The Pietà of a Mother Orca: Carrying the Grief of an Eco-Crucifixion

The Pietà of a Mother Orca: Carrying the Grief of an Eco-Crucifixion August 10, 2018

She cradles the body of her dead offspring, carrying the lifeless form of what had been her beloved living child.  A mother’s grief does not let go.  And this anguish is on display so that the world will see that what killed her child was not natural.  It was not normal.  It was a result of a complex system that destroys the lives of the innocent and makes them pay for the privilege of the powerful.

Pietà of a mother orca. Tahlequah’s baby died on July 28.  As of Aug. 11, she will have been carrying the calf for two weeks. Left photo by Robin W. Baird/Cascadia Research Collective. Right image – Michelangelo’s Pietà.

Watching the orca whale known as Tahlequah carry the body of her calf hundreds of miles across the sea is like seeing a watery version of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding the broken body of Jesus after the crucifixion.  Both mothers are overcome with anguish.  Each of these children had been a source and recipient of deep love and abiding hope.  Both were murdered by a combination of cruel ignorance, heartless hubris, and willful violence.

There are differences, of course.

How can we compare a poor little emaciated whale calf with the man who Christians believe is the savior of the world?  Isn’t it a stretch to connect the death of an animal to the crucifixion of a man 2000 years ago?

In an article I wrote about the death of Sudan, the last male white rhino in Kenya who died in March of this year, I argued that we are seeing signs of an “eco-crucifixion.” This is the term I use to describe the trauma and destruction that is happening to ecosystems, the climate, vulnerable human communities, and species that are disappearing at an unprecedented rate.  We are committing eco-cide, and the parallels to the crucifixion of Jesus are striking.

What constituted Jesus’ crucifixion was the torture and death of an innocent person for the purpose of strengthening and furthering the power of what theologian Walter Wink called the “domination system.” Jesus’ crucifixion was also a political death in that religion and empire colluded to destroy anything that threatened their power.

The death of Tahlequah’s baby, like Sudan’s death, like the rolling extinction of so many species right before our eyes, is a political death.

Androcentric powers collude to destroy anything that stands in the way of human “progress.”  Sonar and boat noise torture their sensitive hearing.  Dams are built which block the salmon on which the orcas feed.  The fish they do catch are so poisoned, the toxins filter through to their fetuses that are born emaciated and sick.

In three years, there hasn’t been an orca calf born in Seattle’s Pacific waters that has survived.  Like an apocalyptic scenario imagined for Margaret Atwoods’ The Handmaid’s Tale or P.D. James’ The Children of Men, only 40 orcas born in the last 20 years have survived.  Seventy-two have died.

It’s beginning to dawn on some that what we are doing to these majestic beings we are doing to ourselves as well.

In a meeting called by Washington’s state governor Jay Inslee to address the crisis, activist Stephanie Solien said that what we’re seeing is a message from the orcas.

“This is what they have told the world – it is human actions that are responsible for the dead and stillborn calves, the sick and starving adults and the declining condition of the environment in which they live.”[1]

Jason Colby, a historian at the University of Victoria and author of the book Orca: How We Came to Know and Love the Ocean’s Greatest Predator, described the unparalleled display of orca grief this way.

“It’s almost like a parable, the damndest thing I ever saw.  This is absolutely unprecedented.”

Interesting that he would use religious language about a scene in nature that, at first glance, has nothing to do with religion.  From my perspective as an ecotheologian, however, Talequah’s grief has everything to do with religion.  I see it as a form of biblical lament. As environmental reporter Lynda Mapes observed, “Tahlequah’s witness to her loss, as she carries her dead calf day after day through the Salish Sea, is searing.”[2]

Walter Brueggemann tells us that lament achieves three things.

It recognizes the reality of injustice, loss, and grief; names that injustice as intolerable; and ultimately, moves us to action to follow God’s call to make it right again.

Photo: Kenai Fjords National Park. Public domain.

Scientists, governmental officials, environmentalists, marine biologists, animal behaviorists, and activists know what is needed to make things right for the orcas.  The Lower Snake River dam needs to be taken down to boost salmon runs.  The toxins from agriculture, industry, and human pharmacology need to cease.  The boats must be quieted.  The water and land must be cleansed of pollution.  If all of that happens, Seattle’s orcas might be able to survive. That is the hope.

In the meantime, the world watches helplessly as the ongoing funeral procession, now approaching two weeks, continues across the waters.

Pietà is from the Latin pietas meaning ‘dutifulness.’

Mary carried out her maternal duties to the very end, her love and devotion to Jesus following him throughout his brief life all the way to his ignominious death.  So, too, does Tahlequah carry out her maternal duties with her calf whom she knew for only 30 minutes.  Her love and devotion lift the dead child to the surface of the water and put to us the relentless question:

What, now, is our duty?


Leah D. Schade is the Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship at Lexington Theological Seminary (Kentucky) and author of the book Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit (Chalice Press, 2015). She is an ordained minister in the Lutheran Church (ELCA).

Twitter: @LeahSchade

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LeahDSchade/.

See also:

The Last Rhino, Good Friday, and the Preachers’ Silence

A Dozen Bible Passages for Preaching a Creation-Care Sermon

Resurrection Sermon for an Earth-kin Congregation


[1] “Orca mother grieving for dead calf inspires push to save dying pods,” Levi Pulkkinen. The Guardian.  Aug. 8, 2018.  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/aug/08/orcas-killer-whales-endangered-dying-washington

“[2] ‘I am sobbing’: Mother orca still carrying her dead calf — 16 days later,” Lynda V. Mapes, Seattle Times. Aug. 8, 2018. https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/i-am-sobbing-mother-orca-still-carrying-her-dead-calf-16-days-later/

Source of opening photo:  https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/puget-sound/for-third-day-grieving-orca-whale-carries-dead-calf-in-water/

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