We went to see the volcanoes, but all the parking lots, the chain of craters, and hiking trails were blocked off. We saw the steam vents, because they are on the side of the road. We joked through sarcastic smiles that the administration would try to turn those off too, if they had a switch.
Perhaps it seems like an annoyance, a petty reason to complain. Having your vacation plans scuttled is not the same as working without pay or remaining on furlough as many government employees are during this partial government shutdown. It does not create the same level of risk to people as the FDA ceasing routine safety inspections. But as the trash piles up, bathrooms overflow, and visitors blaze their own trails in partially shut, but mostly just unsupervised national parks, there is a clear message: Everything is ours to exploit, as potential collateral damage from human agendas.
People of faith, this is so dangerous.
Our national parks are a safeguard against our own worst inclinations. Christians sometimes call it “sin,” but we might also just name it “human nature.” We know that we need to check ourselves before we sacrifice everything on the altar of self-interest.
Some of our national park sites are explicitly monuments to those who stood powerfully against human exploitation: for civil rights, women’s rights, or an end to slavery. But the current threat is most dire against those national parks designed to protect the space for wild animals to remain wild and natural wonders to remain unpolluted, because they are of intrinsic value — without relation to their use to people.
Much of religion as we practice it is about people, relating to our neighbors, and understanding ourselves due to our relationship with God. But all the Earth is God’s, and God calls it all “good” before humans even enter the creation story in Genesis.
We are not all there is, and human agendas are not all that must be considered.
Wild animals and geyser basins and waterfalls remind us that nature is a force all its own, and we need to stand back, respect it, and pause in awe of something other than ourselves. A healthy dose of humility is a necessity to our national character, and our national parks provide space for that realization to shake our over confidence. We are privileged to live on this land, and privilege comes with the responsibility of stewardship.
National park boundaries are also limits we set on our own capacity to exploit nature. I read the exhortation in Genesis 1:28 to “have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth” as a charge for humankind to care for all living things and to help them to thrive, instead of stomping it all underfoot in pursuit of our own gains. This current targeted neglect and destruction of our national wild spaces is an affront to who we are and what we are to be about as stewards of God’s creation.
Allowing unsupervised access — without staffing the protection of national parks —denies the truth about human sin: that given the means to exploit for our own gain, we will.
We are called, especially as people of faith, to pursue more than our own needs and desires. We are to live in ways that allow all God’s creation — animals, plants, and even rocks and trees — to thrive unpolluted and unpoisoned by our fights.
The national parks are an acknowledgment that human beings are not all there is to our country or of value in God’s sight. The volunteers stepping up — especially young people like members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association who have organized volunteer clean-up efforts during the shutdown in several national parks — testify to this value. But should all self-awareness and self-limitation for the good of our earth be voluntary? Should it be left to the children?
For the earth’s sake and our national character, we must demand an end to this shutdown that is poisoning who we are.