“We sometimes need to cut a forest tree down for wood to build our house or for firewood, but before we cut it we speak to the tree. We tell the tree why we need it and we thank the tree for providing us with this wood which will help us survive. Then we ask the tree and all the nature around it for forgiveness because we know that our duty is to protect and care for the forest, not exploit it. All life is precious and we know that not only does the tree have life, but there are many animals and insects that survive because of the tree. We have deep respect for this environment that God has given us as a responsibility.”
These words, from an indigenous woman, were shared recently at a conference here in Cambodia on “Our Faith Listens to the Earth.” Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims and Indigenous people gathered for the two-day conference to reflect on what we, as people of faith, should be doing and saying about the destruction of the forests in Cambodia for the economic benefits of a few.
The most passionate voice came from the Indigenous participants and their stories echoed what I have heard from other Indigenous people around Asia. Last year in the School of Peace two Indigenous women from North America (they call it Turtle Island) share the same sentiments when talking about the tradition of Indigenous people to “walk softly on Mother Earth and do not pollute Father Sky.”
Buddhist monks attending the conference shared how they sometimes ordain trees as monks to prevent “developers” from chopping them down to make way for another golf course or a banana plantation.
A Muslim participant quoted words from the Koran teaching us that all the environment is sacred and must be treated with dignity. Planting trees, he said, is an act of charity and we are called upon by Allah to allow all people and animals to eat freely of the fruit of the tree because it is a gift to all the world.
A Catholic Nun spoke of the creation story, emphasizing that God was the Creator, and thus the owner, of all the universe and it is our responsibility to make sure this universe is clean and protected.
As I listened to all of these voices the words of Psalms 24:1 kept going through my thoughts: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” That is a beautiful verse and I remember learning it as a small child in Sunday School. But I don’t think I really thought deeply about its meaning until this short conference.
We seem to have become a very possessive people. “This is my land.” “These are my trees.” “These are my natural resources.” And so we feel it is our right to cut, chop, dig, blow up, hew down and sell off anything that is on “our land.” But Psalms 24: 1 would challenge us on that. All of this actually belongs to the Lord and we have no right to exploit it just for our sole economic benefit. The trees are needed, not just for building our houses, but for the birds, the insects and the various animals. They were all created by God and we are responsible to care gently for them.
The voices of the Indigenous Peoples reflect deeply an understanding that we are not the owners of God’s creation, but rather its protectors. When they speak to the tree before cutting it down, they are not worshiping the tree, rather they are worshiping the Creator, thanking the Creator for giving us all that we need and seeking forgiveness for when we show disrespect for all the bounty provided for us. We must learn from the Indigenous voices. They can, and must, teach us how to recognize that “The earth is the Lord’s.”