My most recent song, Long Shadows, was written two years ago… almost to the day. And it is, unquestionably, the most cheerless song I’ve written to date.
At the time, Australia was on fire, the US was beginning its descent into one of the most divisive elections in its history, and Covid still seemed like a fairly remote threat. No one could have predicted the massive upheaval—converging along several fault lines—that was about to befall us.
At that time, we hadn’t yet conceived the possibility of wholesale lockdowns, stratospheric death counts, and medical triage—not on home turf at least. At that time, George Floyd was just another name, and 215 was just another number. Heat domes and atmospheric rivers were unfamiliar terms, and catastrophic fires and floods were mostly expected to occur in faraway lands (where they belong, and where they didn’t hurt anyone we knew or loved.) When I wrote the song, the term Anthropocene was only starting to surface in popular books, journals, and articles.
Ahhh, the good old days.
Welcome to the Anthropocene
“The Anthropocene epoch,” writes theologian Norman Wirzba, “marks the moment when humans became the dominant force in planetary history, responsible for the widespread alteration of the world’s land, ocean, atmospheric, and life systems.” 1
The words dominant and force in Wirzba’s definition indicate that humans now wield unprecedented power over the planet; a technologically funded mastery over nature that we (seemingly) are neither wise nor good enough to exercise.2 The word responsible, however, suggests that we are culpable even so. Put more sharply, Michael Northcott cautions that the term Anthropocene indicates that “humanity has a new power over, and hence collective responsibility for, the state of the earth and her future.” 3
However, our own founding stories (I’m drawing on the Judeo-Christian tradition here) tell us that humans have never really warmed to the notion of serving God as responsible stewards (gardeners, flourishers) of creation. We’ve much preferred to be plundering lords over, rather than loving servants of, God’s very good creation.
Douglas John Hall would call this “sin.” He reminds us that, biblically speaking, the first sin was a violation of human limitation in relationship to nature, and therefore, a rejection of our own creatureliness and identity. “For what the doctrine of sin declares,” he writes, “is precisely [our] propensity to ignore and transgress the limits [we] experience in relationship to others – including inarticulate creation.” 4
Lament, Repent, Restore
Sin is a doctrine that has fallen disastrously out of fashion in our hyper-individualistic, therapeutic age—even though we still seem able to muster up plenty of outrage when we perceived sins have been committed against us. But if human sin can be understood as rebellion (individual or collective) against our creaturely limitations in relation to God and the rest of creation, then the doctrine offers a remedy through a thorough process of reconciliation, which requires sincere lament (born of truth-telling,) and costly repentance rooted in bright hope for restoration.
But, we aren’t ready, are we? So thoroughly have we decoupled freedom from fidelity that we are not willing to make the personal or structural changes necessary to allow our planet to heal. Neither are we prepared for the suffering to come if we don’t.
My song, Long Shadows, was sparked by the twin traumas of Australia’s fires and America’s political and social devolution, but the song is not so much a response to those particular issues as it is to a growing alarm in my soul, a prescient sorrow, and the whelming frustration and anger building toward leaders who abdicate responsibility appropriate to their position, not to mention eager charlatans who are all too willing to capitalize off of the current crisis for personal, political or corporate gain.
Ready or Not…
In the months leading up to my father’s death, I became intimately familiar with what I now know to be “anticipatory grief.” It’s a sorrowful dread that one feels in one’s bones. It is the emotional equivalent of covering one’s face to block a blow. It is a gripping tightness in the stomach one feels when anticipating indescribable loss.
For now, the immense suffering caused by our environmental folly falls disproportionately on the global poor and powerless—the ones least contributing to our present crisis. I have seen this with my own eyes. However, our sacred scriptures are clear:
Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out
falls into the pit they have made.
The trouble they cause recoils on them;
their violence comes down on their own heads. (Psalm 7:15,16)
I am not playing the prophet here. This, rather, is what faithful Christians call, The Word of the Lord.
Lord have mercy.
(click image below to watch / listen)
LONG SHADOWS (Psalm 7: 14,15)
music and lyrics by Steve Bell (February 2020)
One can tell
That the sun is setting on our “Fair thee well!”
When our civilization’s betting on its small men casting long shadows.
With a half a billion animals on fire
To surmount the consequences of desire behind the earth’s sorrows
Those who fall into the pit
Are, finally, the ones who dig it
That the nations rage and peoples plot in vain
Saying, “Let’s throw off these shackles!”
All the while
The one enthroned in heaven casts a smile
And terrifies the ones who know their ways are like the jackal
Those who fall into the pit
Are, finally, the ones who dig it
LONG SHADOWS | Studio version – from the album “Wouldn’t You Love to Know?” :
1 Norman Wirzba, This Sacred Life: Humanity’s Place in a Wounded World (Cambridge University Press, 2021) p. xiv
2 Douglas John Hall, Lighten Our Darkness: Toward an Indigenous Theology of the Cross (The Westminster Press, 1976) p. 217
3 Michael S. Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (Eerdmans Publishing, 2013) p. 20
4 Hall, p.93
Norman Wirzba, Article: Can We Live in a World Without a Sabbath: Rethinking the Human in the Anthropocene, ABC Religion and Ethics, Posted November 29, 2018
Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter: Laudato Si: On Care of our Common Home, (The Holy See, May 24, 2015)
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, On Earth As In Heaven: Ecological Vision and Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (Fordham University Press, 2012)
Katherine Hayhoe, Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World (One Signal Publishers | Simon and Schuster, 2021)