remember the land

In May 2011 I was invited to help plan and lead worship at a global ecumenical conference on mining, organized by KAIROS Canada. They have put together a powerful video with excerpts from the various speakers, interspersed with the refrain of a song that I wrote for the conference. You can watch or download the video here.

This theme song is drawn from Leviticus 26 – a text that makes a vivid (even shocking) connection between human obedience to God’s ways (commandments, statutes, ordinances) and the health of the land. When we sing the refrain of the song (“I will remember the land”), we are singing the words that God speaks in Lev 26:42.

The broader context of those words is this: the commandments in the preceding chapter (Lev 25) are all about how to deal with land/property (“sabbatical” year of rest for the land, “jubilee” year of re-distribution of land, issues of debt, servanthood, redemption of servants, etc.). Lev 26 then carries on with a description of ecological health that is described as resulting from obedience to God’s commandments (Lev 26:3-13), followed by a vision of ecological destruction resulting from disobedience (26:14-33). One way or another – whether humans implement it appropriately or not – “the land shall enjoy its sabbath” (26:33-39). And then the text describes the possibility of changed human attitudes and behaviour: “But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors… if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then will I remember my covenant with Jacob; I will remember also my covenant with Isaac and also my covenant with Abraham, and I WILL REMEMBER THE LAND.” (Lev 26:40-42, emphasis added).

I thought it was particularly striking to put these words of Yahweh – “I will remember the land” – to a traditional Andean Cueca rhythm and chord structure… a land that has a long history of mining and exploitation not just of mineral resources but of the people who have lived there and still live there. (I spent 4 formative years, age 12-16, living in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in the heart of the Andes mountains.) For us to sing these words together, to an Andean rhythm, in the context of a global ecumenical conference on the impacts of mining, struck me as a powerful thing.

During the days of the conference I circulated around, talking to as many people as I could, asking them how we would sing these words “I will remember the land” – in their own native language. These conversations inevitably resulted in fascinating debates and conversations about what exactly the words should be, as each language and culture has its own way of articulating the nuances of these things. Which word – of the multiple options that are possible in each of our tongues – should be used to say “remember”…? To say “land”…? Different words in each language and tradition have different nuances and implications, and our wrestling with these nuances were part of our conversations about how, indeed, we are called to relate to the land.

In worship we sang these words in over a dozen different languages, I believe (the video includes only three). God’s words – “I will remember the land” – which became our own.

At the end of the conference, when we gathered for a group photo, someone started singing this refrain again. And then, perhaps on the third or fourth time, someone introduced a change and started to sing “WE will remember, we will remember, we will remember the land.” I stood there, with tears streaming down my face, marveling at how these words from God in Leviticus 26 had become our words – an article of faith, a promise, a commitment, and a joint vocation. “We will remember, we will remember, we will remember the land.”

The realities depicted in this video are not easy realities to face. Today’s “idle no more” movement is raising voices and issues (including issues raised in the video, and others) to public attention in significant and challenging ways. I type these words on a laptop representing untold quantities of resources extracted, at great cost, from the earth… and I type them knowing (even if only dimly aware) of my own complicity in a reality that is unjust and exploitative for so many… and for the land…

This video, I think, holds that challenge before us in an honest and unflinching way (even if we do flinch as we watch it). My hope and prayer is that God’s words, indeed, may become our own…

“I will remember, I will remember, I will remember the land… We will remember, we will remember, we will remember the land…”

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