Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.

—Wendell Berry


The World and the Earth

On a July evening, I sat in a hotel outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Mahmoud Abu Eid, a Palestinian Muslim and family friend, told his story to a group of American travelers. He talked about checkpoints and home demolitions, about color-coded ID cards that classified him as a resident alien with ephemeral rights. He talked about seven generations of his family who had lived in in that city. “We travel like other people, but we return nowhere,” lamented the poet Mahmoud Darwish. “We have a country of words. Speak Speak so we may know the end of / this travel.”[1]

An exasperated listener blurted out, “Why do you stay in Palestine with so much persecution?”

Mahmoud smiled and said, “Because we have no other choice. This is my place. I love this land. Jesus loved this land, even though he once cursed it. But he cursed the actions, not the land.”

Christian theologians often stumble over the contours of land and place. Like the exasperated American traveler, we struggle to understand someone like Mahmoud who expresses an intimate affection for where he is. Theologians recognize the importance of place in biblical stories but have invested far more intellectual energy into puzzling over the meaning of time. This teleological bias tempts Christians to disregard the places of the world. Place is misconstrued when theologians treat all the world as if it is merely the stage for time and a better industrial future, which waits for no one and no place. Under the influence of historical progress, manifest destiny, and other time-obsessed narratives, we destroy places for the sake of some predetermined future. This endless linear march is fueled by an insatiable desire for that purchase, trip, or salvation, that next thing which is always in the future. As Native American scholar and activist Vine Deloria says, “If time becomes our primary consideration, we never seem to arrive at the reality of our existence in places.”[2] The rhythms and shapes of place are eroded, viewed as amorphous backdrops easily substituted by anywhere else.

Devaluing place—which also usually means its people—equates the world, a famous biblical motif for the powers and principalities, with the earth, a word that suggests the biodiversity of ecosystems and human communities. Engagement with the world then often assumes a devastating conflation, represented and reinforced by three prevalent political theologies: nostalgia for Christendom, baptizing the state, and resident alienation.

Nostalgia for Christendom causes us to pine for the bygone days when the church ruled the world and avows that it must once again have dominion. For example, Radical Orthodoxy, an intellectually influential form of this trend, occasionally critiques modern liberalism and capitalism but frequently stays silent about Christendom’s immeasurable sins, such as the endorsement of countless imperial campaigns that evicted indigenous people from their homelands. By romanticizing the church’s past power, this ideology whitewashes the memory that the cross was turned upside down and sharpened into a righteous sword.

Most political theologians are suspicious of the nostalgia that reroutes all roads toward Rome. But the default is to baptize governments like the United States of America while ignoring, or endorsing, the violence these nation-states use to make the world safe for representative democracy and globalized capitalism. These political theologians, such as American Christian realists, do so because they believe that the nation-state is the most faithful way—and even the only possible way—to distribute power and organize common life. Therefore, they close their eyes to increasing economic inequity, institutional wealth built on slavery and ethnic cleansing, and the ruin of the country’s soil, forests, and water. The United States may not have committed more crimes than other imperial nations, historian Ronald Wright notes, but “it forgets them more quickly and more thoroughly.”[3] Political theologies of the state suffer from amnesia concerning its terrors and its historical alternatives.

The third major trend will have none of this. Instead, this political theology depicts Christians as resident aliens, citizens of a heavenly colony who are in the world but not of it, refusing the authority and splendor of the world’s kingdoms to remain perpetual exiles among them. But the mantra of this theology—let the church be the church—obscures the fact that churches are located somewhere; they are surrounded by neighbors they did not choose. Resident alienation can also appease displaced Europeans while subsequently relegating indigenous people and refugees to exile. One resident alienated scholar told me that he mourned for a Native American Christian friend who could not overcome his “Zionist connection to tribe and land” to see the church as an alternative, and truer, community. By embracing identity as exiles in a land that always remains foreign, resident aliens preserve the devastating conflation between the world-as-power and the world-as-earth, like equating the political lines of the United States with the ecologies and cultures of North America.[4] We will not care for places if we are always aliens to them.

All three of these political theologies see coercive power as the mainstay of politics and share a distrust of diversity. And all three, in varying degrees and fashions, are anthropocentric—the world is a web of human-constructed systems that we either control or from which we escape—effectively overlooking the dependence of human systems on the life and health of the earth. Each accepts a dangerous reduction of the world’s places and the possibilities for living in them.

“If only people with our ideals had power,” says the revolutionary vanguard before the new dictatorship is installed. “If only we had the right person in office,” say the political parties before their candidate escalates his predecessor’s policies. “If only the church would be the church,” say the resident aliens as neoliberalism exploits space and time. “If only we had a king to lead us like everyone else,” said the elders of Israel to the old prophet Samuel, who then informs them what kings and empires do best: centralize wealth and power through militarism and economic stratification by expropriating the best lands and extracting surpluses. Empire globalizes placelessness, ignoring boundaries and scale by erecting ever-expanding borders. Any place will do for empire, because all places are equally expendable.

Wendell Berry notes that American Christians have no place to lay our heads; we are perpetual strangers to our landscapes because our only Holy Land is one we may never see.[5] For many, place is apparently just dirt: static and inert, something we wipe from our shoes. We forget that place is soil: living and dying, humming with organisms and complex horizons. Perhaps political theologians can be forgiven for this oversight, considering that our lives are far removed from the people, places, and processes that sustain us. But we cannot divorce the social and the ecological because the former is sustained by and immersed in the latter; they coevolved and no matter how big we get we still depend on patterns of water, light, and soil.

These three major political theologies have encouraged, or at the least not discouraged, living beyond any sense of human scale. We need a resilient and regenerative scale that confesses the bond between human powers and the life and health of the earth. We never live nowhere and we never live alone; even if we constantly relocate, we are always somewhere and we are always related to other lives. The polyphonic biblical narrative does not suggest a uniform perspective about the earth,[6] but it also does not pine for a heavenly afterlife for the disembodied soul. From the garden of Eden to the new Jerusalem, a recurring biblical icon of salvation is not a spectral heaven but a transfigured earth. This salvation depends on people who care about where they live and those who live there. The transfigured earth also depends on politics, not as control or escape but as practices that help us live together in common places.[7]

Ecological theologies have blossomed dramatically as more people awaken to the social and ecological toll of a global economic system geared to overproduce items for a minority of the world’s population. Scholars have scribed sophisticated treatments of biblical visions of the land and penned philosophical treatises on anthropocentrism and creation, but these interpretations often struggle to translate generalized theory into sets of practices that enable people to dwell well together. A politics of the transfigured earth must pay attention to the ravens and the lilies of the field, to distinctive creatures and to the distinctive places in which we live. Paying attention means crafting practices to the diversity, resilience, and renewal of these unique places.

Reinhabiting the Transfigured Earth

I currently live in the Shenandoah Valley, part of the Ridge and Valley subsection of the Great Appalachian Valley. This two-hundred-mile basin is hemmed in by the Allegheny Mountains to the west, the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, and the Potomac and James Rivers to the north and south, respectively. Shenandoah is carpeted with mixed hardwood forests and fertile limestone soil, which explains its long history of cultivation and is evidence that the valley was once under an ocean. The valley’s spine is the eponymous river and its watershed.

Landscape architect Robert Thayer describes bioregions as physiographically unique, geographically legitimate, and operative spatial units,[8] and Shenandoah seems to fit that understanding. Bioregions are the confluence of patterns like watersheds and landforms, soil and vegetation types, climate and human interaction. They are places with negotiated cultural and ecological boundaries, places in which we know the scale of our actions, these actions are sensitive to feedback, and those who live there can be included in making decisions that affect them. Even though these boundaries are fluid, they are more viable than arbitrary political lines.[9]

Scale is important in bioregional imaginations, particularly a scale that is founded on the premise that we create ethical relationships when our actions have consequences for others,[10] which is always. Loving our neighbors as ourselves, including neighbors we did not choose and neighbors who may not even be human, is easiest when we see the effect our lives take through critical feedback loops, such as observing that our energy use exhausts its sources or sustains them and then having the decision-making ability to change and reorganize the system. Clearly, bioregional boundaries will not completely supplant political precincts in the near future, but partnerships like Renew Appalachia are forming across arbitrary state lines to address social and ecological issues.[11]

My home, Appalachia, is one of the most biodiverse regions in North America but also one of the most socially fragmented and economically poor. In the late nineteenth century, Central Appalachia became the primary source of coal and timber for the American economy, but increased mechanization, depleted mines, and deforestation forced millions to immigrate north for factory work. Thirty-six of the poorest one hundred US counties are now in this region, with the greatest poverty found in rural counties with high coal production. Access to education and health care has been limited, and the region has high rates of diabetes, cancer, mental health conditions, and drug abuse. The land itself has also suffered from pervasive mining and logging. This abuse is substantially correlated with absentee corporate ownership. State and federal regulations are inadequately enforced, and counties are often controlled by a powerful few. People often feel compelled to choose between jobs and the health of the land and themselves. The modern industrial economy has not been the savior for Central Appalachia.

Renew Appalachia is a network of almost sixty organizations and associations devoted to a just and sustainable Central Appalachia. They refuse to wait for outside solutions, instead committing to creative local responses to concentrated power, poverty, and land abuse. Their network is a resource of experiments and stories for the transition of their economies and communities. They propose diverse ways forward like art and place-based education, small-scale business and community healthcare, housing and infrastructure, environmental restoration and renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture and forestry.

Renew Appalachia does not use explicit bioregional language, but it combines affection for place with transformative relationships that constitute the bioregional imagination. Bioregions are never insular because watersheds are part of the global hydrological cycle, climatic domains include multiple bioregions, and nutrients flow where they will like the holy ruach. The Shenandoah River includes two forks, almost one hundred miles each, until they converge for fifty-five miles flowing northeast into the Potomac River and then southeast to the Chesapeake Bay and into the ocean. Simply by the flow of water, Shenandoah is related to the world. Our actions always affect our neighbors and strangers.

Places are not only connected, but they are always changing. There is no state of place, no “pristine baseline” to which we can return. Bioregions are grounded mosaics moving through time that reject the dichotomy between culture and nature: like every other creature, we alter and adapt to our ecosystems, which in turn adapt to and alter us. We are, as historian Dan Flores says, “endlessly recreating place.”[12] Purist rejections of change and difference are inattentive to the lively unfolding of place,

Bioregional praxis recognizes that human communities always live within the ecological household. This perception shifts us from a culture of occupation to cultures of reinhabitation,[13] cultures that commit to the life and health of our places. Political theologies of empire, the state, and alienation can prevent diverse people from actually facing one another to address common life. Reinhabitation, dwelling well together in the world’s diverse places, is the transfigured earth.

The River is Reconciliation

The practice of reinhabitation makes possible, and will be made possible by, imaginative interpretations of biblical stories. The stories about Jesus arose from certain places; we make important connections—such as the one Jesus makes between social transformation, care of the land, and welcoming the stranger—when we replace these tales in their social and ecological context.[14] The land, which Mahmoud said Jesus loved, is part of those stories in ways that challenge the three prevailing political theologies.

Israelite practices were closely related to the land and seasonal changes. Defining regions was important because harvest times differed based on local climates.[15] Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God grew from the soil, seasons, and stories of the Lower Galilee under imperial rule, a social ecotone where creation and empire overlapped.

The land between the river and the sea, like Appalachia, is a fragile place, but it is also astoundingly fertile with diverse ecological niches close together.[16] Biblical scholar Ellen Davis suspects that its “liminal location gave that small corridor of land a gene flow with few parallels worldwide.”[17] This funneled strip is like an ecotone, the overlapping biodiverse edge between two ecosystems.[18] Instead of rigid borders, bioregional boundaries are ecotones and mosaic habitats. According to Toby Hemenway, edges like ecotones “are where things happen. Where a forest meets the prairie, where a river flows into the sea, or at nearly any other boundary between two ecosystems is a cauldron of biodiversity. All the species that thrive in each of the two environments are present, plus new species that live in the transition zone between the two. The edge is richer than what lies on either side.”[19]

Jesus’s homecoming in the Gospel of Luke helps us imagine bioregional engagement with the land and the people in it. We need readings of reinhabitation, because these ancient myths about this ancient place catastrophically influence modern geopolitics. It matters that Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion hosted study groups on the Book of Joshua with scholars, politicians, and military officials. It matters that the United States has considered itself both the persecuted New Israel and the triumphant New Rome.[20] We should, and can, interpret these stories with a bioregional imagination that tends to the earth and its creatures.

As was his custom, Jesus attends synagogue service on the Sabbath while visiting his folks. He reads from Isaiah that the speaker has been anointed to preach good news to the poor, liberate the oppressed, and proclaim the Jubilee. In a dramatic afterthought, he announces, “Those words are fulfilled right now.” Everyone nods in amazed approval, and maybe the poor in attendance say, “It’s about damn time!” In those days, peasants were subject to multiple layers of colonial taxation and those who could not pay were evicted from their ancestral lands in the wake of wide estates.[21] Jubilee envisions a radical social order that preserves the economic viability of agrarian peasants through an ethic of abundance and self-restraint.[22] Jubilee suggests that the central political and moral question of land possession is not ownership of the land but care of the land. If possession is conditional on care and not ownership, explains Davis, then Jubilee challenges not only old states and empires but also the new ones.[23]

Jesus announces that this ecotone belongs with the people who care for it, not to those who may own it and exploit it. As everyone nods in agreement, Jesus adds that Jubilee is not just for the chosen people: “There were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleaned—only Naaman the Syrian,” who was not just any outsider but a major cog in the “Aramean military machine.”[24] Jesus describes the kingdom of God by pairing the tale of an unclean outsider with his vision of the social renewal of Israel, which is like saying that enslaved Africans are more responsible for building America than the founding fathers, that indigenous people are just as responsible for democracy as Western civilization, or that Hispanic immigrants who do our dirty work are returning this land to its multicultural roots. At this point, Jesus’s listeners try to throw him off a cliff because of his audacious social ecology.

Jesus reminds his enraged audience that welcoming the stranger is deeply compatible with at least some of their political traditions.[25] He juxtaposes Jubilee with the old Hebrew story of a leprous foreigner to reinterpret how the kingdom of God rises like leaven in the land. The Jordan River flows through that interpretation in an important way.

In the story of Naaman, an Israelite slave girl recommends that her leprous master, Naaman, see the prophet in Samaria. According to the folk wisdom of the unnamed girl, healing can only “result from a nonmilitary encounter with [her master’s] Israelite rivals.”[26] But the general scoffs at Elisha’s advice to wash seven times in the River Jordan, as that watercourse is a trickle compared to the rushing rivers back home. Once again servants, not authoritative advisors, intervene and convince him to perform the ritual. He does not need the prophet or any priests because the river itself is enough.[27] Naaman has crossed the streams of the Jordan twice: once to attack Israel and once again to find healing, highlighting “a link between invasion and illness as well as between peaceful contact and healing.”[28] This time, Elisha tells the afflicted general to immerse himself in the river that separates, or perhaps unites, Israel and Aram. The Jordan is one of Hemenway’s edges, “places of transition and translation, where matter and energy change speed or stop or, often, change into something else.”[29]

When Jesus combines the healing of Naaman with his vision for the renewal of society, he recognizes that places like rivers are not sites of separation, whether between Israel and Aram, Israel and Arab countries, or Texas and Mexico. Rivers are sites of encounter, boundaries that merge rather than divide. A river is not a wall because, as Naaman found out, by its nature the river is reconciliation: drawing life back together in the watershed. The movements of rivers tell us that strangers are always among us and the familiar always appears in the foreign. The river is the local and the global, the neighbor and the stranger in our midst.

Our attention to the movement of water is related to our treatment of neighbors and strangers. According to Marianne Sawicki, the Herodians operated by a Hellenistic Mediterranean idiom of centralization and marginalization.[30] They employed Roman technology in an early pave-and-pipe paradigm that erected massive visible aqueducts that conducted water from faraway streams to urban centers. Such irrigation, which provides plentiful water during droughts or off-seasons, has profound effects on watersheds: groundwater is used faster than rainfall can recharge it, causing land to subside and salinization to occur near coasts. Water is borrowed from other places and from the future, and the likelihood of nutrient leaching and soil erosion is increased.[31]

In contrast, Sawicki proposes an idiom of circulation and grounding to interpret the indigenous Israelites.[32] For them, the heavens poured down water to the earth, where it was grounded by crops and stationary containers, such as cisterns, or circulated through mobile containers, such as channels, both forms of water catchment which pay close attention to the pattern of water through contours, geological features, and vegetation.[33] Catching and storing rainfall demonstrates the people’s dependence on the gifts of heaven and the earth. Circulation and grounding, Sawicki believes, is a better way to understand Israel’s view of holiness than the prevalent view of separation: “a place is holy when things move rightly within it and, moreover, when it can rectify the trajectory of what crosses it. Thus, what profanes is whatever moves the wrong way.”[34] Naaman’s movement through the land is corrected by the circulation and grounding of the watershed. He learns to move differently, from profane control to holy conversation, through reinhabitation.

This is not a quaint comparison between two ancient views of water harvesting. The modern state of Israel controls the Jordan River and 80 percent of Palestine’s depleting groundwater sources, both of which are channeled to taps in Tel Aviv and farms in the Negev. This diversion, an idiom of centralization and marginalization, has severely diminished the ancient waterway, made essential aquifers extremely vulnerable to salinization and raw sewage, and intensified the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. Water, and how it is used, may determine this conflict.[35]

Bioregionalism is the conversation between people and place, and conversations always hold open the possibility for mutual conversion. According to Daniel Kemmis, places can breed cooperation when “people who find themselves held together (perhaps against their will) in a shared place” discover that their best chance for survival is learning to work together.[36] Our best chance is to enact Jesus’s blend of Jubilee and watershed transformation.


Ecosynthesis is the evolution of native and exotic species into new ecosystems in response to novel conditions. These new ecosystems have remarkably beneficial effects by restoring devastated landscapes. [37] In a sense, ecosynthesis is like the good news of the kingdom of God, an invitation to reinhabit the transfigured earth. Imperial occupation from Rome and Jerusalem relentlessly disrupted Galilee, so perhaps Jesus’s particular articulation of the kingdom of God was an imaginative patchwork of observation and interaction within an endlessly re-created and re-creating place. As Mahmoud said, Jesus loves the land and its people.

Jesus embraces the buzzing biodiversity of the land as a parable for social diversity, an ecosynthesis stitching together Jubilee and the leper in the river. The reconciling river is not just the Jordan, but also the Shenandoah, the Rio Grande, and all the watersheds of the world.[38] Reinhabitation uproots nostalgia for Christendom, baptism of the state, and resident alienation. For the kingdom of God is the transfigured earth. The ground beneath our feet is the holy land.

[1] Darwish, “We Travel Like Other People,” in Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, ed. Carolyn Forché (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1993), 563.

[2] Deloria, God is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1994), 73.

[3] Wright, What is America?: A Short History of the New World Order (Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada, 2009), 15.

[4] For an excellent critique of Jeffrey Stout and Stanley Hauerwas along these lines in light of Wendell Berry, see Charles R. Pinches, “Stout, Hauerwas, and the Body of America,” Political Theology 8 (2007): 9–31.

[5] Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), xii. Berry has elaborated on Christian theology and the earth in “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1981) and “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1993).

[6] Norman Habel discusses five different, and at times conflicting, biblical land ideologies. He claims that the Hebrew Scriptures have “no monolithic concept of land,” only “diverse images and doctrines of land” (Habel, The Land is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995], 148). Wes Howard-Brook views the Bible as wrestling between the religion of empire and the religion of creation; see Howard-Brook, “Come out, My People!”: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010).

[7] See Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 122.

[8] Thayer, LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003), 15.

[9] Thayer, LifePlace, 19.

[10] Richard Evanoff, Bioregionalism and Global Ethics: A Transactional Approach to Achieving Ecological Sustainability, Social Justice, and Human Well-Being (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011), 20.

[11] Thayer, LifePlace, 150.

[12] Dan Flores, “Place: Thinking about Bioregional History,” in Bioregionalism, ed. Michael Vincent McGinnis (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 50, 52.

[13] Mike Carr, Bioregionalism and Civil Society: Democratic Challenges to Corporate Globalism (Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 2004), 238.

[14] “The interest in Jesus as a social revolutionary has led to an incomplete picture insofar as it ignores aspects of his respect for the natural environment also” (Sean Freyne, Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus-Story [New York, NY: T & T Clark International, 2006], 25.

[15] Freyne, Jesus, a Jewish Galilean, 24.

[16] Richard H. Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2000), 9.

[17] Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 50.

[18] David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (Hepburn, VIC: Holmgren Design, 2002), 224.

[19] Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2009), 45.

[20] “Ben-Gurion and his colleagues based their new Jewish national myth on a revivification of the conquest, settlement, territorial distribution, and national brotherhood as described in the book of Joshua” (Rachel Havrelock, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2011], 14). Ben-Gurion also analogized Israel’s soldiers with Joshua’s warriors in 1948 (246). Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), 137.

[21] Horsley, Jesus and Empire, 32.

[22] Habel, The Land is Mine, 97; Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, 57.

[23] Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, 102, 107.

[24] Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005), 76.

[25] Havrelock, River Jordan, 16.

[26] Ibid., 178.

[27] Spina, Faith of the Outsider, 81.

[28] Havrelock, River Jordan, 177.

[29] Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden, 46.

[30] Sawicki, Crossing Galilee, 61.

[31] Stephen R. Gliessman, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: CRC Press, 2007), 4.

[32] Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2000), 61.

[33] Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012), 85.

[34] Sawicki, Crossing Galilee, 100, 34.

[35] Stephen Faris, “Holy Water,” Orion, November/December 2011,; Ramzi El Houry, “Water for All: The Case for a One-State Solution,” Al Jazeera, last modified January 26, 2012,

[36] Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place, 122.

[37] Holmgren, Permaculture, 262.

[38] “I have remembered also that Harlan Hubbard, when a local church asked him for a painting of the Jordan, made them a painting of their own river, the Ohio” (Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, xii–xiii).