By James W. Perkinson
*This is the first of a year-long series of posts from contributors all over North America each answering the question, “How would you define radical discipleship?” We will be posting responses regularly on Mondays during 2019.
“Radical discipleship” is one way of stating the call of the gospel. At face value, it means something like “following the root” (“radical” comes from the Latin “radix,” meaning “root”). But Christianity since Constantine has become so much the creature of urban imperial regimes that we typically approach the language of roots and plants as metaphor—nice “conceits” from earlier times that we have more literally “left behind” in our collaboration with a high-tech takeover of the planet. Indeed, in evangelical circles the great hope of the age in books going by the “Left Behind” nomenclature is to be “raptured” out of the mess of history and the barbarity of nature. The vision of salvation is one of exiting everything to do with earthly living—such as plant bodies growing, root-systems exchanging with soil, or animals eating and reproducing. Indeed, if heaven offers any “food” delights (like pizza or beer, in my paradise)—they will surely not issue in bacterial-driven metabolic processing and defecation or entail beheading of wheat or fermenting yeast or fungi handing off nitrogen to roots! (Not to mention anything as scandalous as sexual intercourse!)
But in our time, it becomes increasingly clear that the real “barbarity” in both nature and history is actually this thing called “civilization” that Christianity in modern form has “championed” all over the planet since 1492 as its vehicle and lifeway. Civilization has proven monstrously “barbarous” precisely in its very attempt to seal itself off from wild existence and the transformative processes of birth and death, metabolism and compost. Nowhere since its invention in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago has civilization proved sustainable for more than a few centuries. Its patterns and career paths have been everywhere typical: the coercion/enslavement of labor, the rampant amassing of wealth by ruthless elites, the decimation of local watersheds and bio-regions, the fracturing of social order in civil war, the collapse of viability, and the need to go elsewhere and conquer others still living within local limits. Only now there are no “elsewheres” left to enable fresh starts or dispose of “waste” (whether in the form of people or products). It is recycling “all the way down” (and “up”) and the “frontier” is a globe. If we who insist on “civilizing” the world persist in fleeing ever and again the messes we create in the process—taking over “new lands” not our own and disappearing everyone in our way, in repeated patterns of conquest and starting over—we end up finally circling the planet and running up our own rear ends (as Anishinaabe/Huron/French/Irish teacher Martín Prechtel likes to muse)!
Today, however, a new titanic Creature is weighing in on the blind self-absorption of our species. In the words of the late pastoral nomad activist of Arizona, Jim Corbett, in the civilizing process modern humanity has become autistic. We look at a cow or goat, a snake or trout—much less a lake or rock—and see “no one home.” But it is we who are not “there.” And a world we have judged “objective” and vacant of consciousness or life, is now arising in a collective concert of backtalk, affirming its Presence to the contrary, announcing apocalypse. Climate crisis in our hour is human provoked, but not human made. Modern science can indeed seek to grasp all the intricacies of the laws of nature at work in planetary heating, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, species extinction, etc., but finally those very “laws” are themselves mere constructs of our own imagination, while a Creation shot through with beauty and movement beyond mere technique continues to mutate its way into riffs and symbioses that are not simply algorithmic outcomes of calculated inputs. The “hell” we are up against today would seem to be one where—having decided technological control is our real god—we now scramble in terrified desperation to control “technologically” the cascade of interlocking effects whose mutual interaction is so intricately gargantuan, we can never hope to grasp all of the consequences before those consequences, in effect, “eat us alive.” We have perhaps been given over to our own civilizational blindness—seeking to heal blindness by way of more blindness.
In a few hundred words, I will surely be misunderstood. I do not advocate a “discipleship” of giving up science as a method of continuous inquiry, but rather of renouncing scientism as a tautology of smug certainty (see Rupert Sheldrake https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0waMBY3qEA4). I would rather give place to those yet indigenous enough in their lifestyle reciprocities with local ecologies to prioritize respect. Most such remaining communities are not Christian, but little beacons of memory from the deep past of our ancestry—like the Hadza of Kenya or the Moken of Thailand or the Saami of the artic. Peoples for whom wonder is not mediated by a screen of icons but a sky of stars, for whom soil is not something they own but a place to which they belong, and ritual not a rite of symbolic self-congratulation but a gift of actual food they owe—regularly and with profound gratitude—to non-human kin. When I think of “roots to be followed,” these are the living filaments that summon.
As “disciples”—yes, we owe it to our own prophetic ancestry to learn like Isaiah and Deborah, Elijah and Hannah, to attend to the asymmetries of power and access and put our voices and bodies in the way of oppression. We owe it to the poor themselves to join them in their jeopardy and discover their amazing gifts of community and reciprocity, their irrepressible capacity to create life in the face of impossibility and elaborate grief into birth. We owe it to the artists of the hour to be taught by whooping bombastics and rhyme-spitting incandescence. And to all their mothers and grandmothers who never signed with a label but never ceased lacing struggle with beauty—we owe recognition and a resolve to do likewise.
But beyond! Beyond what we can find in a Jesus or Baptist, a Miriam or Moses! Beyond St. Francis and St. Faith of Conques! Beyond Martin King and Rosa Parks, Malcom X and Sojourner Truth! Beyond bible-believing saints and haints and haunts known and anonymous! Beyond all of these—we owe return to the “original ones.” The indigenous in our own watershed and our own deep past. The old ones remembering their real kin are mountain and cloud, sturgeon and bear, crane and deer, corn and grass. The Turtle Island dwellers at the Strait, honoring the Great Hare and the depth-diving, dying-that-others-might-live muskrat. The Milky Way followers of Celtic ancestors and bull shape-shifters. The Red Ochre painters of Lascaux . . . and the Upper Great Lakes. The Shell Bead drillers of Blombos. The nomad roamers on the Asian steppe. The Bamboo-Born riders of outriggers cruising the Pacific. All of those ancient ones who knew their own roots were literally stretched back and down as far as the phylum and as high as the moon, rooted in the entire community of finned and winged, four-footed and berried, kernel-carrying and crawling.
In an age of climate apocalypse, not enough to halt the water shutoffs or the border closures and minimum wage repeals—important as those may be! It is highly likely that the collapse will continue and intensify. When we “hear of wars and rumors of wars”—pay attention to the fig tree, indeed (Mk 13:7, 28)! But not as mere symbol, as the gospel would have it. Rather, as living ancestor, growing from a root! Even Isaiah described the Messiah as a Branch, coming out the side of a stump! (Is 11:1; Jer 33:15). Our bodies are not simply metaphors, but composites of other creatures. We are not simply humans. Plants and animals are not simply “lesser beings” destined for our teeth and stomachs and anuses. They are kin and elders and “us” before we “are” ourselves and after we go into the ground. We will go extinct. It is only a question of when. So yes, fight for justice to the last breath. But live with respect, knowing death will come—as it already has for all the little ones who have already given their bodies into our own. Live worthy of their gift and loss! And become a similar gift in kind—even for a world on the brink! Radical discipleship: to give oneself away fiercely to and for an Earth who has fiercely given Herself to and for us! Indigenous folk—and Peacock Spiders and Blue Whales and Agave-Magueys and Sockeye Salmon and even falling Rain and slow, slow, slow-moving Granite—live it every day. Can we re-learn how to follow them?