Humans ignore the deep inherent value of the natural world and our interconnectedness to it. We exploit the planet for her resources without acknowledgment of the deep and lasting cost. The payment for this extensive damage to ecosystems shows up in human lives to the extent that a peaceful enjoyment of life has been threatened and/or injury to life will be caused. Author and theologian Shelly Rambo calls this trauma: “Trauma is described as an encounter with death…a radical event[s] that shatter all that one knows about the world and all the familiar ways of operating within it.” Trauma to the earth moreover, vis-à-vis ecocide and environmental injustice, manifests through the bodies of women; more specifically, through the suffering exploitation of marginalized women with long-term impacts on their health and wellness. To defy systems of eco-violence is to hope for a future that recognizes the sacredness of the earth through the inclusion of women within this sacred sphere.
She has been groped, penetrated, maimed, and raped millions of times; reduced to nothing more than a vacuous object that will provide fleeting pleasure, and meet the relentless, gaping demand for greed. She is left sick with fouled veins; cut off appendages; diseased cultures; and empty cavities—only to be leered at again, and ceaselessly violated.
She is Gaia. She is God.
To turn humanity towards a new global outcome, we need new stories and myths of imagining God.
Scientists like Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock have brought our attention to the fact that the earth is a living organism, a concept that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin referred to as noosphere or, the thinking earth. Teilhard de Chardin’s thought would mesh well with the Gaia hypothesis. First articulated by the British atmospheric chemist James Lovelock, the Gaia hypothesis, simply put, suggests that the earth is a self-regulating, self-sustaining entity, which continually adjusts its environment to support life. Though a scientific theory, the Gaia hypothesis has captured the minds of philosophers and theologians demanding developing reflection and challenging long-held religious beliefs. The personification of earth as a female has enabled us to see her in her strength and softness. The Gaia thesis, in likening the earth to a self-regulating mammal, supports the idea that she may have organs that are especially important, such as the rain forest and wetlands, which are more vital to the global environment than are other parts of the system. This fertile embodiment of the earth invites us to reorient our common perspectives of ecological disaster as physical trauma to Gaia; molesting, cutting, mutiliating, and oppressing her for the resources she is demanded to give.
For Christian ecological thinkers, the biblical God and Gaia are not at odds; rightly understood, they are on terms of friendliness, if not commixing. Eco-feminist and theologian Sallie McFague provides a critical model of God, an imaginative perspective that embodies God as Planet Earth. While an admitted metaphor, McFague wonders how our behaviors toward the earth changes if it is imagined as self-expressive of God, if it is a “sacrament”—the outward and visible presence of body—of God, the very expression of God’s being?
Is it possible for the human population to see the world as a body that must be carefully tended, that must be nurtured, protected, guided, loved, and befriended as valuable in itself? For like us, it is an expression of God—and as necessary to the continuation of a vibrant and flourishing life.
McFague strongly believes that were this metaphor for God to enter deep into our collective consciousness as thoroughly as the dominating, triumphalist has entered, it would result in a profoundly different way of being in the world. There would be no way of seeing the earth as devoid of God, and God vacant from the earth.
Eco-theologian Mark Wallace states, “Insofar as the Earth Spirit lives with us in and through the created world, then God as Spirit suffers loss and pain whenever the biotic order is despoiled through human arrogance.” The human becomes both the manifesting symptom of the suffering of the earth, as well as the perpetrator. The evil in the world occurs in and to God’s body: the pain that those parts of creation affected by evil feel God also feels and feels bodily. All pain to all creatures (and I would include trees, mountains, streams and oceans to this category as well) is felt immediately and bodily by God.
God experiences at God’s deepest core the toll, torment and trauma of a body under attack. Nor is Gaia silent in her suffering but uses a different language to speak the unsayable; her deep pain manifests in the bodies of those most akin to her.
McFague maintains that viewing the world as the body of God means seeing all bodies as the body of God; however, she calls us to look at the bodies that are neglected in our society, to look at the bodies that we render invisible; a particular body that is either objectified or intentionally made invisible: the black woman’s body. When we look to the bodies made invisible by systematic oppression, we see a demonstration of what has been done to the planet.
There is a broad recognition that human well-being is dependent on the well-being of the land, that the destruction of a healthy environment will necessarily affect human dignity. There is also the realization that the problems the poor experience on a daily basis are essentially environmental problems. Women often bear the brunt of coping with these environmental problems. As soil deteriorates, women have to work longer hours in backbreaking toil to harvest food from barren soil. In deforested rural communities, girls and women expend increasing energy and time to collect firewood. Women are often forced to work in environmentally hazardous conditions for low wages. Kwok Pui-lan, an eco-womanist theologian, breaks down these problems as a result of imperialist greed and competition; corporations monopolize basic resources such as water, which disproportionately affects women and their families.
Indian physicist and ecologist Vandana Shiva claims that Western development is essentially maldevelopment in that it reproduces and perpetuates capitalistic patriarchy on a global scale, which relies on the structures of exploitation and degradation of nature, the exclusion and exploitation of women, and the erosion of their cultures. She further documents women’s significant roles in the food chain and their critical contributions as slyviculturalists, agriculturists, and traditional natural scientists. She writes: “The new insight provided by rural women in the Third World is that women and nature are associated, not in passivity but in creativity and in the maintenance of life.” This insight requires us to move beyond generalized notions of women, nature and culture. While this connection is a critical start to imperative conversations within the ecofeminist movement—
There is a requisite need to evolve the understanding towards an exchange that addresses the actual bodies of women who have experienced conquest, colonization and corruption in the global market.
Kwok Pui-lan talks about how the colored female body has been consigned to signify nature in demeaning and ambiguous ways. She writes, “If we theorize about women and nature from the broken bodies of women of color, we can see the relationship between women and nature is much more complex, ambiguous, and multidimensional than is often assumed.”
The demand to look closely and carefully at the lives of women of color and ethics has created a theological inquiry called “womanist.” Coined by Alice Walker, womanist theology calls forth the moral imperative to honor African and African American women’s connection with the earth (and invites specific attention to all women of color as well); specifically, Walker has investigated the similarities between structural systems of oppression that dehumanize women and dominate the planet. “Earth itself,” admonishes Walker, “has become the nigger of the world.” But the Earth, she goes on to say, will assuredly undo us if we don’t learn to care for it, revere it, even worship it. Walker warns: “While the Earth is poisoned, everything it supports is poisoned. While the Earth is enslaved, none of us is free….While it is ‘treated like dirt,’ so are we.”
The connections between the earth-body and human-body continuum draws critical attention to the illnesses made manifest both in women’s bodies and the earth’s body.
Narratives the world over confirm this connection.
Katsi Cook, a Mohawk and midwife, argues that attacks on nature are also attacks on Native women’s bodies, and by extension, attacks on the bodies of Native children. Toxins, which are released into the earth through industrial waste, pesticides, pollution, and weapons for war, are generally taken into the female body and stored in fat, and during pregnancy and lactation, women’s fat is metabolized, exposing fetuses and newborns, at their most vulnerable stages of development, to these chemicals. Radiation poisoning, another environmental toxic byproduct of nuclear development, may be linked to the astronomical rates of lupus, an immune system disorder, among Nez Perce women living near the Columbia River in Washington State. Wastes from the Hanford Nuclear Reactor, which began production of weapons-grade plutonium in 1943, were improperly disposed of in the river, from which the large amount of fish consumed by this community were taken. Female tribal members have reported suffering from lupus, miscarriages, broken bones, endometriosis and life-threatening infections. Termed “downwinders,” residents have reflected on the devastating impacts of non-consensual radiation contamination as another form of sexual violence.
Painful, dangerous events have created open wounds in females from the Two-Thirds-World. Here is where Shelly Rambo’s definition of the wound as trauma is helpful. She writes,
“For those who survive trauma, the experience of trauma can be likened to death. But the reality is that death has not ended; instead, it persists. The experience of survival is one in which life, as it once was, cannot be retrieved.”
This “middle” place is horrifically played out by the indigenous women of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. After World War II, the U.S. exploded a bomb that was 1,300 times more destructive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; this test was the first of 66 nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands. The people from the island of Rongelap were directly in the radioactive fallout, which covered their beaches, homes, gardens, and skin with burning, white powder for weeks. The women of Rongelap’s cervical cancer mortality is 60 times greater than in the mainland U.S., breast cancer rates are five times greater, miscarriage rates are tremendously high, and babies born are often without skeletal structure; the current life-span of a Marshallese women is age 50. “Death is not concluded,” states Rambo, “instead, it continues on in forms of life that may not be recognized as such. Life is reconfigured as the excess of death, as what remains.” The experience of traumatic suffering is intensified by the invisibility and unspeakable nature of violence. The Marshallese women did not have words for the kind of reproductive abnormalities that were a result of the fallout; their trauma was silenced by a lack of ancestral understanding and cultural shame. The violence done to the earth through wanton and deliberate warfare development was, and continues to this day, manifested in the bodies of these women with profound, devastating consequences.
As long as women’s bodies are showing trauma related to violent ecocide and anthropocentric colonization, the raping Gaia of her resources continues. As Bessel van der Kolk has stated in his seminal work by the same title, “The body keeps score at the deepest level of the organism.” The psychical trauma inflicted on Gaia-or more precisely the memory of trauma-acts like a foreign body which long after its entry must continue to be regarded as an agent that still at its work. Like a splinter that causes an infection, it is the body’s response to the foreign object that becomes the problem more than the object itself.
The effects of ecocide on the women’s body is likened to that of the initial trauma being done to the earth, and the memory of that trauma shows up in the lives of women for generations. To ignore and silence this critical connection between Mother Earth and the human mothers on this planet will continue to have dire effects.
States van der Kolk, “Denial of the consequences of trauma can wear havoc with the social fabric of society….Culture shapes the expression of traumatic stress.” Our planet is showing the denial of these consequences through a myriad of ways: climate change, Fast Fashion, agri-business, and species loss to name just a few. Rambo would see these consumptive cultural patterns as a statement of trauma. She states, “Trauma is an encounter with death and with life. At the intersection of death and life, a cry emerges.” There exists a global cry demanding witness to uncontainable suffering. To see the ecocidal actions that humanity has taken against the world during the Industrial Age as trauma, and the life of humanity continuing in the face of this social and economic organization, then the body of the woman becomes the deep and desperate cry of the earth.
Where does hope lie for a planetary population that both perpetrates and bears the trauma done to Earth? How do we transform the shared material substances of our interrelated bodies from mutual toxicity to the brilliance of stars? Rosemary Radford Ruether maintains that we need new psalms and meditations to make our collective kinship vivid in our communal and personal devotions. These modern expressions need not be original however; a recognition and recovery of indigenous practices that honors the feminine may offer a way in to this much needed mutuality.
Women carry the wound of Gaia in their bodies, and it is from this wound that a voice demands witness: “witness death and witness the possibility of life arising from it.”
Many Third World and indigenous women believe that their own traditions give this voice, where the natural is not separated from the cultural and spiritual, can offer enormous contributions to saving ourselves and our planet. The value lies not only in the long-practiced traditions of creation-honoring cultures, but in the actual ecological location Humans are a uniquely positioned agent in the earth’s ecological matrix.
Our particular places, our womanist lenses, allow us to see the personal saving presence of God in relationship to biotic communities, and provides a starting place for how we can contribute to reversing the global ecocrisis of Gaia, the Body of God, our Home Planet.
The preamble to the Earth Charter echoes with hopeful possibility if we so choose to see the world as a truly holy place. May we stand at this critical place—this place of such weighty wounds—and respond to the voice from the wound with a profound turning towards a future that honors Earth as God’s Body.
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