Free Speech for Truffula Trees and Brown Bar-ba-loots – Tom Martin reflects on Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, eco-justice, and glossolalia.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Day of Pentecost, Year A (2023, 2026)
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Pentecost is about liberation. To craft an eco-theology sermon it is important to help a congregation distance itself from traditional anthropocentric notions of Pentecost as a spiritualized empowerment of the Church for mission and evangelism. What if we instead embraced Pentecost as an embodied political empowerment for the Earth and “evangelism” in the sense of the cosmocentric inclusion of all living things in Christ? Pentecost is about setting captives free; giving voice to the voiceless. It is about finding justice for the excluded and disempowered. A sermon for these texts seeking an eco-theological emphasis could begin with eco-justice. One central tenet of eco-justice is participation.” Those affected by ecological policy should be empowered to participate in discussions and decision making. For peaching this means inclusion of all the stake holders of the Earth for preaching about the Earth. The characters named and whose stories are told need to be both the human and the other-than-human. In eco-feminism there is synonymous emphasis calling us to focus on “voice and the “retrieval of voice.” The Earth and disempowered peoples on the Earth have been denied voice about their lives in connection to the Earth. Let them speak in and through your preaching. Speak for them. But how does one get from these often-tired every-Pentecost texts to eco-theological concerns about participation, justice, and voice?
In a sermon of mine on the Pentecost story I begin with the question the crowd asks. “What does this mean (Acts 2:12b)?” The standard interpretation assumes the question is answered in the sermon the author of Acts places on Peter’s lips. If we take a cue from the overlap of v. 11b with v. 22a the second half of Peter’s sermon does not answer the question at all! The crowd has already heard about the powerful deeds of God shown in the life of Jesus. Peter simply repeats what they heard in their own languages. The powerful current actions of God ARE those that have been done by God through Jesus of Nazareth. They don’t need Peter to rehearse it again. If the question is about the languages, which I think it is, then Peter reading to them from Joel again doesn’t answer the question of why “various tongues.” This literary disjunction in the text opens up space to explore eco-justice concerns. Curiously enough Peter does exactly what preachers have far too often done ever since. Use sermons to answer questions no one is asking!
The quotation from Joel does get us going in the right direction. Voice. The Spirit gives voice. And this is a justice issue. The powerful are the normal voices we hear and listen to. But God, according to Joel, speaks through folks not really qualifying as people at all: mere kids, teens, elders who are too old to be any obvious use, and slaves. God does not give voice to or through the mainstream, in power, middle aged establishment.
A useful context for an eco-theological sermon can be found in a post-colonial assessment of the historical setting of the passage. Control of language has long been a means of imperial domination. In our nation’s history consider the Indian schools of the late 19th to very early 20th centuries. Indian children forcibly removed from their homelands, sent hundreds of miles away, and forbidden to use their native languages. Thinking in Lakota, for example, might imperil the goal of making them good English-speaking Americans. Language controls thought, expression, belonging. A segment of American Christianity seeks to make this power play by restricting bible reading to the King James Version. There are recurring efforts to make English the official language of the U.S., a measure that often attracts Christian support. “Foreign” languages should not be in our schools!
So, what were these people that first Pentecost asking? I annotate the question in Acts 2:12b like this: “Why are we hearing about the deeds of God as seen in Jesus in our own suppressed languages? Why are we not hearing about this in the Latin of the Empire? Or why are we not hearing this in the Greek of those who conquered us before the Romans? Or why are we not hearing this in the sacred Hebrew of the ruling priests who control us spiritually (remembering that daily communication was in Aramaic)? Why is this spoken in our own colonized and marginalized languages? That is the real question. The answer gleaned from Joel is because the Spirit of God speaks through the oppressed, the marginalized, the excluded, the bypassed and invisible. It is from their perspectives we hear God speak. God doesn’t use the rich or those in power. The wonder of God is to be told and heard in your own voices, your own languages, your own uniqueness of expression and experience. And, yes, even Imperial Latin for you visitors from Rome. You are all given voice by God.
In the context of our numerous environmental crises there are still more voices that need to be heard. Psalm 104 provides hints of what these voices might say. If we bend our ears towards them we can hear the joy of whales playing, breeching the oceans. We can “hear” the richness of life and contentment of animals well fed and full. And we can imagine hearing the need of those going hungry. More can be done to listen to the Spirit prophesying through and giving visions to the animals and plants.
The final exam question for my environment ethics class is, “Why is everything you needed to know about environmental ethics in Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax?” Central to the story is the title character, the Lorax. The Lorax speaks for the trees – because they cannot speak for themselves. If the Pentecostal Gift of the Spirit is about voice for the marginalized then it is about giving voice to forests, rivers, oceans, air, grasslands and countless animal species. Who will speak for the trees? Who will speak for the polar bears? The answer is that the Church at Pentecost is called to speak for those who are voiceless. As at Pentecost the Spirit of God is overflowing in languages other-than-human. Listen.
The danger, of course, is that we will Disneyfy those voices and the sermon will be open to the criticism of hopeless anthropomorphizing and romanticizing. There are science resources to help build legitimate reconstructions of other-than-human voices. The development of ecological science and animal psychology over the past 25 years offers means for reconstructing the voices of the Earth and its creatures. Much of that research has been about listening to animal voices. There is the seminal book, When Elephants Weep, from 1995, by Jeffry Moussaieff and Susan McCarthy and more recently Marc Bekoff’s, The Emotional Lives of Animals (2007). And there is the stellar Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina (2015). The science that explores communication by plants is also a burgeoning research area. Speech – animal and vegetable – surrounds us every day. Most of it we ignore, much of it we suppress. Their speech interferes with our economic interests and colonially expansive desires. Pentecost frees these voices to be heard.
The voice of Earth, the planet, is trickier. The theological research is leading toward an emphasis on the interconnectedness of all life in ecosystems which are all fundamentally rooted in the Earth. The soil is not a dead, inert thing. Dirt is a vibrant living and dying, reborning system. Check out Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, or peruse Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (Random House, 2021). Even rocks, about as voiceless as we could imagine, are in dynamic ‘living’ systems with lichen. Life entangles into all the Earth’s systems. The Earth wants its ‘tongue’ to be heard at Pentecost.
God would have us listen for all these voices, dirt, rocks, plants, animals, every bit as much as Joel’s teenage men and women, the elderly, and those in our various forms of working slavery. Each has a message from God for us to hear. The most direct access to those voices is through trained professionals. My students often answer the prompt about Dr. Suess by identifying the Lorax’s voice as that of environmental activists or ecology majors. There are human voices being raised, speaking for lives other-than-human.
1 Corinthians 12 offers some particularly intriguing points to be developed in this context. Standard exegesis about the gifts of the Spirit revolves around anthropocentric, ecclesio-centric emphases. The theology surrounding the gifts of the Spirit trends toward a theology of Church naval-gazing. And true, that is St. Paul’s focus. Notice, however, that the majority of the gifts involve some sort of speech. “Utterance” (NRSV) of wisdom and knowledge. Gifted people speak in prophecy, tongues and interpretation of tongues. Consonant with the story in Acts, the Spirit just keeps on promoting “voice;” giving voice. I dare Paul to think about what he wrote in Romans 8:22 where he imagines all creation using its voice to “groan” in longing for its redemption and then still restrict the gifts of the Spirit to human ecclesiastical speech. In any event, WE should not restrict the gifting of Spirit filled speech to ourselves. The Church in its search for the common good (v. 7), needs to search for where the Spirit gives voice to the other-than-human. And the Church needs to seek out those people gifted by the Spirit to “speak for the trees.” May we really believe what some of us say in our liturgy following a lesson, “Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.” The Spirit speaks to the church in the voice of Truffula trees, Swomee Swans, and Brown Bar-ba-loots.
Though I have neglected the gospel lesson, the option of John 7:37-39 can be used to support an eco-theology sermon based on Acts. Water connects all of life. The Pentecostal gift of the Spirit is a unifying, connecting gift. Or a preacher could focus an eco-sermon on water alone, fronting the gospel text instead of Acts 2. Connectedness, via the Spirit, imaged as water, draws us and all creation into relationship. Water is the basis of God’s creation. Scientists searching for life friendly planets search first for the chemical signs of water. As far as we know the God who loves all life, loves creating that life in water. Honor, celebrate, be cognizant of, sacramentalize all water. Honor how water effects relationship among all beings. We humans are just one species among myriad others swimming in the watery Spirit.
But I prefer the political edge in the Acts passage. The challenges for fair distribution and clean usage of the Earth’s water resources are well known in eco-justice. Large numbers of the world’s people do not have access to clean drinking water. Industry pollutes water, sprinkler systems waste it. The list of abuses of the global water supply for humans is long, and the pollutions of water for other-than-human life are excessive. Listen to the streams, the rivers, the lakes, the oceans! Listen to the salmon, the albatross, the manatee! Hear the gift of their Pentecostal tongues! “Let us be clean, and let us support all of life, as we are meant to do!”
Originally written by Thomas W. Martin in 2023.
 James B. Martin-Schramm’s “Toward and Ethic of Ecojustice”, 1996 is an excellent concise exposition of ecojustice principles. I use the reprint in Moral Issues and Christian Response, eds. Jung and Jung, 8th ed., Fortress, 2013.