The Psalmist singings, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1)
From ancient times people have understood that God is the creator of the universe and that it is sacred because it belongs to God. People of faith understand this, and most recognize the sacred responsibility we have to care for the creation God has given us as our earthly home.
Yet, there are too many examples demonstrating how we have squandered our inheritance by not making a right use of the gifts of creation. Pollution and global warming confront us repeatedly. Even from the early days of our nation, settlers moved into new territories, used up the land and wildlife, and then moved on to greener pastures. Perhaps the country seemed too big to mar with seemingly little indiscretions.
Native Americans, however, realized the problem when the first settlers took over their lands. While Christians received the Jewish understanding of the earth being the Lord’s, Native Americans reverenced the sacredness of the earth in a much deeper sense. The whites considered the land something to be bought and sold. As Seattle, chief of the Suquamish (1786?-1866) observed, “How can you buy and sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us…Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people…We are part of the earth and it is part of us.”
Seattle who became a Christian cooperated peacefully with the federal government to obtain the best of what he thought possible to prevent the extinction of his people. In 1855 Seattle signed the Port Elliott Treaty, which transferred ancestral Indian lands to the federal government and established a reservation for Native American tribes in the Northwest region. But he took the opportunity in a letter to President Franklin Pierce to express his profound ecological concerns and spiritual vision.
“We know that the White Man does not understand our ways. One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves one.”
“One thing we know, which the White Man may one day discover—our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land; but you cannot. He is the God of humanity, and his compassion is equal for the red man and the white. The earth is precious to him, and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its Creator…Even the white man cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see.” (See “All Saints”, R. Ellsberg)
One would hope that we in the 21st century would reflect on the haunting and prophetic document conveyed in the 19th century. It is time to respond to Chief Seattle’s message with right action, not only to preserve the earth and its creatures, but to honor the God to whom it all belongs.