Zadie Smith writes, “There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words.” Those are the words that rose up in my mind this morning when I read that one million species are facing extinction due to anthropogenic climate breakdown. “Anthropogenic climate breakdown” is a fancy way of saying, “we are ‘what is happening to the weather.’”
The enormity of one million species is impossible for me to grasp, as are the words news reporters use to describe the present moment: “ominous,” “grave,” and “breaking point.” The U.N. report unambiguously tells us that the threat is not only to crawling and flying and swimming things but to the human species as well. IPBES Chair Sir Robert Watson says, “The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
Worldwide destruction. Those words signify something heavy and vast and looming and already-in-motion that takes my breath away. Is this it? I wonder. Is this the end of the world?
In recent years, everything to me seems drenched in a sort of grief-colored light. Just now, outside of my window I see a red-winged blackbird chase this blue heron across the pond.
The heron’s neck has an ancient curve that is shared both by dinosaurs, giraffes and swans, as well as river beds, jetstreams, sound waves. I see its feathers mirrored in the pond, uncountable shades of blue, gray and white in motion. And here I am, witnessing a miracle of flight that is millions of years older than our kites and planes and rockets.
The light of grief is more felt than seen. What I’m saying is that I anticipate an erasure of these gifts within my lifetime. I imagine what it would be like: no more cheeky blackbird, no more graceful-necked heron. The water in the pond shrunk down to a puddle and the skeletons of fish and turtles poking out like stones. The leaves dancing right now will curl over themselves sick with thirst before falling to the ground. Insead of cherry blossoms there will be ash falling. Instead of raindrops, clouds of dust.
In the face of an ‘unprecedented loss’ I am trying to find more intimate ways of being a witness. This intimacy doesn’t end with imagining all of the world’s beauty around me shriveling up and dying. That imagination is too distant, an illusion that I can remain outside of catastrophe. The truth is, I am a fragile witness: my flesh is as material as these trees and birds and water. The leaves have chlorophyll in their veins, and I have blood. The heron flaps its wings to fly, and I swing my arms to run. The fish and I both cease to live without water.
These are truths that the Lummi have always known. The Lummi nation is an indigenous tribe who lives on the Salish Coast, to the north of where I live in Seattle. They call the orcas living near them in the Salish Sea qwe lhol mechen, meaning “our relatives under the water.” The Lummi and the Salish Sea have been together for more than 10,000 years–cultural memory through oral traditions stretches back to the last ice age, a time “before the exodus of Jews from Egypt, the foundation of Rome, the birth of Jesus Christ.” As a white woman whose ancestors came to this land less than four hundred years ago, it is an intimacy I could never understand, nor my great-great-great-grandchildren to the five hundredth generation unless they stayed and learned to love this creation as creatures, as family.
These orcas are one of the million species who currently face extinction due to our impact upon their environment. Climate breakdown, overfishing, and pollution of waterways have sabotaged salmon populations upon which orcas depend for food. So our siblings in the Salish Sea are starving to death. They are miscarrying their young. And elsewhere they are washing ashore with bellies full of plastic.
I was not raised to feel these sorrows. I was raised in the evangelical church, where I learned about myself as a beloved child of God, uniquely known and loved. I learned my eternity was secure through the blood of Jesus, who saved me from sin. ‘Sin’ in my upbringing was often framed as a highly spiritualized moral action. In church, sin was defined as rebellion against God’s will: premarital sex, underaged drinking or keeping quiet when God called me to witness to unbelievers–those were sins.
Within this frame, I grew up not questioning the consumption of water, animals, or energy for human use. I grew up unthinkingly using resources as though they were exhaustible. Even in the 90s era of “reduce, reuse and recycle,” I grew up with fast food, fast fashion and fast transportation that created a level of comfortability which felt more natural than nature did. And truthfully, it still does.
As these reports emerge that the world as we know it faces an end, I think about my upbringing. I grew up believing this ‘broken world’ was bound to end. It was only a matter of time. I wonder if many evangelical Christians still believe this and regard our climate crisis without surprise, with a sort of complacency because they trust God will make a new heaven and earth someday. After we hurry up with ending this world bound for death, maybe we can finally live in a world bound for glory.
Today I still identify as a Christian, even if what that means has changed over the years. But what remains is a belief in the incarnation, that God is intimately entangled with us creatures. Not out of a sense of moral rescue, like I once thought; but because the divine relates with the material world. As I think about the destructiveness we are witnessing as humans distance themselves from creation, I am realizing it is through relationality that there emerges the possibilities for life at all. One of my favorite theologians, Catherine Keller, uses the word “intercarnation” to evoke this sense of relationality at the heart of creation, creativity, life.
And through this imagination, my faith grows more room for the million species living on the verge of death in my midst. No longer are they collateral damage to my comfortable way of living, but they are prophets: the imago Dei spills over the borders of human bodies into their flesh. And these million species reveal to me matchless traces of the divine–as well as form a sacred strand in our web of relations, our system of life.
I have come to think flesh as a site of divine revelation. As I consider individual and social practices that exploit, consume, and pollute our planet (like a thief who comes to steal and kill and destroy) I find the incarnation insist upon abundant life for all flesh entangled together.
So, how are we to be Christians at the end of the world? It would be sensible for us to grieve. Grief can help us acknowledge the losses we are facing. And yet. I don’t wish for grief to prepare us for the end alone, but also for a beginning.
That is why I want my tears to move me. I do not want tears to signify surrender but seeking out of resurrection, incarnate, intercarnated. Grief is helping me touch my fragile flesh, and to grow an understanding of myself as a creature that can die. But I am finding from a position of creaturely vulnerability a re-membrance of myself: as a creature who can create.
I think the Lummi are leading a creative movement amongst their people, and serve as an intercarnal example to us Christians. For the orcas, their relatives under the water, the Lummi have been offering live salmon as a life-saving spiritual practice. Sometimes it is just one salmon lowered into the water during prayer. But other times the Lummi pull up fish in their nets from a distant body of water and bring a boat full back to the place where the orcas are. Julius calls these spiritual practices a “sacred obligation” for the Lummi Nation, not as a spiritual distance over and above the orcas but as a spiritual intimacy, a recognition of the God-family above and below the water. As Julius says, “What happens to the Salish sea will inevitably happen to us.”
I want to call Christians toward our sacred obligations. If we “little Christs” are called to bear the ‘good news,’ then I want us not think of good news as separate from flesh. Instead, I want us live into a resurrection promise that is as sensitive and creative as the creatures we are: spirit entangled with the material, entangled with all creation, feathery and watery and leafy and fleshy. Bearing traces of the divine, flapping, flowing, unfurling, touching. Willing to loosen our grasp on the world as we have known it–consumption without limits–and reach toward a world without end in which all can live and move and have their being.
*Orca photo (credit: Lummi artists carved and carried this totem pole across the country to Miami to call for the release of Tokitae (also known as Lolita), the “last surviving member of the endangered Southern Resident orca community held in captivity.”)