For many years, people of faith in Appalachia have engaged in prophetic opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) as an enactment of all of creation’s longing for justice and healing that we celebrate during Advent.
We believe MTR is a blasphemous act of violence that leaves “monstrous scars across Earth’s body” and devastates the surrounding ecosystems, including the human communities in close proximity who must deal with poisoned water and air and the psychological disturbance of solastalgia.
Some years ago, the Kentucky Coal Association responded to these religious movements with a religious argument of their own, invoking today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah. Since “mountaintop removal” is in the Bible, they said, this too should inform environmental policy.
This week’s readings give us a much richer picture of Christian life which includes both aspects of our prophetic calling than this kind of proof-texting suggests. In whatever place we call home, we are called to let our prophetic role “take place” by comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
“Give comfort to my people.” Three parishes in the coalfields of McDowell County, West Virginia joined together recently for one final Mass. As mining rapidly declines, the diocese is closing churches, leaving one parish in the county. In his homily, the pastor imparted words of comfort as a once dominant industry leaves whole communities ravaged and the land desecrated. Prophetic comfort extends to a broken creation as well: “Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”
Advent prophecy, likewise, afflicts the comfortable. In our increasingly connected world, hidden crimes are brought to light each day—sexual abuse, environmental negligence, and so on. In this context, we hear the Good News that on the Day of the Lord “everything done on [Earth] will be found out.” Indeed, “we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” and in which abuses that have happened under the cover of darkness—including the rape of Earth—will be brought into the light of liberation.
In the meantime, we are called to live as John the Baptist and his followers from both the countryside and the city who “acknowledge their sins” by “going out to him” into the desert, withdrawing from the exploitative relationship of city and countryside built into that ancient extractive economy.
It is not always obvious how to withdraw from systems of injustice and the industries and economies that perpetuate it. Yet, doing so in small ways, in the places we are rooted, is how we help bring a new heaven and a new Earth to birth as we await the radiant dawn of the Sun of Justice.
Michael Iafrate is Co-Coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and served as the lead author of CCA’s “People’s Pastoral,” The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us. He is a West Virginia native, a graduate of Wheeling Jesuit University (’99 and ’03), and is completing a dissertation in theology for the University of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. His writing has appeared in National Catholic Reporter and Religion Dispatches and in the collections Secular Music and Sacred Theology, edited by Tom Beaudoin (Liturgical Press, 2013) and the forthcoming Music, Theology, and Justice, edited by Michael O’Connor, Christina Labriola, and Hyun-Ah Kim (Lexington Books, 2017). He is also a singer-songwriter and old time musician.