The term ‘land’ means many things to many people. For those languishing in squatter camps or forbidden access to home it is a life source that is denied them. For traders and dealers land is a commodity to be bought and sold on the international market. Travellers eye the lie of the land for guidance or feel a sense of security when the plane touches the earth again. City dwellers think of gardens or allotments. Rural communities tend and sell the fruits of the soil. Animals live and die on it. Aboriginal communities feel the land as a deep source of connectedness between the past and the present. Artists gain inspiration through landscape.
Land is basic to every aspect of human being and becoming. Cultures build on it. Architects and planners reshape it. Workmen and women dig it. Golfers play on it. Nations and peoples go to war over it. Each of the four elements of life produces it. We are born, we live and we die on the land.
Yet confronted with, for instance, the vortex of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, many feel bemused in any attempt to ‘make sense’ of ‘landedness’. Being an increasingly urban-focused culture we routinely lose touch with the substance of life and the passions that arise from it. Children grow up with little idea of how the food they eat is produced, or the role of the land in that. Landscape becomes ‘scenery’ for the tourist. The struggles for life and liberty, which take place on the land, are reduced to fleeting images on a thousand TV screens, competing for out attention against a myriad of adverts.
Even refugees, asylum seekers and the homeless fail to remind the secure and the prosperous that the basics of life (food, shelter, water, work – all utterly dependent on the land) cannot be taken for granted by most of the world’s population. And when those things are taken for granted, of course, it frequently leads to the exploitation of the earth and its creatures. Caring mindfulness is difficult.
For many Eastern and Southern cultures land is the basis of memory, identity and community – the things that unite us to each other and (in most religious traditions) to God, the source and giver of life. In the modern history of Western and Northern cultures, however, and in their ramifications for the rest of the world, these same characteristics of our relationship to the land have become a source of huge division and alienation.
Instead of community there has been – and there is, increasingly in economic form – conquest. In place of memory there is the triumph of image (cyber space) over substance (actual space). And in exchange for identity there is now commodity exchange.
Christianity, too, has been in danger of losing its historic roots in deliverance from the land of oppression (Exodus), sojourning in the land (Diaspora) journeying (mission, pilgrimage), settling (‘church planting’) and moving on again – ‘resident aliens’ as Stanley Hauerwas puts it, in search of ‘another country’. A Cross marks the place where this loss is at its most deadly and tragic.
In an age where the shopping mall is increasingly our ‘defining territory’ we need to reflect critically on these concerns from a number of angles. And in the process we will perhaps discern the Spirit moving across the land in hope. Artists, theologians, poets, environmentalists, planners and plotters are challenging the material and spiritual roots of our temporary alienation.
From the landless movements in Brazil and the protests against the dispossession wreaked by one-sided globalization, right through to the architects of liturgy celebrating the ‘red, wide earth’ (as a collection from Australia calls it) the strains of empire – Land of Hope and Glory – are being challenged by a vision which relates land and hope and glory in far gentler, more human, more earth-community oriented ways.
There is change afoot in the land. But there is still a very long way to travel.