Sacred Places and Desecrated Places
The Word in the Wild, Proper 11, Year A
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring, and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel. (Genesis 28:10-19a, NRSVue)
1. Recently Native American tribes sued to halt two mines that, as the headline on NPR put it, are “important for America's green energy transition.” The lawsuit, which claims these sites as sacred, reveals the truth of so much supposedly “green technology”—we are trading one form of industrial exploitation of the earth for another, from oil drilling to copper and lithium mining. But more so it reveals a profound difference in how the land is viewed from two different cultures—one extractive and one reverent.
For the mining companies, and those boosters of the “new energy” economy in which they seek to profit, all is what Heidegger so aptly called “standing reserve.” The natural world in this view is a resource, one in which all things are available for use according to an ever changing array of ends, be it recreation, “wilderness,” mining, or even carbon reduction. In contrast, the Native American tribes view this land as possessing a reality that is beyond human use. It has a claim to reverence that no human purpose can violate.
2. Jacob’s encounter with the land in Genesis 28:10-19 is more aligned with the Native view than that of the economy of extraction. Jacob’s encounter with God at the place that comes to be known as Bethel (“House of God”) was an experience of the sacred in a place. On that ground, God was not an abstract entity beyond material presence, but was experienced instead as a person showing up in the particular. What Jacob’s dream revealed wasn’t a fantasy, but rather a reality that he could see by the light of waking life. God was in that place and so it had to be recognized as holy ground.