And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.—Mark 13:37
Ask a Christian to tell you God’s greatest commandment, and she’ll likely say, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Ask her if she knows God’s first commandment, and she might say, “Don’t eat the fruit of that tree!”
But that’s not quite right. God’s first commandment to human beings was, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” God meant dominion as God has dominion—to love and tenderly care for things. We know this because the first of all God’s commandments was not to humans at all. “Let there be light,” God said, and there was light, and it was good, because God brought it forth and loved it for what it was. That is God’s dominion.
In Laudate Si , Pope Francis carefully distinguishes between the dominions of care and domination, saying, “…we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” This is Laudate Si’s challenge: give up domination of the earth, and do it by giving up our domination of other human beings.
“The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together…” (48) Francis says, and makes sure that his readers understands a “technocratic paradigm” of domination and control (106), made easier by a lack of “direct contact” of the wealthy with the poor (49) takes our gaze away from the created things and directs it to profit. In place of direct contact with people, “…economic powers continue to justify the current global system where priority is given to speculation and the pursuit of financial gain…Here we see how environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked,” (56).
Profits trump empathy, and even the possibility of empathy and compassion erode when you profit from the exploitation of people you’ll never see, and the destruction of places you’ll never visit. Francis well knows that the first story after the Fall is a story of a tiller who becomes a murderer and says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
We Americans have to look no farther than our own history to see that Francis is right. If you pay the price of environmental deterioration, you’ll have bought human and ethical degradation, too. We owe much of our wealth to the American slave economy. Edward Baptist has shown that the introduction of cotton and the slave economy helped shape American capitalism, and every non-slave benefitted from its engine of wealth. Cotton was terrible for the soil: “…cotton quite simply caused, during the antebellum period, the worst soil exhaustion in southern history,”, and so earned its planters the moniker ‘landkillers’.
Financial speculation on land and mortgages made on the bodies of black men and women, who were tortured, raped, and murdered to peak efficiency, fueled the cotton economy. Lehman Brothers got its start financing this business. That is part of our heritage.
Forgive me if you knew that already. I discovered much of this over the summer as I tried to understand the eruption of protests for racial equality in Ferguson and New York. I am learning that racism and the exploitation of the earth are not separate ethical concerns. They are the same, united in the same way the first and the greatest commandments are united. I have also discovered that I’m late to this discovery.
Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me , “Once the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves…and this revolution has freed Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself… It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age,” (150-151).
The Dream, for Coates, is similar to Francis’ technocratic paradigm—but with the grease of racism added to make the money wheel spin faster. It is the Dream that profit makes us good, that power makes us right. Coates, too, shows that environmental deterioration and human and ethical degradation are closely linked. The method of their combination is the alchemy of profit. Wake from the Dream, he says, and keep awake.
Coates was raised to reject spooks and fairy tales, including God. For Coates, the inherent worth of a human being isn’t because they bear the image of God, but because the human being is a brain and a body, both destructible. “That is why they are so precious.”
And yet, it is precisely on this point, on the precious body, that the Church must find full agreement with Coates. We do not need a god to see how precious our neighbor’s life is. “Before God and with God we live without God,” Bonhoeffer wrote. This is the ethic Coates helps us find: to love the neighbor for himself, for herself, just as he is, just as she is.
Coates tells his son,
“I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh…You must resist the common urge toward the comforting narrative of divine law, toward fairy tales that imply some irrepressible justice. The enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history. (70).
This ought to be the ethical stance of any Christian. The sins of the past did not occur so that we may be uplifted by overcoming them. In any case, even if we overcome the sins of the past, the sins of the present are close at hand. We can say that God redeems history, but to place ourselves at the end of the story is always idolatry. The end of the Christian story is the same as its beginning: God. Instead of placing ourselves at the end, we must look at what is before us—never to dominate it, but to love it for what it is, and to tenderly care for it. We must keep and tend the singularity and particularity of all flesh, for we have dominion over the earth and dominion over one another.
Early on in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes to Simon’s mother-in-law’s house, where she lay in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up out of bed. And at sunset, the whole village brings the sick and the possessed, and one by one Jesus heals each person, all of them, one by one, each person in their singularity, and every one of them. In the miracle feedings, Jesus sends his disciples to distribute the bread, and they do distribute it, one by one by one, giving to each bread and faith.
So also our sacraments honor and revere the body. Each person is baptized, one by one. At the table hands touch, one by one, by one, by one. The incarnation puts abstraction to death. God touches your hand; God touches you, in particular time and place, in your singularity, in your body.
In the creeds, we profess we believe in the resurrection of the body. Nowhere in our creeds do we speak of the eternal soul. To care for souls, we care for bodies. We worship God in spirit and in truth, yes, but revealed in a crucified man, betrayed, given over to the state, body exposed, body mutilated and thrown away. Our faith is worthless if we forget this body, given for us, the body of Christ, given for you—for your body, given to everyone, to each one.
If we are to continue as church, we must hear Coates’ challenge to us: to stop viewing the sufferings of others as bricks in our road to redemption, and instead view them as what they are: suffering men and women. The stories we tell in our sermons, the prayers we utter in our liturgies, are they the stories of God’s redemption? Or do they make us the heroes?
Where the people suffer, Pope Francis and Ta-Nehisi Coates tell us, the earth, our common home suffers. God will make a new heaven and a new earth, but the one God made for us, this one—are we not its keeper and tiller? Do we not hear its cry in the cry of the poor? And will we not hear that cry become our own? May God touch us, so we can awake.
Francis, Encyclical Letter On Care for our Common Home (Laudato Si). Washington, D.C. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2015. Print.
 Baptist, Edward E., The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, Basic Books, 2014
 Davis, Donald E., Southern United States: An Environmental History, ABC-CLIO, 2006
Coates, Ta-Nehisi: Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, New York, NY, 2015.