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Do Activists Need Religion? (Matthew Shedd)

October 26, 2009

In Cherríe Moraga’s play, Heroes and Saints, we see a migrant-worker community being ravaged by pesticides. Infant mortality and deformities in newborns have become common occurences. In the midst of this crisis, the victims of ecological crisis begin to take on religious significance for the characters in the play, which is what leads to political change.

Cerezita, who does not subscribe to the community’s Catholicism,  also does not hesitate to use religious symbols to rally her community to revolt.  We discover that it is she who is supervising the hanging of the recently deceased children on crosses to draw media attention to the injustices they are suffering. She also does not shirk taking on the role of the Virgin Mary at the end of the play, and does not dismiss the townspeople’s veneration.

Her employment of religious iconography and embrace of herself as icon is thought-provoking in that she, being deformed from birth, is perhaps the community’s most visible symbol of the injustice they are suffering.  Her suffering seems to grant her the ability to facilitate and become their connection with God, just as the children’s suffering and early deaths allow them to become Christs on their crosses.

Although we see Cerezita using her community’s religious ideals to shape a political revolution, the connection between suffering because of ecological injustice and its association with divinity makes me wonder about the further implications of this in our world. In what ways does, and will, ecological catastrophes spark the religious imagination in ways we have not yet seen in human history?  Had the devastation of the community not been human-induced and as widespread as it was in Heroes, there would not have been the need or the inspiration to respond in the way Cerezita does.  Will we similarly see devastated landscapes become places of religious reflection? Can we imagine American religious communities gathering at and finding inspiration from a deforested area or meditating on species extinction similar to the way we see the townspeople gathering around and venerating Cerezita? I would argue that such religious innovation in ecological crisis is not  inconceivable. Witnessing such catastrophes certainly heightens our sense of our own deaths, which I believe will necessarily carry religious innovation with it.

Perhaps Moraga provides us a way to think about religious communities as having the potential to be allies in working for environmental policy reform.  Just as Cerezita is able to use the community’s religious practice to enact change, I believe there is similar potential for partnership between environmental activists and American religious communities, who have largely been conceived as enemies to environmental reform (oftentimes, rightly so). I think such partnership needs to be a way to think about going forward. It is evident from our cultural discourse during election cycles that religion is going to continue to play a large role in American policy for a long time to come.

How to go about this grafting of harsh realities of our global moment with different communities’ religious practices is a difficult matter. However, I think that important steps are being made. For example, environmental biologist, E. O. Wilson, wrote a book called The Creation (New York: Norton, 2006) as a plea towards religious practitioners to consider the implication of environmental  destruction. Although reductive of religious practitioners potential scientific sophistication (Wilson seems to believe that all Christians in America are Biblical literalists) and slightly condescending in tone, I respect Wilson’s recognition that religious practitioners need to be invited into this discussion. I can only hope that such a dialogue continues in America, and I believe that lasting environmental policy reform in our country depends on such dialogue.

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