This weekend was the Autumn Equinox in the northern hemisphere, that mid-point between the great exhalation of light between the summer and winter solstices, a time to honor balance and the gifts of both light and dark, so necessary for the flourishing of life.

We honored the equinox with a simple ritual of giving thanks for the season between the spring and fall equinoxes and for what the growing time of darkness and stillness might bring for us.  We shared breath with the garden of our new home, walking a circle honoring the four directions and elements as my herbal training has taught me, from my ancestral traditions of the lands now called England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Doing so we endeavor to live more in balance, in harmony, with the rhythms and cycles of the earth, and in community with creation — with everything that has breath, (Psalm 150).

Doing so we endeavor to resist white supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism, which treats the earth and its plants and creatures as commodities to be exploited, used up, profited from.

This past week, days before millions around the world marched to protect the earth, Union Seminary held a worship service to confess to plants, to “confess the way that we have neglected and harmed plant life.”  As an herbalist, I have come to recognize the “beingness” of plants, as creation inhabited by Divine breath and with whom we are in relationship — not of use, but of love.  I was excited to see a liturgy recognizing the “beingness” of plant life, engaging in a ritual of confession the same way we might with a human loved one we have harmed. I myself have apologized to dandelions as I’ve mowed them down, or when I’ve pulled up something taking up too much room in a flower bed.

20190828_125749 2
Rev. Anne giggling in a huge stand of nettles.

So I was shocked, and saddened, at the outrage towards Union about their service, some calling it heretical and paganism.  Why would confessing harm we have done against another part of creation be so upsetting? So threatening?

In my last podcast for “The Word Is Resistance” I spoke about climate devastation and the key role of white supremacy, settler colonialism, and capitalism have to play in that devastation.  These systems of oppression require us to displace ourselves from any relationship with the land. with plants, animals, air, fire, water, earth.  As Dr. Willie James Jennings notes, this displacement has its roots in enslavement and the conquest of indigenous peoples, resulting in a white Christianity  “detached from the land, oblivious to the ongoing decimation of native ecologies, deeply suspicious of native religious practices, and…enclosed within […] whiteness.”

In that light, of course it would be threatening to the white supremacy to treat plants as beings, rather than objects without breath to be used, exploited, monocultured, extracted, and even burned to the ground to make room for industry.

In support of Union’s service of confession, Potawatomi author Kaitlin Curtice tweeted,

“The church as it is, entrenched with patriarchy and empire, will never see the earth as she is. It will never honor her, and in my opinion, will never truly know itself.

So, maybe we are at a crossroads.
Why does climate change matter if we don’t see WHO we are fighting to save?”

“Why does climate change matter if we don’t see WHO we are fighting to save?”  Who, not what. Who.

There is nothing heretical about acknowledging our mutual beingness with the rest of the created world, including the plants that heal us, nourish us, uplift us, sustain us.  The biblical witness is clear that trees clap, mountains sing, and fields are jubilant when justice is restored, and that all of creation is inhabited by Divine breath and has the capacity to praise.  Also clear is that creation — the land and plants — suffers under oppression (e.g. Jer 4, Is 24).

Yes, in the face of climate crisis, we must march, we must organize to change policies and dismantle destructive systems.  And, we must re-imagine our relationship to the earth, out of whiteness and into mutual beingness. And by “we” I don’t mean indigenous peoples who are leading the defense of creation, but those of us whose ways of being in right relationship to the earth were erased by whiteness to make consumption and extraction easier.  In particular, I mean those of us who are white.

We can start to repair, to begin to know ourselves again, by confessing to our plant neighbors. To love them —  dandelions, roses, nettles, ash trees, mosses — as ourselves (and perhaps, to let them love us as themselves).

But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you.” (Job 12: 7-8)


Rev. Anne Dunlap is a pastor, activist, and herbal warrior; the Faith Coordinator for SURJ; and UCC Community Minister who recently moved to Haudenosenee land currently called Buffalo, NY. She is committed to fierce love and collective liberation, working in freedom movements with folks across race, gender, and class lines for nearly 30 years.  Follow her on Twitter/Insta @fiercerev. Her website is fiercerevremedies.com.


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2 thoughts on “The Pastoral Is Political: Confessing to Plants

  1. Thank you for this which (obviously) I am getting to late in the week. A Union grad somehow I knew nothing about this service which I applaud or the controversy which does not amaze me but you have drawn that news in and responded in a way that shapes how I will preach on this last of CReation season Sundays.

    Liked by 1 person

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