s not a bad thing, but as a concept it has its own built in limitations. The most obvious one of which is that all private property is owned only temporarily. Someone owned the property before its current deed holder, and someone else will own it in years to come. One’s exclusive rights, anchored by a paid off deed, are for an indeterminate amount time, yet temporary just the same. The land, air and water used by the current deed holder is in the form of a sacred trust that imposes moral obligations not only for the benefit of future deed holders, but also for the land, water and air itself.
Some cultures have developed a deep understanding of what moral obligation to creation means. Other cultures, ours included, have rejected that ideal as a romantic platitude that might sound good from the pulpit, but is utterly impractical in the real world. It’s the stuff of well meaning do gooders and environmental extremists. The result has been the wasteful degradation of, and willful disrespect for, creation. We have begun to recognize this but remain hesitant to take needed action.
In the baptismal covenant of the Episcopal Church is a question: Will you respect the dignity of every human being? The answer is: I will with God’s help. It may be that the question should be amended to ask: Will you respect the dignity of every human being and all of creation? Dignity, in this case, meaning the status of being made in the image of God with the amendment adding recognition that it also recognizes creation itself is sacred in its own way.
A reasonable objection would be to wonder what good that would do. Would it change anything? By itself, no it would not. If other major denominations joined with similar amendments to their baptismal covenants, it would begin to build moral momentum backed by the teaching of the church encouraging the faithful to amend their own ways of treating property over which they have control. There are other religious traditions with a similar understanding of the sacred nature of creation, and they too could become a part of building moral momentum.
Another objection would be that only governmental regulation would have any force behind it, and the American value of libertarian individualism would be a tough obstacle to overcome. There is truth in that also, but history has shown that moral momentum working for responsible regulation can be powerfully effective.
There are two basic forces motivating public behavior in most every area. One is law and the other is custom. Of these, custom has the deeper roots. Law can change it around the edges, but only moral momentum can change it at the roots, and so the two must work together.
If we are going to have any success in saving the planet for future generations, it is essential to go in this direction, and it starts with the church declaring unambiguously that all creation is sacred.