COVID-19: Letting the Earth Breathe
The typical Sunday in Samoa is rather calm. Only a few sounds are ever allowed throughout the day. The sounds of umu in the early dawn. The clangour of church bells and the harmonious choral singing throughout the day. While in the afternoon, only quiet conversations over supper serve to disrupt an otherwise silent and serene day. As the people rest, the lands and the ocean also rest. There is no fishing, there is no taro planting, nor any other working of the land.
Like the Jews, this strict observance of the holy day set them apart from other nations. Not only do they wear their Sunday white, there is also hardly any movement as people are confined to their own familial spaces. Intriguingly, the land, the oceans and the skies are kept to their own spheres, taking a breather from human interaction. Looking at our surroundings on a Sunday, it is peaceful; the skies, the waters and the land depict a beautiful manifestation of tranquility. Yet this picture is somewhat different to the outside world, particularly in this pandemic.
During COVID-19, photographers and YouTubers around the world have captured amazing images and footage of some of the world’s well-known landmarks such as the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower and the Great Wall of China, contrasting them to what they looked like before the coronavirus pandemic. Besides the eeriness of empty streets, what is telling is the striking beauty of the skies: blue and clear, as opposed to its polluted variety before the pandemic. But could this be coincidence? The skies in Samoa are similarly picturesque, but they have always been that way. Nothing has changed: still beautiful, still blue, still clear.
Why is this? The scenes all over the world painted the picture of a universal truth: that the world was in need of respite. Everything needed to shut down, to pause so the earth could breathe again. In Samoa, we already knew this. It is this observance of sa that enables the earth to breathe again, to ensure the skies remain blue, that the waters maintain its pristine state and the earth regenerates in abundance.
Samoans have always been observant. Their wisdom, their customs, their lifestyle, are based on watching and learning. Prior to Christianity reaching the south seas, Samoans observed the ocean, the land and the skies, looking for clues of the gods speaking to them. The harmonious yet unforgiving nature of the seas, the fruitful yet rough essence of the land and the splendor yet cyclonic character of the skies, all revealed messages of love, respect, interconnectedness and service, forming the fabric of Samoan indigenous wisdom and folklore, otherwise known as the fa’a-Samoa.
As the European missionaries brought Christianity, most tenets of the fa’a-Samoa withstood the new Christian teaching. Some elements were either eliminated, or as Tupua Tamasese Efi would say, “whispered” down to generations. The resilience of the Samoans in upholding the fa’a-Samoa was most impressive.
One aspect of the Samoan culture that was maintained was the observance of sa. The word sa can mean ‘holy’ or ‘sacredness’ but it can also mean ‘forbidden.’ The sa therefore denoted sacredness in the Samoan worldview. It intimated sacredness in the various realms of Samoan village life: relationships (familial and the village), spaces (va – sociological, physical, spiritual), family history and genealogies, chiefly titles, and the environment: the land, the ocean and the heavens (lagi).
The sa also marked the sacredness of Christianity for Samoans. Sunday is appropriately named Aso Sa, the day of Christian worship. The temple, a centerpiece in the Samoan village, is commonly termed the fale sa (lit. sacred house). Indeed, in these various spheres of village existence, the observance of sa maintains its integrity and congruity. Forbidding access and contact, keeps the elements holy and sacred.
In the midst of the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is hard not to draw parallels between the nation’s lockdown with the sa. Forbidding gatherings and contact has enforced a nationwide sa. Depending on perspective, the parallels can range from understanding the necessity of keeping things safe and secure, to an attitude of feeling powerless and being captive, as though freedom has been revoked.
The sa also generates similar disparities in attitudes. In this article, we ask the question of our own response as a nation to the pandemic. Are we understanding the importance of sa in protecting our community, or are we perceiving the sa as a violation of our basic rights? In attempting to answer this question, we offer a biblical response, recounting the Jewish observance of the ‘shemitah’, a custom that resonates with the observance of the sa, as found in Leviticus 25. It is our hope that the ensuing discussion could draw out implications for re-imagining the sa as a paradigm for responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
Biblical & Scientific Analyses
One important divine injunction to the Israelites to observe during biblical times is reflected in Leviticus 25:2-7, which is understood amongst biblical scholars as the “sabbath year.” The ‘sabbath year’ is generated by ‘shemitah’ – a Hebrew verb translated as release, which enforces a fallow seventh-year after agricultural work on the land for six years. Although the term ‘shemitah’ does not appear in Leviticus 25, but the practice of resting the land from human labor is obvious.
Like human creatures, the land, according to the divine command, is a living entity. It needs to rest, refresh, renew, reproduce new soil, and to breathe freely from human activities. God forbade any work on the seventh day / sabbath (Ex. 20:8-11) for the very same purposes. Because land is a holy living entity, God had ordered possible sanctions on humanity, who according to Gen. 1:27-30, are the responsible caretakers of creation.
In an agrarian context, the Israelites were advised to perform agricultural work for six years then on the seventh-year they are required to leave the land to lie fallow. Thus, Leviticus 25:2-7 is an account on divine instructions concerning the sanctification of the land of Israel, which is followed in Leviticus 25-26 by a detailed discussion of Israel’s socio-economical welfare. These chapters call to the Israelites to see that their land is also a living entity. In Samoa, we would say the same about our sea.
How do human activities on land, air and ocean affect creation? The questions here go to the importance of humanity’s care for creation, and more importantly, might use us to shape a response to the erroneous notion that the COVID-19 is a divine punishment on humanity.
Several biblical scholars have found a “triad-structure” to life in the Old Testament linking God, Land, and humans. Land is a divine gift to humanity (we would include the sea). In return, humanity must show appreciation and respect by becoming good stewards of creation and to observe divine instructions. If humanity fails in this vocation, it affects the land (Lev. 19:29; Num. 35:29-34; Deut. 21:2; 24:4; 28:1-14, etc.). In Oceania, we also see the effects on the sea.
Although Samoan-Christian communities, locally and abroad, do not observe the “sabbath year,” we can consider the practice a pedagogical one to encourage our people to care for land, air and ocean. Although the world observes what is called “Earth Day” on April 22, it is not widely recognized by our people.
With the thousands of lives lost to the COVID-19, many Christian communities around the globe have interpreted the crisis to be a sign of divine wrath on humanity. This article aims to inform that the COVID-19 is a human product, not a sign of divine wrath. The Samoan communities ought to keep in mind that after God created heaven and earth, He saw, “it was good” (Gen. 1-2), whereas in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve sought to become gods themselves, which was how evil entered the “good” creation. Evil, obviously, is a human product. God’s creation was made “good” and what follows will depend on humanity. The COVID-19 is mother earth’s call on humanity that it needs to breathe.
From the various branches of science and their proposed precautions to fight the COVID-19, they are helpful in equipping us in preventing the deadly pandemic from entering our boarders. The scientific analyses employed here are based on findings from seismologists, ecologists, and data gathered by the World Health Organization (Marina Koren: “The Pandemic Is Turning the Natural World Upside Down”) concerning changes in the air, land and sea. From the combined data, they unfold jarring effects across the land, ocean and air after months of the enforced social-distancing. The data have shown less nitrogen dioxide in the air (affect human health) and carbon dioxide (cause global warming); birds chirping freely; less noise pollution (can negatively affect human health, e.g., stress-related ailments: high blood pressure, sleep disruption, etc.); species in the deep sea are finally roaming freely to other parts of the globe); and earthquakes are easily detected. It could be adjudged then, that the unchanged blue skies in Samoa before COVID-19 to now, is not a coincidence.
While Samoa is under numerous government restrictions: church services withheld; limited working hours, limited business hours, six-feet distance, the ban on large gatherings, school closure, etc., these might seem to be nonsense to many. Of course, the restrictions at some point conflict with the lifestyle that we the Samoan people embrace and enjoy from our beginnings (large gatherings and socializing with one another), but we must keep in mind the lack of medical supplies in both Samoa, and especially the ongoing search for a cure.
From the brief discussion on Leviticus 25 and the scientific findings provided earlier, these government restrictions are very healthy decisions for our land, sea and air. We are joining with the global community to respond to a global problem. But for us this is especially an opportunity to consider what sa really means for Samoans: an opportunity to rethink the way we relate to the earth. To remember that sa is not just to forbid, but to sanctify. We must therefore consider the restrictions as humanity’s sign of appreciation for our environment and surroundings - the sanctity of land and sea. In the words of a known marine ecologist, Michelle Fournet “Nature is taking a breath when the rest of us are holding ours.”