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La Tierra No Se Vende – Wilderness Sunday

September 17, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday in the Season of Creation – Wilderness Sunday – September 17, 2017

1 Kings 21:1-29

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I saw a lot of street graffiti during my mission trip to Central America last month. For example, spray painted in fifteen inch black letters on the wall across the street from my first hotel room in downtown Guatemala City were the words La tierra no se vende, the land is not for sale. This phrase became something of a theme for our church delegation, whose purpose was to learn about the four principal extractive industries of logging, large-scale agribusiness, chemical mining and new hydroelectric projects that are intimately linked to conflict, poverty and corruption, as well as human rights and environmental abuses.

Two hours outside Guatemala City, in the central highlands just north of the rural community of San Jose del Golfo, I encountered these words again, La tierra no se vende, the land is not for sale. This time they were scrawled above an image of the Bishop Juan Gerardi, the great defender of human rights and indigenous communities in Guatemala. This time the words had a very specific meaning – the bishop’s image was one of many decorating a simple wooden platform erected beside a deeply rutted dirt road just outside the entrance to the El Tambor Gold Mine. The mine is run by a U.S. company with headquarters in Nevada. Each Sunday a priest offers mass from this platform to the hundreds of poor women and men who have blockaded the mine’s entrance twenty-four hours a day for the last five and a half-years. They have done so to protect their land, their water, their air and their lives from extractive industry. As a result, they have faced harassment from police and military, criminalization and arrest (on what were later proven to be false charges), slander, contempt, and attempts to buy them off with bribes.

Beside the image of Bishop Gerardi were also written prophetic words he spoke just before he was viciously murdered in 1998, two days after releasing Guatemala’s first human rights report that exposed the military and governmental involvement in the country’s genocide: “The construction of the kingdom of God entails risks, and only those who have the strength to confront those risks can be its builders.”

The words the land is not for sale, here on a rural stretch of dirt road, referred to the wild, uncultivated land that had served as the community’s essential watershed, wild land taken over for the chemical extraction of gold for jewelry, investment, and industry. What is left behind when the process is finished is a barren wasteland, as opposed to wild-land, the soil washed away, and large chemical leach pits full of acids, cyanide and other chemicals that can leak into groundwater. Here’s stunning fact I learned: The chemical processes used by the gold and silver mines we visited use as much water in one hour as a typical family in Guatemala uses in 20 years. That’s right. Take that in. The chemical mines use as much water in one hour as a typical family uses in 20 years. And it was the same story everywhere we went: in the city of Jalapa, in the community of San Rafael las Flores, in the town of Mataquescuintla, in the village of Casillas, in Nueva Santa Rosa. People insisting, at great risk to themselves, the land is not for sale.[1]

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Our delegation with members of the peaceful resistance on the public road in front of the El Tambor Mine

There is a basic principle enshrined in international law that local communities, especially indigenous communities, must be consulted about the use of their land. But time after time, when it comes to the profits of large multinational, transnational companies, this right is trampled on. Especially when the land belongs to poor or indigenous communities. Most of the time these mines are opened before the local community even knows what is happening. In other cases, when communities have been allowed to vote on whether they wish to open their land to mining, they have voted, in every case, with a resounding NO, with majorities between 98% and 99%. Yet the companies proceed anyway.

This is not new, of course. The settlement, colonization or expropriation of other people’s land is a practice as old as the ancient empires of that we meet in our scripture, and countering these practices is as old as the prophets. The prophets Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah declared time and again to their own kings that “neglect of divine law concerning land distribution by those who coveted and coercively seized the inherited fields and houses of others was the occasion of God’s judgment against Israel.” To give but one example, here’s Micah 2:2

They covet fields and seize them;
houses, and take them away;

They oppress householders and house,
people and their inheritance.[2]

Now, let’s take a look at our scripture reading this morning about Ahab and Jezebel, and Naboth and Elijah. How many of you had heard this story before? Not everyone, I see! Ahab, King of Israel, wants to annex the vineyard of Naboth, his neighbor – to incorporate it into the royal property. Ahab offers what seems to us to be a fair deal – he’ll compensate Naboth with similar land someplace else, or its fair-market price. But Naboth refuses. A dejected Ahab complains to his wife, Jezebel. Jezebel is not an Israelite and so doesn’t understand why Ahab is upset. Where she comes from, kings simply take what they want. So she sets out, through deception and murder, to acquire the property for her royal husband. Then, with Naboth out of the way, just as Ahab is about to take possession of what is not rightfully his, the prophet Elijah announces God’s judgment. And it is harsh.

So, there are a few things to note quickly about this story.[3]

  • First, Naboth is not a subsistence farmer, he is a vineyard keeper. Vineyards take years and years to cultivate and grow before they are productive. They are the product of great care and create fruit of very particular taste and flavor through a combination of unique soil and water. This, it is not as easy as Ahab seems to suggest, for Naboth to simply ‘start over’ someplace else. This land represents generations of care and stewardship of the soil and the vines. But Ahab isn’t interested in a vineyard; he wants to tear it down and plant for himself an annual vegetable garden.
  • Second, Ahab does not do this deed himself, nor does he seem to want to know or care how it is done. We won’t say more about that today, but in the end we should note that it is Ahab who reaps the benefit and Ahab who bears the blame.
  • Third, the tactics used to acquire the land are tactics we still see today. The whole ‘taking’ of Naboth’s vineyard perverts the legal process, using the laws and courts and public spaces and public officials, as well as outright lies and the buying off witnesses. What we see, though, is not the rule of law but the use of law to harm people rather than help people.
  • Finally, and we can only scratch the surface of this story this morning, we could have a rich conversation about repentance and judgment, about the fact that Ahab’s actions are said to have caused Israel, the state or people as a whole, to sin. About how the effects of sin are passed down through generations. About the way the King identifies the prophet as ‘his enemy.’ And so much more.

But most important, for our subject today, is to see how Ahab and Naboth represent different perspectives on the land.

At first Ahab tries to buy it, and cannot understand why Naboth will not sell. He tries to be fair. But Naboth responds, “God forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”

Naboth also uses the Hebrew word nahalah, which is often translated “portion,” “possession,” or “inheritance,” all of which denote some form of property ownership. But this is precisely the connotation this word undermines: nahalah represents land given as a gift or trust, hearkening back in the original distribution of land to the twelve tribes. “Tribal ancestral lands” is a better translation, and this carries an implicit judgment upon King Ahab, whose offer represents a betrayal of the traditional system of land tenure established by [God at Sinai] which a [just] king is supposed to uphold.[4]

Sacred land might not be going too far, for it captures the difference between Naboth and Ahab. Naboth sees the land as an inalienable gift in which are rooted a divine way of life. Ahab is thinking of land as a commodity, a thing easily converted from one use into another, or convertible into cash. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, journalist Naomi Klein calls this kind of attitude extractivism.

Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue.  Extractivism is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own – turning living complex ecosystems into ‘natural resources,’ mountains into ‘overburden’ (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons or reservations. In an extractivist economy, the interconnections among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences of severing them are of no concern.[5]

As I travelled in Central America I pondered how tempting it is to identify with Elijah, the prophet who speaks truth to power, who calls out the injustice of merchants and monarchs who take, settle and dispossess the poor for their own short term profit. I pondered the desire of our group to accompany the vital resistance movements fighting back against the industries that are wrecking their communities. And we must. But in this story, I have more in common with Ahab than with anyone else. As one author put it in an essay on Naboth that I carried with me throughout Guatemala: “The legacy of dispossession for the sake of economic profit remains one of the defining features of our history right up until the present time.” It was a sobering experience to realize that I, we, all of us are complicit with the Ahabs of our world (whether truly ignorant or conveniently turning a blind eye, as Ahab did), in the displacement and disruption of local and indigenous communities through ‘official duplicity and murder.’[6]

We know about this in general through our engagement with issues of divestment from fossil fuels. We as a congregation decided two years ago that we couldn’t profit from an industry whose only business plan involves significant harm to the earth with disproportionate consequences for the poorest people. Our congregation divested itself from oil, coal and gas, and urged our denomination to do the same. To date, the denomination has not divested. But another overture is coming to the next General Assembly in 2018 and this church and the Hudson River Presbytery are supporting it.

I was thinking about these things during my trip. After some discussion, while our PC(USA) delegation was in Guatemala meeting with communities affected but extractive mineral mining, we emailed our denominational office of Mission Responsibility through Investment to ask if the PC(USA) holds stock in the very gold or silver mines which the communities we were working with were working against. And the answer was, yes. Our Board of Pensions holds stock in some of the very companies that are pillaging Guatemalan communities without consulting with the populations, stealing the water which the communities depend upon for drinking and farming, and employing private security companies to be sure they get what they want. And as a shareholder, the PC(USA) Board of Pensions profits from this investment. And, in turn, all PC(USA) ministers and staff covered by the Board of Pensions for health care, life insurance, retirement – all of us are beneficiaries at the grave expense of these indigenous communities and the earth itself. That was a hard pill to swallow.

The church, through these investments, has made clergy and staff covered by the Board of Pensions, complicit in harm. But “no way of living can be right that is part of a livelihood system that destroys rather than supports life.”[7] In light of this, the delegation in which I participated is exploring numerous alternatives but has asked me to draft an overture to next year’s General Assembly, asking the Presbyterian Church to divest itself from these mining companies and so lend the moral weight of Christ’s church to the struggle for human rights and for the earth itself. Simply put, we must say no to profiting from harm.

But we are called not only to evaluate personal and collective actions in terms of how they impact of neighbors, here and around the world, but also to pursue concrete relationships with affected communities. I mentioned two weeks ago that we have an invitation to return to Guatemala with a mission trip of youth and others to work with local and indigenous communities reforesting the countryside. Because this kind of work and these kinds of relationships change us, transform us, and we learn in new ways what it means to love God and neighbor. We discuss the brokenness of our world, often in great detail, here in worship each week because worshipping together keeps all that we do and dare grounded in God’s love and delight with the created world and God’s unbounded mercy and care for creation. We have the privilege of seeking together a way to live that honors God and God’s creation in our very complex world. For, as we are about to sing, as a prayer:

We, created in your image, would a true reflection be
of your justice, grace and mercy and the truth that makes us free.[8]

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The back of my head, in conversation with members of the La Puya Peaceful Resistance

 

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20150116004657/http://upsidedownworld.org/main/guatemala-archives-33/4742-the-peaceful-anti-mining-resistance-at-qla-puyaq-celebrates-two-years-of-struggle

[2] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and The Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 124

[3] The Rev. Leslie Vogel presented man of these points in a daily devotion she led for our travel seminar and the staff of CEDEPCA, the Protestant Center for Education and Transformation in Guatemala.

[4] Michael S. Northcott, Place, Ecology and The Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities. (Bloomsbury, 2015). p. 124

[5] Naomi Klein, “Beyond Extractivism: Confronting the Climate Denier Within” in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). p. 169.

[6] Matthew Humphrey, “A Pipeline Runs through Naboth’s Vineyard: From Abstraction to Action in Cascadia,” in Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice edited by Ched Myers. (Cascade, 2016).

[7] Jim Corbett, Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildland Living, A Quest for the Peaceable Kingdom. (Viking, 1991).

[8] “God, You Spin the Whirling Planets,” sung in honor of the Cassini Spacecraft that concluded its twenty-year mission around Saturn earlier this week. The phrases in italics are from the conclusion of my colleague Rebecca Todd Peter’s book Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World (Fortress Press, 2014), in which she offers solidarity as a new model for how people of faith in the first world can live with integrity in the midst of global injustice and shape a more just future.

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