My spouse, Taylor, was out of town this weekend, so I thought I’d take advantage of my time alone and engage in some spiritual self-care. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do so: perhaps pray, meditate, do some yoga, light some candles, read some scripture? Sure, all of the above. But something I had heard on a podcast (and read months before) by theologian Willie Jennings had been lingering in my mind.
Willie Jennings is a black theologian (who wrote this incredible must-read book called The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race). He begins The Christian Imagination by talking about his mother (which he reiterates in this podcast):
“[She] taught me to respect the dirt. Like many black women from the South, she knew the earth like she knew her own soul.”
Jennings builds his argument about the origin of race on this idea of earth and body—land and soul. You see, from the very beginning, humans have been connected to the land and to animals. If we think of the Genesis narrative—the garden—man and woman were among land and animal, commissioned to watch over the earth, to take care of it, and receive nourishment from it. The connection among God’s creation in the narrative is beautiful, divine, “very good.”
And not just creation, but the story of Israel in its entirety.
Much of Israel’s story is deeply rooted in the land: their displacement from it and their longing to be restored in it.
Jennings explains that since the beginning of time, in many different communities, when someone came across a people, they’d come across the land they were connected to. When someone met a people, they also met the animals that were a part of their family. It’s a divine sense of “creaturely entanglement.” We’ve always lived in an enmeshed world where our lives are intertwined and continuously interweaving.
But you see, what colonization did was fundamentally split people and land. Jennings argues that when this happened, when peoples were ripped from their land—their source of life and nourishment—and from their animal-kin, the wholeness of who they were was stripped from them. What was once a holistic identity that mirrored the goodness of creation, now became a distorted identity.
People were made to believe that their identity only came from their physical bodies and what it was forced to do. For the first time in human history, peoples in the colonized world would be forced to think of themselves in disorienting ways, away from land and away from animals and into races. They were forced to reduce their identities down to the activities of their bodies because the land was being taken, animals were being captured and killed at monstrous rates, and plants were being utterly destroyed.
According to Jennings, the horrors of this “diabolical” split are realized in that we no longer see land, animal and people bound together. In fact, the separation of these three led to the destruction of place-centered identities and the governing of one crucial idea: private property. “No matter how you want to think ethically, morally, theologically or spiritually about life, it will always be deeply dysfunctional and even diseased.” When land and body were split, they became property to be owned. This deep disconnect is what drives so many of our problems. “Until we understand that, we can't understand why race is so powerful. It’s powerful because it exists precisely in that disconnect.”
So, going back to my Saturday morning spiritual self-care.
The words, “from dust we came and to dust we will return” kept replaying in my head. I longed for that connection to the land that Jennings so profoundly speaks of—that divinely sanctioned connection where human, animal and land coexisted in a life-giving union.
So, I dug. I dug up dirt. I tilled soil. I watered plants. I picked up trash. I felt the earth in between my fingertips.
I gardened as an act of worship and I gardened as an act of resistance. And while I did so, the Divine rejuvenated my weary soul.
As Jennings reminds us,
“We are of the dirt.
The dirt is our kin.
We are creatures of the dirt, bound together.”