Diane Pacitti explores the historical revolutionary ideas of Gerrard Winstanley and the contemporary relevance of indigenous voices in addressing environmental crises.
Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?
These words might today be spoken by indigenous people in Africa or Australia whose displacement or poorly paid labour has funded luxurious lifestyles in London or New York. In fact, they were written by Gerrard Winstanley who in 1649 gathered a small community to dig the common land of St. George’s Hill, Surrey. In doing so, he was claiming the earth as our ‘Common Treasury’.
In our Earth Justice project Food for the Ecozoic we are exploring our own indigenous revolutionaries inspired by the book of Genesis. You can read about Winstanley and his predecessor John Ball, a radical priest who challenged the entire social hierarchy HERE
Like Quobna Ottobah Cuguano, Winstanley was a theologian, grounding his revolutionary vision in the texts of the Bible. And he was writing at a moment in British history when the world seemed ‘turned upside down’. The impossible had happened. Cromwell’s army of plain, devout men had defeated the Royalist army. The king had been beheaded and England was now a republic. And as talk of the Second Coming grew and new religious groups and fellow Digger communities were formed, Winstanley had his own fierce hope. To him, the resurrection of Christ, the ‘Head Leveller’ had nothing to do with an afterlife or a heaven located in the sky. The resurrection of Christ will happen here and now, through the acts of living women and men. It will happen when we treat the earth as a Treasury for all. With hindsight, we know that his Digger community was dispersed by cruel force. And yet we still respond to his confident assertion, ‘Christ will rise in his sons and daughters.’
In 1649, England was on the brink of the unknown. This is even more true of us now, as the earth faces climate catastrophe. Today, it is indigenous peoples who are the heirs of Winstanley. They are speaking out, having seen their lands de-forested; their waters polluted by industrial chemicals. The colonising worldview which has treated their ancestral lands as a resource to be plundered is pushing the earth towards mass extinction. And First Nations peoples bring a vital new perspective. For us, a discussion of land rights is framed as a debate between humans. But to First Nations Peoples, it involves the more-than-human presences of river, mountain, tree. Aboriginal Australians believe that land cannot be owned, transacted or sold. In fact, they find our concept of ‘land’ or ‘the wild’ puzzling, since human life is an integral part of the land.
In pursuing their lawsuit against the industrial defilement of Onondago Lake, a sacred site, the Onondaga people emphatically did not call it a land claim, or demand compensation or the displacement of settlers. Instead, it was a land rights action, seeking healing for the land. Clan Mother Audrey Shenandoah said,
‘In this action, we seek justice. Justice for the four-leggeds and the wingeds, whose habitats have been taken. We seek justice, not just for ourselves, but for the whole of Creation.‘
What would it mean if we truly opened ourselves to our more-than-human kin? To presences like plants and trees, seas and mountains who inhabited this earth long before us and created the ecosystems necessary for human survival?
Winstanley’s passionate question might be re-written:
‘Was the earth made to preserve one greedy arrogant species to live at ease .. or was it made to sustain the many life-forms who are its children?’
And we might be inspired by Winstanley’s sense of here-and-now-ness. As Christians, we believe that the kingdom of heaven is always immanent on this earth, tantalisingly close. The prevalent view seems to be that the climate catastrophe is pushing us grudgingly towards measures we really don’t want to take. Perhaps instead we should embrace the opportunity to enter into a mutually life-giving relationship with the earth that sustains us. To move towards an Ecozoic future. Or, to use terms which Winstanley would have understood, to live the presence of Christ in creative harmony with all of Creation.