Should Christians Confess Sins to Plants?

I know this title sounds absurd. It certainly did to many people in my feed when Union Seminary tweeted this on Tuesday:

Cue the ridicule — and not just (though mostly) from conservative evangelicals for whom this particular bastion of liberal Protestantism has long been a punching bag. For example, Jonathan Merritt asked Twitter to “Please tell me that this is not the future of theological education in America…”

But far from backing down, Union (not this one) offered up a thread not only explaining the context for the tweet (a course on activism and liturgy) but doubling down on the importance of Christians confessing their sins against non-human creation to non-human creation. Especially “in the throes of a climate emergency,” whoever edits that account argued, “We must birth new theology, new liturgy to heal and sow, replacing ones that reap and destroy…. We don’t just need new wine, we need new wineskins.”

And the backlash generated its own backlash. For example, Native American Christian writer Kaitlin Curtice argued that knee-jerk criticism of Union reflected how a “settler colonial society” had lost sight of the interconnectedness of Creation. American Christians needed to learn from indigenous peoples, for “The church as it is, entrenched with patriarchy and empire, will never see the earth as she is.”

Looking out over the mountains of North Carolina...

Most helpful have been the responses that suggest that there are real questions for all Christians being lost in the furor around a particular tweet. Nurya Love Parish, an Episcopal priest who runs a farming ministry in Grand Rapids, Michigan, applauded some of what Union is doing in that particular class, but thought there was no need for new wine or wineskins: “If we’re Christians, it is and was and always shall be our mandate to tend Creation.” For Veery Huleatt, editor of the Anabaptist Bruderhof Community’s Plough Quarterly, the question was how we should respond when we fail to honor that mandate:

…beneath the very human tendency to jump on the virtual bandwagon, I think there is a pressing question that many Christians and people of no faith are grappling with: What is our moral responsibility to nonhuman life-forms? If we can sin against the natural world, how do we name and atone for that sin?

…There is intellectual work to be done in considering our place in the world and our duties to it, and in learning from theological traditions, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, that place environmental care at the center of their theology. There is physical work to be done in healing and restoring debilitated ecosystems. Fumbling our way toward a better environmental ethic will probably involve some awkwardness and false starts, confessing to plants among them, but refusing to admit our ecological guilt is arguably a worse sin than taking our succulents to church.

Even evangelicals have started to use the Union tweet as a prompt to think carefully about such questions. This morning Wheaton College political science professor Noah Toly offered a thoughtful thread pondering “the idea that we can sin against the earth” — and what such sin would demand by way of response.

Look, I snickered at the original tweet as quickly as anyone. I’m not eager to see this kind of confession incorporated into liturgy at my church, partly because such a ritual can easily mislead people into the kind of panentheism that was a hallmark of my current research subject’s later writings. (I’d rather we work on reincorporating confession of sins to God and each other in churches that have long since discarded that liturgy in favor of more seeker-friendly music and preaching.) But I do appreciate how Union has got me thinking about what it means for humans to be a special kind of creature charged with relating to the rest of Creation. I’ve no doubt that I’ve failed often in that responsibility and so sinned — in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and left undone — against the God whose very good creation included plants and trees, the same God who will come in judgment… to the (figurative? literal?) sound of joyful singing by trees.