Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)