Maggie Krueger is a second-year Masters of Theological Studies candidate at Harvard Divinity School, research associate at The Pluralism Project at Harvard University as well as aspiring food justice activist.
Death is an ever-present feature of farming – even without livestock. As seasons change, crops that do not flourish are tilled back into the Earth. Plants growing out of place and turn are hoed and pulled for compost, their potential medicinal attributes ignored as they are reduced to weeds. Some perennials do not grow back after harsh winters, while annual greens wilt in the sun of mid-day. Seeds begun in plastic starter boxes inevitably sprout too many shoots, where perfectly healthy seedlings are removed in the thinning process.
While some plants are lost to mother nature, or to an agricultural system that strives to foster the best growth possible, other crops can be spared from destruction by human hands. As an aspiring apprentice at an intentional multifaith residential community and farm in the Hudson River Valley this summer, I found rescuing produce an attractive task. Ultimately, the duty was redemptive, connecting me to the soil I felt so complicit in abusing. An unabashed carnivore, friend of Appalachian ranchers, and frequenter of the Great Outdoors, humane slaughter for the sake of life was not an unfamiliar concept to me, nor a notion weighing heavy on my conscience. Plants and animals, weeds and pests had a role to play that might involve sacrifice for the greater good of life, justice and prosperity.
But something worked on me unknowingly as I labored hands and knees in the soil of our gardens. It was a paradox of simultaneous grit and tenderness that illuminated in me a view of life ever more resilient, but also precious. As I weeded and planted, harvested and pruned, my line of sight was constantly shared with the crops I was tending, and alongside them I intimately witnessed both their strength and vulnerability.
I allude to unawareness in my growing compassion because my inability to administer death for the sake of life caught me off guard. One morning, about a quarter of the way through our farming program, our head farmer drew our attention to the hole-filled leaves of our melon plants. He diagnosed the problem as cucumber beetles – bright yellow, versatile pests who’s snacking, to our young seedlings, would be lethal. Having begun these seeds in plastic starter boxes, watching them sprout and ultimately transplanting them into the field, I felt this attack personally. But on an organic farm, retaliation toward Mother Nature’s adversity is limited. Awaiting the comfort of a solution in a spray bottle, I found that our farmer explained that we would scour the melon plant leaves for beetles, sneaking up on the pests and squish them between our fingers upon capture.
The beetles were not particularly scary in physique. They did not bite, nor did they leave a repugnant smell when squashed. Somewhere, only months ago, these would have been the attributes to deter my involvement. But in that moment I was wrought and tormented by a different impulse. The idea of crushing these beetles, pests that were destroying defenseless plants that I could use to feed friends and family still evoked in me a sense of compassion and sympathy that surpassed my rage at their destructive actions. They traversed the same soil I traversed, ate the same plants I aspired to enjoy and strove to protect the same existence I aspired to preserve. Despite the camaraderie and necessity I felt in the task my fellow farmers embarked upon, my soul lurched, my stomach grew nauseous and my spirit deeply pained. While I did not intervene nor could I justify the halting of the systematic killing of these insects, I did not partake. I physically, emotionally and spiritually couldn’t.
In one swift dictation of conscience I became a conscientious objector to the cucumber beetle massacre, an identity and conviction I never intended to embody. This compulsion to object in the face of death began to grow and change throughout my farming, evolving from insect extermination to a protest against a potentially harmful ground hog eviction.
I still find each instinct of pacifism surprising and intimately conflicted – knowing that in the wake of a manual pesticide reprisal, a crop of vegetables would likely perish. At best I find this newfound position to interject complex, and at worst misplaced and hypocritical. On a farm where plants are nurtured naturally and diligently with individual human care, on a property where activists, religious leaders and devote advocates live in intentionality, the need for a conscientious objector is much less pressing.
Nevertheless, in this experience I have been grateful to rekindle a deep repulsion against complacent violence, a repulsion that none of us can afford to lose, in systems in which we do not realize we are a part. As I waited for a spray bottle of pesticide to spare the degradation of our melon crop, what I realize now that I was asking for was ignorance, distance and a lack of accountability. In the same way as we systematically dehumanize our adversaries, foreign neighbors or anyone who is “other,” as well as remove ourselves from witnessing the consequences of our decisions, we are also dehumanizing and distancing ourselves from the Earth. This banality of evil, this indifference toward our climate and resources will have no winners.
There are no theologies that can exist in separation from love of Earth. There are no belief systems, from capitalism to socialism, that can persist when the planet has perished. This is not an interfaith issue, a multi-cultural issue, a global issue. It is the interfaith issue, the multi-cultural issue and the global issue of my generation. For this reason, we must all be conscientious objectors for the war waged against our Earth.
Being a conscientious objector is a privilege. It means that I have enough nutritional options in my refrigerator to choose to be a vegetarian. It means that I have enough access to water and shelter and adequate healthcare that I can choose to fast in a form of nonviolent protest against injustice. It means that I have enough freedom to object and voice my objection without grave fear for my safety. And it means that I have enough time and resources and opportunities to dialogue in conferences and Teach-Ins about the future of the Earth instead of combating the already present consequences of our actions.
That is not the case for my counterparts throughout the world. It is for this reason that I will be attending the Religions for Peace’s “Interreligious Youth Teach-In:” in hopes of seeking equity in our conversation about the Earth, finding action and agency for all and repelling the tendency toward a blame that alienates. From religious leaders to CEOs, architects to mechanics, we all have a unique role to understand and claim against violence. While fighting for the soil, we must also fight for the right all should possess to be a conscientious objector, instead of allowing systems to grant only a minority the privilege.
As Pope Francis so eloquently elicits in his encyclical On Care For Our Common Home, “the violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life Earth.” The earthly problems of which so many suffer are grounded, literally grounded, in the protection of life as it exists in nature. This starts by acknowledging, as Pope Francis presents, the Earth herself as our poor, our destitute, our widow and our orphan.
I write this reflection and ultimately, plea, not because I am angry about what I am doing and not doing, what our society is doing and not doing, to conscientiously object to the war against the Earth. I write from a place of deep compassion and love from which I hope we all might act, for the seedling and the ground hog that I could not kill with my own hands and believe so many of us would struggle to do, were we crouched in the dirt every day. My flesh is no more removed and no less implicated from the active destruction of the Earth than from the crushing of cucumber beetles. I desire my convictions of love and nonviolence to be no more removed from the Earth I am connected to as well.
“And all things continue on to one place; for from the earth they were made, and unto the earth they shall return together.” Ecclesiastes (3:20)