This past week, Union Theological Seminary students made public confession to plants during a chapel service. A Union Seminary tweet reads:
Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor.
What do you confess to the plants in your life?
The tweet about confession drew strong reactions on Twitter, including the charge of “absolute theological bankruptcy.” For many conservative Christians, such symbolic actions signify New Age ways of thinking. The Twitter storm should cause us to seek shelter in Christian Scripture in search of nuanced understanding of our proper relation to the creation, including plants.
What does Christian Scripture have to say about creation? Scripture speaks of creation revealing and declaring God’s glory (See for example Psalm 19:1 and Revelation 1:19-20). Scripture records Jesus’ striking claim that the stones would cry out if people did not praise God in view of Jesus’ miracles (Luke 19:40). The Law warns that the land will spit God’s people out of the land if they defile it (Leviticus 18:28). The Bible also includes Paul’s words that the whole creation groans waiting for humanity’s redemption (Romans 8:22).
While the Bible says a great deal about creation, we should ask whether it includes mention of confession to plants. Certainly, Scripture exhorts us to make confession to God. Confession in public or in private should include confession of our sins to God (1 John 1:9). We are also to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16). But what about plants? As best as I can recall, no mention is made in the Bible of public or private confession of various kinds to plants, or other parts of the non-human creation.
Now, regardless of the theological rationale for the Union Seminary students or others making confession to plants, Scripture is quite clear that we have a responsibility as humans to care for the creation and not to sin against God by mistreating the creation. Such care includes the humane treatment of animals in the Hebrew Scriptures. One Jewish source reads:
Several commandments demonstrate concern for the physical or psychological suffering of animals. We may not plow a field using animals of different species (Deut. 22:10), because this would be a hardship to the animals. We are required to relieve an animal of its burden, even if we do not like its owner, do not know its owner, or even if it is ownerless (Ex. 23:5; Deut. 22:4). We are not permitted to kill an animal in the same day as its young (Lev. 22:28), and are specifically commanded to send away a mother bird when taking the eggs (Deut 22:6-7), because of the psychological distress this would cause the animal. In fact, the Torah specifically says that a person who sends away the mother bird will be rewarded with long life, precisely the same reward that is given for honoring mother and father (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16), and indeed for observing the whole Torah (Deut. 4:40). This should give some indication of the importance of this law.
Care for the creation extends to the land itself. God commanded Moses that Israel was to provide a Sabbath rest for the entire land. There was to be no sowing fields, pruning vineyards, harvesting or gathering in that seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-5).
The preceding remarks signify that Scripture is quite clear on humans having a responsibility to care for the creation, signifying that our dominion (See Genesis 1:26, 28-29) does not permit us to treat creation in any way that we please. And yet, as those who alone are created in God’s image according to the Genesis account (Genesis 1:26-27), humanity is the pinnacle and center of creation. Moreover, the Genesis account makes quite clear that the creation is not divine, and that the God of Israel is the one who makes and orders all the creation. We find such divine singularity in forming/ordering the creation in day three when God brings order to the creation through plant life:
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:11-12; ESV).
Unlike other ancient creation stories that involved creating out of deities or that acknowledged celestial powers as deities, the Genesis narrative proclaims that the God of lowly and little ancient Israel, not the gods of the superpowers, was responsible for creating and ordering the whole universe.
John Walton, who claims that the first three days of the Genesis 1 narrative are about functions (day one—time; day two—weather; day three—food) and the last three days are about functionaries, claims that the world functions for humankind’s benefit and as a place for God to dwell with the divine image-bearers. Regarding the functional role of creation, Walton writes,
As we actually read the text’s account of each day, finding the focus on organization and ordering rather than the manufacture of material objects, we should be letting it shape our ideas about the narrator’s intentions. God is articulating his vision for a world that will function for the benefit of humankind and as sacred space where God will dwell in relationship with them.
Speaking of benefit for humankind, the Genesis 1 account makes clear that plant life was given to us and the animal creation for food (Genesis 1:29-30).
The preceding reflections give us much food for thought. Whatever you think about the Union Seminary students’ public confession to plants, we should all acknowledge that plants are very beneficial, indeed essential to our sustenance as God’s image bearers and that we often fail to value them (please note that the Union Seminary students sought to highlight the significance of valuing plants’ providing sustenance for us and how we often fall short of proper regard for plant life; for a good, balanced article on the Union Seminary students’ confession, refer here). In the midst of the Twitter storm, we could learn a great deal not only from Scripture but also from St. Francis of Assisi (to whom we will return on the entry for October 4th to close out the liturgical Season of Creation), whom Pope John Paul II hailed as “heavenly patron of those who promote ecology.” While I do not know if St. Francis ever spoke to plants, he did preach to animals and extolled the creation’s worth to God. In his “Canticle of Creation,” Francis praises God for creation, including plants, which, as noted above, the Genesis 1 account makes clear were given to us and the animal creation for food (Genesis 1:29-30):
Be praised, my Lord,
for Sister Earth, our Mother,
who nourishes us and sustains us,
fruits and vegetables of many kinds
and flowers of many colours.
No good person harms their mother, but cherishes her. Similarly, we should cherish the earth from which we come and to which we return (Genesis 3:19). We should cherish fruit and vegetables of many kinds that sustain us, and flowers of many colors, that give us joy to strengthen us in the midst of life’s struggles and sorrows. With these points in mind, it is worth tweeting Francis’ Canticle of Creation during the Season of Creation. Why not make public confession and offer up praise to God by praying St. Francis’ canticle today?