Earlier this week, Union Seminary in New York initiated a controversy that is now being called #PlantGate with the following tweet:
Today in chapel, we confessed to plants. Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor.
What do you confess to the plants in your life? pic.twitter.com/tEs3Vm8oU4
— Union Seminary (@UnionSeminary) September 17, 2019
The idea was that plants give us life and help our planet survive, but we take them for granted, so let’s do something to honor the natural world through our prayers. Ritual and pageantry aside, that’s not such a bad idea. Many medical schools hold ceremonies to honor those who donated their bodies for use in dissections. It’s the thought that counts. Earlier this year, a melted glacier in Iceland received a symbolic obituary and funeral.
Yet some Christians responded with disbelief about what appears to be a Pagan practice: talking to plants. One pastor referred to it as “theological bankruptcy.” (There are evangelical Christians who continue defending Donald Trump, but honoring plants?! How dare they.)
Others expressed gratitude that a seminary would encourage Christians to consider their impact on the environment — a practice that has often been labeled “liberal” or something only for tree-hugging hippies. Writing for Washington Post, Veery Huleatt took a nuanced approach to the idea of “confessing to plants”:
Confessing these sins is the first step in mending those relationships and restoring the covenant with God and other people. But plants?
It’s easy to think of environmental harms in terms of a list of losses: so many extinct species, so many disappearing glaciers. More profound, however, is the way species exist in community. In a beautiful essay on prairie grasses, Potawatomi ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “I want to raise a song for all of those beings knit together by the roots of prairie sod. I refuse to write a eulogy for one alone, because the very notion of separability is at the root of the crisis we have created. The life of one is inseparable from the life of another.”
Put this way, the idea of “plant confession” seems a lot less ludicrous. As we know, Christians — evangelicals in particular — don’t have the best track record when it comes to environmental activism. Many believe the Earth is ours for the taking (and reaping), and because Jesus is due to come back at any moment, taking measures to reduce our carbon footprint is a waste of time and energy.
But because this idea of repentance toward the natural world was put forth by Union — a seminary that many Christians already consider to be heretical in its progressiveness — the idea isn’t likely to be taken seriously.
At least this religious ritual had a sensible idea at its core.