Back in 2010, I was teaching part-time for Operation Understanding, a leadership development program for Black and Jewish high school students in Philadelphia. We did lots of things together. But, the most intense part of that experience was during the summer. We spent the month of July traveling around the country on a bus. We went to 14 or 15 cities in the South and along the East Coast to visit places that were historically important to Black folks and Jewish folks.
Guess which city we stopped in right after we left Philly? New York City. We marveled about how the city was so alive all the time! We smiled as we took it all in — the busyness, the culture, the possibility.
I admit that I could never live in NYC. Everybody seems to be pushed down the sidewalk by the sheer momentum of the crowd. Nobody has time to look up or look over or look around. Everybody seems to be looking beyond — anywhere but where they are right now. For good reason, they call NYC the city that never sleeps. Maybe the reason the city never sleeps is that she is haunted by the ghosts under her feet.
What do I mean?
During that summer visit in 2010, my students and I listened with horror as our tour guide told us that beneath our feet in Lower Manhattan, the bones of more than 419 men, women, and children of African descent were buried.
Some of my students cried openly as we stood there in Civic Center, looking right at New York City Hall, surrounded by Tribeca to the West and the Financial District to the South. They cried and stopped and kept looking down, trying to imagine just how an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people had been squeezed into the soil that was just underneath the concrete.
You see, the community of enslaved Africans could not bury their dead in the cemetery for city residents. They were excluded and restricted because of their status as Black people.
So the Africans made their own burial grounds on a six-acre plot of land outside the city limits. They could not dignify these burials with headstones. They only had enough resources to put them in simple wooden boxes. Some of the buried had probably died of treatable illness. Some probably died of old age. Some were likely beaten to death, worked to death, dehumanized to death. They did this — the Africans buried their people in this unmarked land — for 100 years from 1690 to 1794.
In 1794, the city of New York closed what they called the “Negro Burial Ground.” They filled it with rocks and prepped it for development.
This hallowed land, filled with the bones of my ancestors, was the site of the A.T. Stewart Company store, the first department store in the United States. People did their Christmas shopping on top of those bodies. They bought jewelry and coats as they pressed those bodies deeper into the ground.
New York City grew up as time went on. The department store was demolished and government buildings took its place.
In 1991, as the city planned the construction of a Federal office building right there at Broadway and Chambers, somebody’s excavator hit some bones.
These were the bones that had been crying up from the ground of Civic Center for 200 years.
In those 200 years, did anybody hear them crying as they rushed to work in the Financial District?
Did anybody stop to notice the blood seeping through the concrete as they walked to the courthouses in Foley Square?
This is an ecological tragedy. But it is a peculiar kind of ecological tragedy.
That land has been suffocating all this time under the weight of capitalism and unjust legislation and police brutality.
That land has been stripped of life, strangled to death by the secrets it held in those simple wooden box caskets.
I submit to you that environmental degradation is fundamentally the result of humanity’s violence. The violence of racism. The violence of enslavement. The violence of disregard and disrespect.
Violence towards the earth is a natural consequence of violent ideologies that are ultimately worked out on Black, Brown, and indigenous bodies.
The passage in the book of Genesis that begins my sermon is familiar to us. This story is the first account of murder we have in the biblical text.
If anybody should understand the sanctity of the land, it is Cain. The text says that Cain is a “tiller of the ground.” Yet, Cain does not get it. He does not understand that the same way he tills the soil of the ground to bring forth harvest, he must till the soil of his relationship with his brother Abel to bring forth human flourishing.
Cain’s anger controls him. His greed animates his every move. His desperation consumes him. His need to jockey for the natural resource of God’s love overtakes him. And you know the story.
He ambushes his brother and kills him. The very earth Cain tilled to grow an offering to God in one moment. Then he tilled to facilitate his brother’s murder the next.
Did Cain think he could just plant something on top of Abel’s buried body, and hide what he had done?
Did Cain think that if he just let enough time pass, people would forget that they walked to and fro on top of Abel’s bones?
Cain’s homicide can be directly linked to the ecological damage that God identifies in the text:
“What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth,” says the Lord.
The earth’s ability to breathe, to bear fruit, to support life, is compromised because of Cain’s violence. Cain exposed the earth to the taste of blood, and as a consequence, the earth actually develops an appetite for blood.
It is why we can still hear in the ground the cries of the bloodshed in Palestine, in Nigeria, in Syria, after decades and decades of unending conflict. It is why even all these years after the “fall” of Jim Crow, the United States is experiencing a resurgence of Whites-Only politics.
The blood cries out from the ground because we continue to feed her blood!
God also says in the text that the earth will “no longer yield its strength” after Cain’s homicide. The earth, feasting on a diet of violence, cannot produce. She is no longer sustainable. Violence begets violence. Violent people cultivate a violent planet.
I believe that our planet is rebelling against the violence we inflict on each other. The planet is resisting the ways in which she has been exploited to fuel the fire of classist and racist oppression.
That’s why we anxiously bask in 70-degree weather in February. That’s why every season rising floodwaters and unpredictable earthquakes threatened to destroy communities around the globe.
The violence of Abel’s death extends BEYOND Abel. In fact, God hears the blood crying up THROUGH the ground. The violence has seeped into the land, the water, the air — all of the earth is impacted by Abel’s unjust death.
Our call is to get what Cain missed.
We are our siblings’ keepers. We must be, for the good of the planet.
The earth is exploited as we exploit each other. The earth is damaged as we seek to destroy each other. The earth is stripped as we greedily strip each other of human dignity and respect.
Cain missed it. We don’t have to. This is why Black and Brown Make Green.
Once we decide that we will stop inflicting violence on Black, Brown, and Native people, THEN, and only then, will be able to Go Green.
As long as Flint poisons Black and Brown children with lead-infested water, we cannot go Green.
As long as Black trans women continue to be dismissed and left to die by the weapon of religious exemptions, we cannot go Green.
As long as Native people die alone on reservations and in police custody, we cannot go Green.
As long as new development takes precedence over historic neighborhoods, we cannot go Green.
As long as factories are built near recreation centers where asthmatic children play, we cannot go Green.
As long as pipelines are constructed through rural communities, toxifying the land, we cannot go Green.
We cannot preserve the Earth until we preserve Black, Brown, and Native lives.
We cannot change the Earth’s appetite for blood until we change our appetite for blood.
Remember: there is good news in this passage.
The text says: “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him.”
God gives Cain a chance to make things right.
That’s the good news.
The Earth is dying.
We are dying.
Yet we ain’t dead yet.
What’s under our feet?
Whose blood cries up from the ground we walk on?
What are we gonna do with our second chance?