Eco-Justice and the Book of Psalms
I recently attended a poetry reading at the Folger Shakespeare Museum. The evening was spent listening to two poets reading some of their own work as well as poems from others, all of which was from an anthology titled Ghost Fishing. The theme of the book and evening was eco-justice poetry, which is best described as poetry that captures and expresses tales of injustice toward nature, memories of better relationships with our environment, and hope for change. It was powerful. We laughed, we sighed, some were brought to tears. Mostly, I found myself thinking how desperately we need this genre of poetry as a continuation of the nature psalms.
The nature psalms typically say something about God’s relationship with creation. Sometimes creation is praising God, and other times God is taming the chaos of nature. Arguably the most renown is Psalm 8, specifically verses 3-8 (NRSV):
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8 declares that God reigns and has shared that reign with humans by allowing them dominion over creation. Given that God reigns with justice, the implication here (direct command elsewhere, especially Genesis) is that we would reign over creation as God would—justly. So, as I sat and saturated myself in eco-justice poetry, I heard Psalm 8’s desperate cry to do something better with the dominion that has been given. I felt the tension between the idealism of Psalm 8 and the horrific descriptions of violent animal deaths and the flooding of oil in oceans. The dominion over creation assigned to us in Psalm 8 has been abused, and the poems of Ghost Fishing were naming that failure in a shocking and startling manner. And I, we, need it.
We need to hear psalms of nature that name our failure and hold us to better. We need to hear poetry that breaks us and binds us to responsibility. We need to hear words and stories of possibility, hope, desperation, and grief from the creation that otherwise has no voice.
Here’s what I mean. There was one poem in particular titled “Bamboo,” by Linda Hogan. She writes of bamboo plants lamenting the role they have been forced to play in war and violence. She gave voice to a plant, and by doing so she juxtaposed the beautiful, life-giving purposes of bamboo with the perversion that befalls the plant at the hands of people bent toward violence. The plant and poem end by naming a hollowness that is left when people misuse their dominion of nature for their unjust purposes. This is the sequel to Psalm 8 that we need, because it begs a third act. If Psalm 8 is the first act, describing the gifting of dominion over creation, then Ghost Fishing tells what we have done with that dominion and leaves us wanton for a redeeming third act of justice restored.
I hope that you read the nature psalms and feel inspired by the beauty of nature to praise God. I also hope that you are vulnerable enough to read the poems of Ghost Fishing and find inspiration for a relationship of justice with and toward creation.