Have you ever gotten out of your car in the parking lot of a strip mall in an unfamiliar town and forgotten where you are? Our chain stores and restaurants, the road signs and plantings that line the expressways of our nation, all look the same. Even in other countries, you can wander around airports and downtown high rises and feel as if you never left home. In the modern world of global commerce and advertising savvy, specific places have become mere space, one made to look just like the other.
On the other hand, we know that one place is not the same as all others. Wine lovers know that each wine gets its distinctive flavor from the minerals in the soil and the sunlight on the leaves of vines in a certain region. Cheese lovers know that different cheeses get their flavor not only from the ways in which they have been prepared, but more fundamentally from the herbs, flowers, and grasses that grow in a certain region, upon which certain cattle have grazed. A place is distinctive and is intimately related to the particular ecosystem that surrounds it.
In the Hebrew bible, as we have seen, the land belongs to God alone. Parcels of land, however, have been given to human beings by God so that we may care for them over time, from generation to generation. That land becomes the "inheritance," or nahala, of a certain group. It belongs to a group not as a right or a possession, but as a gift to be cared for, a gift to be studied and known in all of its particularity. Wendell Berry calls the care resulting from this intimate knowledge of a specific place "kindly use." If you know your land, you know how best to farm it; not all farming practices work equally well in all places.
In the satirical narrative found in I Kings 21, the oblivious and greedy King Ahab tries to claim sovereignty over the vineyard of an Israelite peasant farmer named Naboth. For Ahab, all land is the same, and it all should come under his authority. He is so ignorant of the particularities of this piece of land that he decides that it is a good idea to transform an income-producing vineyard into an ordinary vegetable plot—an agricultural folly that the ancient Israelite hearers of this story would have understood well. Vineyards and vegetable gardens require different kinds of soil, terrain, irrigation, and sunlight. When the king tries to buy Naboth's inheritance, Naboth resists, insisting that "it would be defilement … for me from [God] if I were to give my ancestors' nahala to you!" For Naboth, this specific place has been given to his family by God, and it is his responsibility to care for it in its particularity. While King Ahab and his foreign wife Jezebel end up defeating the courageous and defiant peasant in the short-term, the King's willful action sets in motion a sequence of events that results in his own destruction, as well as the end of his dynasty.
We can suffer, too, when we ignore the particularities of place and forget to care for our inheritance. Industrial-scale farming often substitutes harmful chemical manipulation of soil and animals for smaller-scale practices that work with the specific givens our land. Even well-meaning ignorance can cause disaster. A friend of mine from Decatur, Alabama, recently told me that the Tennessee River near his hometown was recently overrun by alligators. Local officials, trying to eliminate pesky beavers who were building too many dams in the area, did not look for a solution based on knowledge of their local ecosystem. Instead, they decided to import a few alligators to take care of the problem. The beavers are gone, but then residents had to deal with a large population of dangerous alligators in their place.
This month’s challenge: Imagine that you are in a balloon flying over your house and neighborhood, over the people on the sidewalks and the traffic in the streets. Listen to the sounds of where you live. Breathe its air. Feel its life. Where do you see God? What "belongs" to this specific place, and what is harmful to it? What needs your help to become like God intends this place to be? How can you care for the land on which God has placed you to live? (1) Take a photo of your specific “place” the way that God might want it to be. Post your image to Instagram with the hashtag #imaginingwholeness. Have your children think of a second hashtag, if they'd like. (If you don’t use Instagram, just email it to me at email@example.com.) I will collect the images submitted each month and publish them together on this website. If enough people respond, we will have a composite image that will, I hope, help us all to see our world in a new way, and, perhaps, find new ways of relating with the creation and the Creator!
(1) Leonard Hjalmarson, No Home like Place: A Christian Theology of Place (Portland, OR: Urban Loft, 2014), 219.