“Have mercy and lift me up from the gates of death.”
“I came here to remember
everything that already happened…
They don’t remember what they did…
They took him out in front
Without mercy and without love
He was looking for his disciples
But they had all fled
I came here to remember everything that already happened.”
In the Haudenosaunee creation story, Atahensic, “Sky Woman,” is dropped through a hole that she digs at the base of a sacred tree in the Upper World. She doesn’t fall to the earth as we know it, because such an earth doesn’t yet exist; instead she falls through the air until she is caught by swans. As she is brought low to the surface of the great water beneath, she sees that there are other creatures there, on whom she is now dependent for survival. These creatures decide to take up the effort of building the earth, with the turtle offering its back as the foundation. After the failed attempts of other animals, the tiny muskrat successfully dives to the bottom of the water to collect a handful of mud. Though the little muskrat dies in the process, the mud is used to begin shaping turtle into Turtle Island, where we now live.
At first glance this story appears to be an inversion of the biblical story of the Fall from Eden. Sky Woman seems to fall into a kind of Paradise; a harmonious state of innocence where there is only cooperation and no strife or shame. But looking more closely, the story also shows us death, and work (building Turtle Island); it shows us the wounds of separation and of loss.
Like Sky Woman, wounded in the midst of our apocalypse, we do not find the earth already complete and waiting for us. Rather, we are opening our eyes to a critical zone that we are complicit in building and that now requires work to rebuild. In this light we see that the building of our home and our civilization is not a harmonious process but a rebellious one. We reject our condition as we awaken to it, and so work to change it. It follows that the awakening —the fall, the wound —marks the beginning of our freedom.
However, our situation is also clearly different from Sky Woman’s. For one, the sun is rising on a critical zone populated by a much larger cast of characters, including some very strange ones. Besides all of the four legged and other animals, there are molecules like CO2 and CH4, necessary —at certain concentrations —for keeping the earth at a temperature suitable for human civilization; there are microscopic bacteria necessary for the creation of soil, as well as fungi needed by certain tree species to grow; there are landscape features composed out of the fossilized remains of dead organisms; there are beaver dams and spider webs, which are as much a part of the DNA of their builders as those animals’bodies; there are cellphones, and computers; there are ventilators and face masks, and hydrogen bombs; and there are viruses, neither dead nor alive.
These are just a tiny fraction of the diverse set of characters that inhabit, comprise and construct the earth’s critical zone, that roughly 100km area from the bottom of the oceans —where little muskrat dives —to the upper atmosphere.
But not only is our cast of characters longer than in the traditional versions of the story, an important part of our apocalypse is fully realizing that the cast changes. We know that right here on Turtle Island there were once unique megafauna such as the short faced bear, which stood thirteen feet tall and could run up to 40km an hour; the giant armadillos of the genus Glyptodon, whose large shells were used as shelters by the first peoples of the continent; and the wooly mammoth. All were driven to extinction by either hunting or climate change (at the end of the last glacial period), or both.
In the midst of the sixth mass extinction event, we need to grow accustomed to these characters, past and present —who by no means necessarily work to ensure our survival —and come to understand our connections to them.
In doing so we will come to see the critical zone clearly; not as an organic harmony, filled only with well known animals waiting to help us, but as a fundamentally disputed realm, where helping a caribou might require harming a wolf, and vice versa. In such a realm —with its hydrogen bombs, viruses, and changing climate —either we will do the difficult work of striving towards a new universality, or we will resign ourselves to the destruction of humanity.
But before the work of rebirth begins in earnest —before we can land —we must do the unpleasant work of taking stock of our demise; we must examine our wounds.
As Earth again appears on our horizon it is in a state of dismemberment and great uncertainty. One character, previously unknown, has now taken centre stage, bringing terror, frustration and death, even though we can’t see it with our naked eyes. It is a virus shaped like an orange with cloves sticking out of it, such as those made at Christmas time. It appears to have been a virus of bats before it was transmitted to human beings, quite possibly through one of the many “wet markets”where exotic wildlife are sold as food.
Epidemiologists warned in 2007 that, “the presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb,”but no one in China wanted either their economy or their way of life harmed. So the Chinese government did nothing to shut down these markets.
This reluctance to respond to warnings manifested again this past December, when the first reports of the new virus were made to the Chinese government of Wuhan in China. Rather than acting to contain the spread of the virus, the government apparently arrested those who made the reports. While the Chinese government did eventually act decisively and extensively enough to minimize the impact of COVID-19 in their own country, new analyses suggest that their official numbers have underreported between 20,000 and 40,000 deaths.
We can learn a lot from the character of COVID-19 and the stories about it. As a character it has much in common with CO2 and CH4. Like COVID-19, CH4 and CO2 are invisible to the naked eye; like COVID-19 they take time for their presence to be known; like COVID-19 they effect the whole critical zone. It follows that good governance in regards to all three characters requires that we take actions that at the time seem like overreactions, and that these actions be well coordinated and decisive.
We have seen what happens when lessons coming both from the experience of other countries, as well as scientific bodies like the World Health Organization are ignored. Countries who listened best have avoided the worst, and those that listened worst —delaying on testing, lockdowns and getting the necessary equipment —are the new epicentres for the disease. Regardless where we are, all of us are experiencing how rapidly the virus travels through the whole critical zone, changing our daily lives.
The economy is dying. In many major cities, the streets are quiet; most offices and shops are closed, and animals are reappearing in areas they had long since abandoned. Many millions of people have lost their jobs. Many more are at home uncertain about how they will pay their bills. Food banks are overwhelmed in lots of regions. Governments rush to bail out large companies, and take their time on cash payments to citizens, even as record numbers apply for assistance. Many of the rules of the free market are being broken, and policies that seemed impossible just a month ago —like universal basic income —are suddenly being implemented or discussed.
Many people are dying. In some places the sick are overwhelming the hospitals. We read of a 49 year old man forced to wait in the emergency roomof a packed hospital, where he eventually dies, unattended in hischair. We hear of doctors and nurses forced to work without adequate protective gear getting sick and dying; they are sent “like sheep to the slaughter.”In poorer countries corpses are being left in houses and on the street, or being burned in the middle of the road. In the worst hit areas, due to overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, the death toll is being undercounted by thousands.
There are a those who are very upset and impatient; “the lockdown is too severe,”they say, “it is only a few old and sick who are dying anyway; why hurt the economy for them?”Not only is this factually wrong (it is not only elderly and sick dying, and the economy would be far worse off if the virus was allowed to spread without mitigation), it depends on a logic that hastily chooses the sacrifice of others over mercy. On what basis then will those who take this position expect to receive mercy themselves? The black rider stirs in the background.
With Easter approaching, we hear a similar sentiment from some of the American church leaders. They call for human sacrifices to be made in the name of protecting freedoms. They declare that they must exercise their right to gather and worship, asserting implicitly the right to place their neighbours at undue risk. With calloused and unfeeling hearts they choose the sacrifice of others and a love of ritual over mercy and the love of neighbour. Their understanding has left them.
The loss of life cancels the freedom of the one whose life is lost, and if no steps can be taken to defend this loss of life, then the sacrificed person effectively has no rights. If those of various political stripes who take this position would so readily strip others of their most basic right, then on what grounds do they assert their own? In contrast, our humble conception of freedom begins with a negative: we declare the right to be free from slavery, terror and murder. It is only out of this negation, this “no”stated against our condition, that all positive rights emerge. In affirming that there is no absolute freedom, but that freedom must have limits we also affirm that all rights come with responsibilities.
Within this framework of solidarity we are ready for the solidarity that is the love of neighbour. During COVID-19 we show our solidarity to each other by staying in as much as possible, washing our hands and not hoarding groceries and other supplies; by not taking unnecessary trips to other communities where we could spread the virus or contract it and bring it home.
That is the first dimension of solidarity: recognizing that the collective response requires us to follow rules to protect ourselves and each other, and so following them. The second dimension is remembering that those of us who are able have a responsibility to be informed, and ensure the government is responding appropriately to the situation; to ensure that under-appreciated workers like cashiers, clerks and janitors are being treated with respect, given adequate protection, and paid fairly; that important data is not being withheld; and that during a time of disaster public money is not being used to further enrich the powerful few at the expense of the many. That means paying attention and listening to those who have knowledge in their field as well as those who are on the ground. It also means being courageous enough to ask difficult questions.
This elementary morality is ignored now by some Christian leaders as well as other groups such as Ultra-Orthodox Jews, recently filmed coughing on Israeli police who were trying to enforce physical distancing on the streets. Such people have chosen absolute certainty in the letter of their law (their own order) over the best evidence of rigorous science and lucid thought. Unwilling to share the planet with us they declare their exceptionalism from the rest of the critical zone.
As the actions of such groups demonstrate, neither love nor mercy is are guaranteed on Earth. Unlike COVID-19 they are ideas, the spirit of which can only be spread through our practices. But how long can hands be held out to those who would show us no love or mercy? How long until those who have spilled our blood are judged? ButWe are not gods; this is not for us to decide. We can only prepare ourselves for the work ahead.
Global capitalism is in the early stages of catastrophe. China is exercising soft power across the earth as the USA withdraws and even turns against its allies. As economies collapse, how will we position ourselves to rebuild them? Will we attempt to be reborn in the same form as before, or will we rise to the challenge of leading the transformation of the critical zone? The disruption we are now experiencing is only a glimpse of what awaits us in the coming years and decades should we fail to seize this moment to build something new.
How, then do we begin? The first step on our way beyond death to rebirth begins with declaring the need for a seemingly impossible act of mercy: the forgiveness of debts, not only for people, but between countries, and the roll out of a universal basic income.
By declaring the necessity of such an act in the midst of death, we choose solidarity and mercy over execution. We lean into these ideals precisely because diseases like COVID-19, and molecules like CO2 and CH4 show none. In doing so, we choose life and civilization over the logic of compound interest; we choose the work of love called the Holy Spirit, (universalizing freedom from slavery, terror and murder), over the tyranny of an old order.
With such an act we discover that, as bitter as it may be, it is the Fall, the wound unto death, the separation that sets us free. If we hold to love and mercy, and if we honour those who have been forced to die without either, then we may just build a home, still imperfect —always imperfect —but better.
Resting on the backs of swans, we look below us. In the turbulent waters, the body of muskrat has surfaced, a handful of clay clutched in its tiny dead paws.