“Remember You Are Compost, and to Compost You Shall Return”: Ecotheology and Ash Wednesday

My theology professor asked the class, “Will composting be necessary in the new heavens and new earth?” My hand shot up immediately and I answered with an enthusiastic “Yes!” Of course, I knew that compost was made of rotting, decomposing earthy matter. Yet, at the same time, I believed composting to be an integral part of God’s realm because it brings forth life out of rotting matter. The professor seemed to agree with me, but my peers were not impressed. For them, life eternal required no work, rather full praise toward God and God’s goodness.

We first find compost in Genesis 2, when God plants a garden on the east side of Eden and creates humanity. As well, God causes animals, trees, and shrubs to be birthed from this same ground. In this second creation narrative, humans work with the ground and care for the garden. Composting was involved in their very practice of creation-care. They didn’t have the means to develop landfills, or even the desire for non-recyclable plastic products. Instead, they gave back to Earth what they couldn’t use and the Earth reused it for something new.

Compost occupies an in-between stage. Sort of how plasma is not necessarily a solid or a liquid; or even Derrida’s late obsession with ghosts, understanding them as not quite human and not quite rotting flesh. Without compost, life would not subsist. In a sense, everything is compost. Our very ontology is in-betweenness. Though this is not the same as when preachers talk about the “dash on your gravestone.” Our in-betweenness is rather much more. Our bodies, along with the world, are constantly changing, either through the shedding of our skin, or dying cells, or having organs taken out. We are never static creatures, just like compost.

In Revelation, we read of the new earth, where one can see signs of composting. The River of Life flows through the middle of the New Jerusalem and on one side is the Tree of Life, which “provides healing for the nations” (22:2). “Healing” in this passage is in the present and continuous sense. In other words, even with everything renewed, everything is not yet fully healed or whole. Thus, could we not imagine that at the bottom of the Tree of Life, us partaking of food and composting it for new life, healing, and wholeness? With this reasoning, the New Jerusalem will not have landfills. What a beautiful vision of God’s realm!

On Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, we recognize our faults, our sins, and those regretful acts we commit. We walk to the front of the church and receive a sign of our sinfulness with an ashed compost cross on our foreheads. Our bodies will become compost again after our death, at least until the resurrection. Yet, we should recognize our in-betweenness as hopeful. As Paul writes in Romans about Abraham on the resurrection, that he was and we are “hoping against hope” (4:18). Within us is the power of transformation. We have the capability to bring forth goodness, love, and hope.

Living into our compostable lives, let us make the most use of our in-betweenness for positive change in our relationships, neighborhoods, and world.

Composting


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