By Naim Edwards
(This post is a Bonus Wild Lectionary Reflection from the readings a month ago)
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. Acts 17:24-25
Clifton and Vanessa named me Naim Kenyatta. We are the descendants of Black West Africans (and an Irishmen or two) taken from their homelands and transplanted to these so-called United States of America. Our lineage has been traced back twelve generations geographically all the way to Maryland and Virginia. Besides that, we understand that forced separation from our indigenous language and region has essentially vanquished all direct ties to Africa. My family has been here since before the U.S. was even the U.S. We are more American than America, yet most Black people continue to be treated like second class citizens.
I grew up in Harrisburg, PA, and I now reside in the city of Detroit or ZagaaJibiiSing as the indigenous Anishinaabe peoples call this land. I feel at home in Detroit, a predominantly Black city with a rich modern Black history. European colonization and settlement followed by migration of other Europeans preceded this Black legacy, and before any of that, the Anishinaabe tribes of Ojibwe, Potowatomi, and Odawa were the first people to inhabit this land.
My relationship to Detroit is grounded in the Black population, the majority of whom are people who share my history: people seeking refuge, freedom, and opportunity from southern oppression. My ancestors traveled north to Pennsylvania, but hundreds of thousands of others migrated to this area. This shared history makes me kin to the descendants of those who came here. I am the product of a great moving of people yearning to reconnect to the Earth even though it is not the land of our pre-colonial ancestors. God’s grace has sustained us through the centuries.
Acts 17:24-25 reminds us that God is infinite and omnipresent – incapable of being confined to anything. For the sake of simplicity I will refer to God with the pronoun “He” as the scripture does, although God also should not be constrained by gender. The scripture goes on to posit that we cannot serve Him with our works, as God needs nothing from us. He is the provider of all things.
My first sensation after reading the passage was humility. Although we cannot serve or add to God’s awesomeness, once we recognize God’s greatness and love, we should be compelled to revere and honor Him always and in all things. Unfortunately, many of us live in communities where our relationship with God is in constant conflict with secularism – forces that distract us from revering God. A critical principle of secularism is the illusion that religion, God, and faith should only be practiced in designated spaces. This may be why the apostle Luke specifically highlights that God “does not live in shrines made by human hands”. We cannot box God in or relegate him to corners or our existence.
Over millennia, the reverence for God and His creation for some has waned as individuals and groups focused on new masters: wealth and power. Ironically, money and power in the form of government and corporate control are human made concepts formed through extraction and dominance God’s creation. As the corrupted gained power, they moved God further and further from being a part of everyday life. As God and love diminished, violence and even religion became mechanisms for controlling people and the Earth. The commons – resources shared and available to all – like God, increasingly became more concentrated in the hands of the few.
In Detroit and across the globe, water has become an extremely threatened commons. Verse 25 ends with “[God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Water is a human right given to us by God; all people should be able to access potable water. Yet the contamination of waterways, depletion of aquifers, corporate control, and rising costs of municipal water have created scarcity of this abundant resource. God created and provided it to all of us, and those who seek to isolate God in shrines do it in tandem with hoarding God’s gifts from the rest of us.
Colonists and settlers reserved God for the church, while stealing the land from the Anishinaabe peoples. The industrial revolution with its lumber, chemical, and machine factories along with the development of the sewer system poisoned the Detroit River. Its much more convenient to destroy land in water once God and his people are out of the way. This process disabled anyone from being able to draw water from the river for drinking and reflects an abuse of care and stewardship for God’s creation. When we choose not to recognize God’s presence in people, land, water, etc. we pervert its sacredness into object and commodity. Things created to be shared and cared for become items to exploit and destroy.
God’s love and gifts of creation are for all things. Acts 17:24-25 seeks to correct the distorted view that God only exists in places we designate for Him, as well as reminds us that we cannot serve God with our actions, but only with our hearts. That’s all He wants from us, is to love Him, yet the moment we start reserving God for specific days of the week and specific places, we start serving other masters and inevitably cause harm. May we reintegrate God into everything and restore holiness and sacredness to all creation.
Naim Edwards is a gardener and ecologist seeking to discover ways to steward the Earth better so that human and environmental issues are served. His upbringing, travels, and education have inspired him toward a life of simplicity and justice for all.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.