Remembering Earth – The Pale Horse of Death

“… behold, a pale horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death, and Hades was following with him.”

Medicine Wheel, by Rhaina Andre with instruction from Trianna Kiddle, 2018

Please let me let it go

Please let me let it go
Please let me lose this
Old weight that I tow
Please let me let it go

Please let me recover my way
Please let me recover my way
Please let me recover my way
through the world

Please let me let it go
Please let me have some more time
Please let me have some more time
Please let me have some more time
With my fold

Please let me let it go

—The Barr Brothers

Held in tension upon our bow, the silhouette cast by the pale yellow light of the moon is now moving towards us from the Eastern door of the medicine wheel.

“The only guarantees in life are death and taxes,” we repeat to each other. But while taxes can be evaded, who can live and not see death? Who can escape the power of the grave?

The spread of the coronavirus not only reminds us of how quickly death can take individuals but of how interconnected we are and how fragile our existing order is. Collectives also die. Cultures, nations, and empires can fall; languages do get lost; species go extinct.

The growing ecological catastrophe also raises the collective dimension of death. This is not hyperbole. At the end of February, an internal document on climate change written prepared for the investment bank JP Morgan was leaked. Within the document, it stated that “Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.

The whole of the critical zone is at stake. Scientists have repeatedly warned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided.”But instead of cooperation and solidarity, we “behave rationally” by seeking only our own advantage. We don’t want to listen. We simply won’t listen.

Just as we read that the prophets of old were mocked and dismissed, ecologists and climate scientists likewise receive an endless barrage of insults. There are many among us who gnash their teeth and stomp their feet in resistance, including a lot of Christians.

In order to fully understand this resistance, we should turn to a distinction made within the Seven Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabe: the difference between honesty and truth. The simplest way to think of this distinction is that you can be honest and wrong, and you can also lie in the form of the truth. You can be honest and wrong because you lack knowledge, and you can lie in the form of the truth if you present knowledge in such a way as to conceal something from yourself.

Science is a collection of related practices that aims at truth in the sense of knowledge: at telling us about the way the material world works. Science never arrives at a final Truth, but only at an increasingly accurate understanding of how things work. This understanding is shown to be accurate by its reliability; we all rely on the fruits of this labour every single day.

But the scientific method hasn’t had much use for the kind of “truth” that is worked on by psychoanalysts, and which doesn’t begin with knowledge but with a commitment to honesty. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, saw himself as continuing the work of the Father Confessors (the priests), and, we would be right to see the Book of Job, the Psalms, and many other religious texts as part of this tradition. It is this dimension of truth arising from honesty that has informed many religious and spiritual practices.

Those Christians who resist the science of ecology or climate change, don’t believe that the scientists are being honest. They argue that the scientists are just after the funding money or are politically motivated, and as such, they deny the truth of the scientific findings being presented. They often do this with reference to the work of a few corrupt scientists who are paid to create doubt just as cigarette companies did decades ago.

It is true that science is practiced without consideration of the heart of the scientists, and scientists have contributed to the current crises that we are in. It is true that scientists are taught the lie that they are apolitical creatures, masking the fact that they rely on a certain political atmosphere and its material conditions both to be able to do their work and for their work to be taken seriously. It is true that there are some scientists who disgrace their discipline by doing bad science; such as those who are paid to create doubt amongst the public.

All of these things are true. But the irony is that those amongst us who doubt, Christian or otherwise, are not being honest with ourselves. We justify our disbelief in the guise of truth (marshaling our own “facts”) only because accepting what the science tells us would mean accepting that our existing order (with its network of written and unwritten rules) must change.

So long as the work of science strengthens our current order, we accept it into our daily lives without question. This is because neither the bible nor any other religious text; neither priests nor shamans, rabbis, gurus nor imams, can hold a candle to science or scientists when it comes to transforming the material conditions of our existence.

Just think about all of the scientific advancements we make use of during a day. Without the work of Galileo (and many others), we’d have no satellites and so no cell phones. Without the work of chemists like Young and Łukasiewicz, we wouldn’t have any use for the oil that we are now so reluctant to stop using. “It is time to forsake our age and its adolescent furies.”

What is so difficult about ecology is that what it teaches us complicates our economic activities by making visible their hidden costs. In this sense ecology is a truly apocalyptic science; it opens our eyes to a new understanding of ourselves as we exist within the critical zone.

If in spite of these revelations, we cling to the current order, we are forgetting a fundamental Christian teaching: that of the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law; between our desire to create a flourishing collective free from terror, slavery and murder, and any one structure created while attempting to do so.

If we are to avoid losing all that we have laboured to gain; if we are to avoid the trap of being forever condemned as hypocrites; if we are to keep any values at all, then our job is to accept the dismemberment of our structural God again and again and in doing so remember the living God. This will empower us to use our minds and hands to transform the critical zone so that as many as possible can strive for self-consciousness in freedom from terror, slavery, and murder. This is the work of love, which we cannot do without both truth and honesty, and which we may now, having truly recognized the severity of our situation, be ready to begin.

The first three movements of our apocalypse were to recognize the failure of our attempt to universalize our values through global capitalism; to see how the response to this failure could not be a retreat to the land of old, and to remember the hunger that had given rise to our first attempt to bring unity and univocality to the critical zone.

But by weighing our individual hearts, theBlack Rider had repeated to us a problem: in a world where we are all hypocrites, how are we to assert values without immediately falling again into hypocrisy? How will we know when we’ve made a sufficient effort in order to escape from our guilt? The answer was to first become aware of how the web of our current order forces us to participate in committing terror, slavery, and murder.

Recall the story of Christ and the prostitute. The point is not that if we weren’t sinners it would be alright to stone the prostitute to death, but rather that both a law that demands that we do so as well as the attitude behind it are part of what continues to make us all guilty. A gap has arisen between our aim and our trajectory; between the spirit and the letter of the law.

In the fourth movement of our apocalypse, death has opened our eyes to a choice: we will recognize how the two dimensions of truth complement each other, and that the letter of the law must be corrected by the spirit of the law, or we will fail to avoid the collapse of humanity throughout the critical zone. We will have to choose between figurative and literal death.

The yellow light of the morning has started to break behind the fourth rider. In the medicine wheel, rebirth is associated with the Eastern door, and the yellow colour, because the sun rises there. But rebirth can only appear on the other side of death, and only when we remember that love is as strong as death, because like death it is never satisfied.

As the critical zone changes and the coronavirus spreads disruption, will we create the conditions for a potential rebirth by accepting death?

Held in tension like an arrow ready for flight, we finally know where we are to aim.

The Pale Horseman is within reach. He raises his scythe. In the shadow of death, we whisper to each other, “may you find peace.”

Directed at the rising sun, quivering like a lover in ecstasy, at the moment of supreme tension, our arrow leaps into flight.

Leo Lepiano