This past week my girlfriend and I took a trip east. From Michigan, through Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, we spent a brief moment in Maryland, and stayed in Virginia and North Carolina. In our adventures, we went for a quick skinny-dip in the Atlantic Ocean, probably under the surveillance of nearby security cameras in the militarized tourist trap of the quasi-police state known as Virginia Beach. We slept on the beach while thunderstorms brewed, went canoeing in an alligator swamp, visited an organic farming community in North Carolina, and spent three days backpacking in Shenandoah National Park.
All in all, it was a refreshing step away from my everyday life in the bustling micro-metropolis that is Grand Rapids, Michigan. I sometimes forget how relatively peaceful the wilderness can be in comparison to the civilized world, and how that peace can affect my mood, thought, and experience. There is a spiritual element to our existence that seems so much easier to grasp within the context of the natural environment than from within the confines of human societal constructs.
It is refreshing also to encounter this same reverence for nature within the biblical tradition. Although the Bible has been used throughout history as a tool to uphold societal norms such as patriarchy, anthropocentrism, and disregard for the natural world, closer examination can reveal sharp critiques of these ideologies and the oppressive and imperial structures that they constitute. For example, the God of the Bible is the God of the Wilderness, which in that specific geographical context often meant the desert. God called many prophets away from civilization, away from the slavery of empire, and into the desert wilderness: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus of Nazareth. References to the natural world are prevalent in the teaching and parables of Jesus; he called attention to the fig and olive trees, the birds and the lilies (Matthew 6:246-34), and even compared God to a mother hen gathering her chicks (Matthew 23:37)!
Christianity has long been criticized, and rightly so, for its role in colonialism and the oppression of indigenous peoples and their respective cultures. More recently though, some scholars have been working to uncover indigenous voices and traditions within the Bible itself. It is no surprise that often indigenous people and other oppressed minorities have radically different interpretations of the Christian narrative than do their oppressors who introduced the religion. In the essay, “The Bible, Indigenous Spirituality, and the Theology of Babylon,” the author makes the case that the Aboriginal Australians have more in common with the people of the Bible than do white Australians.
Last week, after hiking for several miles, I felt the urge to take off my shoes and rest my feet in a calm, cool stream that was trickling through the mountains. This simple and natural pleasure was indescribably beautiful. It is reminiscent, I think, of God’s call to Moses when he was wandering the wilderness of the mountains in Exodus 3. God called to him from the burning bush, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” This was the point of contact that eventually led the Israelites out of oppression in Egypt and into a forty year period of wandering in the desert wilderness.