While we were in West Virginia visiting one of the sites affected by mountain top removal, I saw the stone monument above that, though weathered and difficult to read, quotes Psalm 95:4. In this verse, the psalmist asserts, “In God’s hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are God’s also.” This monument seemed to me to be a subtle protest against the hubris of the coal companies (and the government that empowered them) who felt that they had the right to simply lay claim to the mountains and utterly deface them.
Perhaps I was reading my own subversive struggle into the text. But it got me thinking–what does the Christian tradition have to say about the land? What follows are some of my first thoughts, a more sustained (and I think worthwhile) reflection is offered by Walter Brueggemann in his book, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith
First off, to be sure, the sentiments of Psalm 95:4 are echoed throughout the Bible. Take, for example in Psalm 24:1 (“The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it…”) which is also cited in one of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:26). In short, there is a strong theme of the earth or the land belonging to God. The New Testament, for all its tendencies towards spiritualization, still affirms this earth, and looks forward to God’s kingdom coming on this earth. But it is still God’s kingdom (and God’s earth). Humans cannot lay claim to it.
All of this said, one of the key hopes (or perhaps the key hope) in the Hebrew Bible is the promise of land. It of course begins with God’s promise to Abraham that he will inherit the land “as far as the eye can see” (Gen 15). The Hebrews journey through the desert for forty years, all the while hoping to arrive at the land God had promised, the land “flowing with milk and honey.” Once they arrived in the land, they actually occupied it for only 350-400 conflict-ridden years. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is written in exile away from the promised land or in the promised land to which the Jews can no longer lay claim. During this time the Jews look forward constantly to a time when they will again enjoy the land as their own. In the midst of all this, the land is a gift from God (see especially Deuteronomy 8:17-20 0r 30:15-20).
In the Bible, then, there is a certain ambivalence (and many more texts could be brought to bear on the discussion). The land is possessed, but possessed as a gift. It ultimately belongs to God. Can we bring this perspective into conversation with current land practices? If so, how? What would the Lutheran (or more broadly, Christian) response look like?