Christmas is different this year: The Earth is on fire. Across the west coast, ashes lie where great forests once stood. Climate scientists explain to we who mourn that the Earth’s rising temperatures surely played a role in their demise. And although the smoke and ash are only faint particles in the air now, the echo of trees screaming as they are engulfed by burning red flames stays with us.
Christmas is different this year: Our cities are on fire. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and countless unnamed Black and brown people by police have led to calls for reform, for changes to oppressive policies and laws, and for a transformation of our society that has been built on the foundation of white supremacy.
This year, the screams of trees and shouts of despair mingle with Christmastide. This Christmas, taking an ecowomanist perspective may help us honor our faith, mourn our broken world, and move forward into a more just future.
Ecowomanism honors the connection between social justice and ecological justice. It unapologetically centers the voices of women of African descent: especially African American women, whose wisdom, writings, and leadership in the ecological justice movement have too often been overlooked. It helps us consider obvious and not so obvious connections between Christ and creation.
To be ecowomanist means to look at issues through an intersectional lens. It means to acknowledge the connections between ecological justice and racial, gender, and economic justice. It is to highlight the interconnection of all beings and recognize that social justice, especially racial justice, is also ecological justice.
This Christmas, taking an ecowomanist perspective may help us honor our faith, mourn our broken world, and move forward into a more just future.
Honoring the Earth is vital, yet we mourn the damage humans have done to it. Healing the Earth is key—so too is facing the depth of climate and racial violence. While we decorate trees placed in our living rooms to honor the birth of Jesus, Black bodies are being killed by police and otherwise falling victim to the sin of white supremacy. This Christmas, as we adorn our family Christmas trees, may we remember the ash of trees in Oregon, the hard history of racialized violence and lynching in our country, and the opportunity to join the strong social justice movements that have been organizing to correct and heal racial and environmental injustice.
Christmas in the hush
This year, many of us have suffered loss: loss of home, life, employment, and lifestyle. We have been sheltered by the gifts of neighbors, encouraged by the kindness of strangers, and forced to let our “little lights shine” boldly from the heart and in our actions. Masked, the brilliance of our smiles has been illuminated by the light in our eyes. We have been forced to shed “normal” ways of being and recognize that this old way was destroying so many beings on Earth.
Zoom and the creation of virtual communities have changed the way we live and celebrate the story of the Christ child in our everyday lives. Medical professionals around the planet have embodied Mary’s courage and our faith that God can “make a way out of no way.” Healers, doctors, nurses, hospital workers, cooks, educators, and the fierce faith of those who persevere even in the midst of great uncertainty have given us hope. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many of us to the brink of unbelief, humbled us, and even allowed us to meet divine grace in ways we never imagined.
Global awareness of health disparities across racial lines has been magnified by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Racial violence across the United States has inflicted terror upon everyday people just trying to make it: Parents, children, grandparents, godparents, othermothers, aunties, and uncles are knee-deep in prayer asking God to protect their loved ones and communities from virus and violence, from depression and dehumanization. “Somehow, somehow, God,” they plead, “let divine grace shower the planet so deeply with peace and a healing balm so great that every sinew, bone, and structure of white supremacy in place buckle under the weight of love and force of truth for all beings. Let anything else dissolve into dust.”
Ethicist Katie G. Cannon prophetically proclaims that in times like these we all must lean on a deeper wisdom within us. An African American woman, scholar, church leader, clergy person, and artist, Cannon and her writing, work, and scholarship meet us this Christmas with just the right word.
In her essay “Surviving the Blight,” Cannon writes about growing up in the segregated South and how her entire household would “hush” during a thunderstorm. As the lightning flashed, everyone in the home could feel the power of the storm rise up from the Earth beneath them. Each vertebra in their backs stood at attention to the Earth’s moving. Her mother, Corine Lytle Cannon, would gather all those in the house around her, and the family would join together in storytelling and prayer. This great ritual began with the act of listening to the Earth.
Today all of us are in the situation to experience our own great “hush.” It used to be the norm for many of us to swallow images of violence without question. Too many of us were too busy with work and life and lots of face-to-face, full-contact activities to pay attention to just how many times white officers of the law were caught on camera—some with their knees on the neck of an unarmed Black man, others shooting Black children and Black men repeatedly in the back, and still others killing Black women asleep in their own beds.
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed us to meet divine grace in ways we never imagined.
Then, with the announcement of lockdowns and thousands upon thousands dying from the novel coronavirus, we all made the turn inward. Unable to go about life the way we were used to, many of us had to face the fact that the global COVID-19 pandemic was not the only pandemic taking place right before our eyes. White supremacist action and racial violence have been emboldened and even supported by many of those in charge. Before we did not notice. Perhaps we did not have to. Perhaps we had the racial or economic privilege to not see. Now we have no choice but to see the truth: Racial violence is and has been a part of American history.
Ecowomanism celebrates the wisdom of Cannon and the religious paths of many spiritual ancestors who toiled from sunup to sundown, prayed so hard until heaven came down, and wrote in their hearts or by hand millions of ounces of truth that, as poet Nikki Giovanni reminds us, “benefits like ripples on a pond.”
In “Surviving the Blight,” Cannon writes, “The Black prayer tradition . . . [is] the authentic living bridge between Black people’s stories, Black people’s music, and Black people’s source of faith.” This Christmas, listen to the Earth in order to more fully understand the link between Christmas and creation. Ground yourself in this great cloud of witnesses, the ancestral voices of Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, C. T. Vivian, and so many others. Center your own soul and go out into creation. Meet nature with your hands and feet. Breathe. Quiet your mind. Listen for the Earth.
Can you hear the ancestral voices singing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”?
The experience of ancestral presence may embolden us in the face of darkness and give us strength in moments of despair when the struggle for racial justice seems unending.
Christmas at the lynching tree
The link between Christmas and creation also links spiritual wisdom to liberation, liberation to social justice, and social justice to the roots of Jesus’ birth and life. This Christmas, listen to the Earth’s call for restoration and justice.
In his book The Cross and The Lynching Tree (Orbis Books), James H. Cone draws connections between the cross and those trees where Black people were hanged, tortured, and killed—the lynching tree. Both are symbols of hatred and violence, and both carry a history of injustice. However, in Christian belief the cross is redeeming—it was here where Jesus died for our sins. The lynching tree has yet to take on any such redemptive qualities in many of our theological imaginations.
This Christmas, listen to the Earth in order to more fully understand the link between Christmas and creation.
This Christmas, hear the Earth by listening to the perspective of the lynching tree. In so doing, we seek to transform the meaning of this sacred tree into one of racial and ecological reparation and even reprieve. Known as spaces of terror, lynching trees can be understood and possibly redeemed through the hard work of racial and ecological reparations.
The lynching tree has seen how the strong hand of oppression negates the lives of Black and brown people everywhere. It has experienced how those in power ignore the truths and wisdom from Native and indigenous communities and even silence whites without elite status and economic power or those in solidarity with people without racial privilege. The lynching tree has seen acts of human domination over the Earth and has been forced to serve as a tool of white rage and anger.
Like the Black people who suffered at the lynching tree, the Earth too was violated by these acts of white supremacist violence. As Christ shares in the suffering of those who are oppressed, so too does the Earth share in the suffering of Black people.
But the trees have not only seen violence and violation. The trees have also witnessed thousands upon thousands march in the midst of multiple pandemics to demand justice. In every place on Earth where children, some in strollers, have yelled, “No justice, no peace!” trees have looked on. Trees have noticed that entire generations of the human family are being ushered into the work of how to create justice and transform societies.
This Christmas, notice what the trees see. We cannot ignore the connections between racial and ecological violence. Take a look at Shingle Mountain, the dump site near Dallas that communities of color have been protesting for years. Note that many families escaping domestic violence under lockdown are given only limited options for housing, often closer to toxic runoff locations or in neighborhoods with less green space.
As Christ shares in the suffering of those who are oppressed, so too does the Earth share in the suffering of Black people.
It is time for all of us to live a new way of being with the Earth and with each other. Carrying forth an antiracist, Earth-honoring faith is to map a new way of being. Make justice promises to the reflections we see in the mirror each day and live more fully into the challenge to be justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Be light. Be justice. Stop and notice.
Donating $5 to the #MeToo movement only once and saying one prayer on Earth Day are offerings of cheap grace. Consider contacting the domestic violence hotline in your community this Christmas. Offer your time, expertise, and resources to help families who are on the edges of hope this Christmas. Find ways to connect with a faith community, even virtually, to support church and neighborhood gardens struggling to feed folks in food deserts.
Open up your heart and pray through a different Christmas tree ritual by planting trees as an act of environmental justice. Create a liturgy to the wooden cross of Calvary—the destiny of the baby Jesus—and plant a tree to remember Jesus and to replace trees around the planet that have been burned down. Give to a Black church working to feed, clothe, shelter, and provide health care to people in the Black community.
Notice trees this Christmas. Yes, the ones speckled with light but also the ones whose essence was robbed. Look into and face the history of lynching trees as tools of death. The history of racial violence and ecological violence reverberates today. The tones of Christmas cannot be heard without also hearing the sorrow songs of the enslaved, the murdered innocent, the ancestral calls for mercy, and the cries of agony and defeat from those who are poor in spirit and without hope or food. Surely these are blessed ones whom God honors and who with Christ swallow from the bitter cup.
This article also appears in the December issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 85, No. 12, pages 10-14). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.