Gardeners Of The Earth

Human beings are fundamentally gardeners of the earth. The primary purpose of God placing human beings in the Garden of Eden was to till the earth and keep it (Gen. 2: 15). However we miserably failed in our divinely bequeathed vocation and therefore Christ had to remind us of our basic identity. Reminiscent the Paschal proclamation of Christ to Mary in the West Syriac Paschal Procession Hymn; “Behold, O Mary I am the Gardener; I am the Great One who planted paradise.” Thus Christ through his Passion and Resurrection epitomizes the true gardener which Adam was always meant to be. As the true gardener, the Passion of Christ is not restricted to human beings alone (anthropocentrism) but the entire ecosystem. Chad Bird writes;

“The death and resurrection of Christ is for us and for all creation. The Gospel, the good news, is also good news to dogs and cows and lions and fish and birds. It’s good news to trees and mountains, rivers and oceans, dirt and rocks. When Christ returns to form a new heaven and a new earth, all creation will be set free from its slavery to corruption and brought into the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom 8:21).”[1]

We recently commemorated (August 9) “The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.” As far as India is concerned, the indigenous communities constitute around 8.6% of its population.[2] This is a community which is “culturally alienated, socially stigmatized, economically exploited, poor and politically powerless.”[3] Around 50% of Christians in India belong to the indigenous communities – about 30% from North East India, 10% from Central India, and 10% from others parts of India.[4] Despite living as gardeners of the earth – as all of us were meant to live – the indigenous communities have been classified as “primitives” and have consistently borne the brunt of the prejudice and hegemony of the dominant “civilized” system. The very fact that the Constitution of India recognizes the indigenous communities as “Scheduled Tribes” when the indigenous communities prefer to be identified through their indigenous names viz; Garo, Khasi, Mizo, Naga etc. exudes the apathy of an inert socio-political system of governance. The recent Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Bill and Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) bolster the indifferent attitude of the government towards the indigenous communities.[5]

This indifference permeated even the discipline of theology when the Euro-centric way of theologizing was considered the norm. Such exclusive normativity is against the spirit of the Incarnation of God. Context is of paramount significance in theology. A theology that does not take its context seriously becomes a frozen discourse. The Incarnation of God is all about taking our context seriously so as to not occlude the ever-unfolding theological epiphany.

“In Jesus, God took on a culture, became ‘inculturated.’ The eternal divine Word expressed itself in temporal human language…And God took on this human language with all its limitations. The universal Word muttered in dialect. He took on the context, became contextual, sank his roots entirely into his actual situation. He was born into a dependent colony, was known as ‘the Galilean,’ and spoke with a regional, Galilean accent. The incarnation asks us to live immersed in our own context, to take on contextuality, to be what we are and to be it where we are; to love our own flesh — land, ethnic group, culture, language, idiosyncrasy, physical form, local peculiarity.”[6]

The Euro-centric fundamentalism was so detrimental that it relegated even the Holy Sacraments, particularly the Holy Eucharist, into a ground of exclusion and discrimination against the indigenous communities. For instance;

“The symbolic nature of food was also seen in the imposition of religion, another destructive aspect of the conquest. The Eucharist, the holiest rite among Catholics, was composed of a wafer made of wheat, which signified the body of Christ, and wine, which signified the blood of Christ. Initially, before wheat was harvested in the Americas, it was difficult to obtain wheat from abroad, since much of it spoiled in transit. The wafers that were necessary for this rite could easily have been made from the native maize, but Spaniards believed that this inferior indigenous plant could not be transformed into the literal body of Christ, as could European wheat. Similarly, only wine made from grapes was acceptable for the sacrament. Any potential substitute was considered blasphemy.”[7]

When the indigenous communities found that their cultures, traditions, histories and voices were invalidated by the Western Christian missionaries just because they did not fit into their preconceived notions, the indigenous communities resorted to the exploration of new hermeneutical, methodological and epistemological principles and thus emerged a new branch of theology in the 1980s named “Tribal Theology.” This new strand of theology contested and redefined the categories such as “identity, history, power and resistance.”[8]

Tribal Theology makes use of the hermeneutics of space. Land is of pivotal importance in this theology. Land is considered a sacred place and a symbol of unity which gives identity to the community. Land is envisioned as a co-creator with God and the wider creation as the exegesis of God.  The indigenous communities all over the world consider land – more than a habitat or a political boundary – the basis of their identity. For them land crisis is an identity crisis.

We egregiously commodify everything today. Even the land is not spared. Land is our mother, for we were created from it. Hence exploiting and commercializing the land is akin to desecrating the womb which gave birth to us. Environmental conservationist Aldo Leopold laments; “We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”[9]

As the prodigies of colonialism and capitalism we need to heal ourselves from the predator’s gaze that perceives ecology at its instrumental value rather than intrinsic worth. We need to resist the temptation to assess everything in terms of lucrativeness. Vandana Shiva the preeminent eco-feminist theologian observes;

“Colonialism and industrialism have destroyed the earth and indigenous cultures through four false assumptions. First, that we are separate from nature and not a part of nature. Second, that nature is dead matter, mere raw material for industrial exploitation. Third, that indigenous cultures are inferior and primitive, and need to be “civilised” through civilising missions of permanent colonization. Fourth, that nature and cultures need improvement through manipulation and external inputs.”[10]

To conclude, indigenous communities in their symbiotic relationship with the ecosystem remind us of our essential identity i.e. Gardeners of the Earth from which we have estranged long ago. They also remind us that land belongs to God and we are just tenants here. (Lev. 25:23). They protect the biodiversity and climatically crucial jungles at the expense of sacrificing their lives. Therefore ensuring that the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and territories are guaranteed becomes our ethical and ecclesial responsibility.

“Protecting rainforests are also vital if we are going to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degrees threshold – a fact that is being recognized by the 30% by 2030 initiative, a global effort to preserve at least a third of the world’s forests before the year 2030. Currently, many countries have some form of law protecting indigenous land rights, however due to their lack of ratification, they mostly serve as aspirational documents that are never truly implemented. If forest defenders got their way and their land rights were recognized, over 200 million hectares of land would be back in indigenous hands, and the 30% by 2030 would be mandate met instantly.”[11]

In Christ

Dayroyo Fr. Basil


[1] Chad Bird, “For God So Loved The Animals” https://www.1517.org/articles/for-god-so-loved-the-animals.

[2] https://trti.maharashtra.gov.in/index.php/en/statewise-total-tribal-population.

[3] K. Thanzauva, Theology of Community: Tribal Theology in the Making (Bangalore: ATC, 2004), 23.

[4] A. Wati Longchar, “Tribal Theology – Issues, Method and Perspective,” in In Search of Identity and Tribal Theology: A Tribute to Dr. Renthy Keitzar, Tribal Study Series. No. 9, ed. by A. Wati Longchar (Jorhat: Tribal Study Centre, 2001), 45-46.

[5] “Religious beliefs of Adivasis vary from tribe to tribe and it is a known fact that their religious beliefs and practices vary to a considerable extent, from the mainstream religions practised in India; specifically, those which are mentioned in CAA. Take an example of Jharkhand. According to the 2011 census, Jharkhand’s total tribal population is 86,45,042. When looked at through the religious prism, 46.71 % of them fall into two groups which are “other religions and persuasions” and “Religion not stated”. This brings out the fact that almost half of Jharkhand’s tribals do not belong to the religions mentioned in CAA (These figures are different for each state). So if countrywide NRC becomes a reality and people from these categories are left out (which most probably they will) then they will be rendered ‘stateless’ because even CAA does not provide any safety valve for them.” Jawar Bheel, “What will happen to Adivasis under Citizenship Amendment Act” https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2019/12/what-will-happen-to-adivasis-in-the-citizenship-amendment-act/?success=1&fbclid=IwAR3de_lzfedDw6EFlX1uhvZjW4Dtrw3n2JXJbcN5RgL1aOhhEXwBoX2oOKs.

[6] Pedro Casaldaliga and Jose Maria Vigil, The Spirituality of Liberation, trans. Paul Burns and Francis McDonagh (Kent: Burns & Oates, 1994), 88.

[7] Linda Alvarez, “Colonization, Food and the Practice of Eating” https://foodispower.org/colonization-food-and-the-practice-of-eating/?fbclid=IwAR2UlYVdU-52KwjwLMwOyRJtjS8jGn9BVwQ2y75KfxwGSXm5fM6AXYLKmEE.

[8] Y.T. Vinaya Raj, Re-visiting the Other: Discourse on Postmodern Theology (Tiruvalla: CSS, 2010), 37.

[9] Quoted in Robert E. Shore-Goss, “All Good Gifts: The Earth as Gift (Mt. 10:5-8) http://www.mischievousspiritandtheology.com/good-gifts-earth-gift-mt-105-8/?fbclid=IwAR3Ms2tJYaNga81TUIofxlsWdzE16aT2LUEgt3dTwkTtsoNmSfYo8KBWOu8.

[10] Vandana Shiva, “Why the Food we eat Matters” https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20210127-vandana-shiva-on-why-the-food-we-eat-matters.

[11] “If You Want To Protect The Forests You Have To Protect The People” https://intercontinentalcry.org/if-you-want-to-protect-the-forests-you-have-to-protect-the-people/?fbclid=IwAR0o_xJkNoBJcDN3xKhv4haq5vc8BUln-LOp5qZmsSPL1ukNKgCvLCeRayM

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