Restoring divine soil: A case of biblical farming

The neat lines of cabbages, sweet corn and carrots are growing with vigor in the outskirts of Nelson Mandela Bay, South Africa. The soil is covered, mulched, to feed soil life and to keep moisture in the dirt. At a first glance, the lush garden resembles any well-managed farm plot based on organic principles. But this garden is not just a space of healthy, nutritious vegetables. By its caretakers, the plot is perceived as a witness of restoration, a testimony of a divine order put in practice, and a Christian practice of transforming a rocky beach sand into a piece of God’s Kingdom.

The garden is a display of Farming God’s Way; a biblically-based, agricultural method that today is promoted bya network of Evangelical/Charismatic Christians in Southern Africa, across the African continent and beyond. Farming God’s Way is a way of cultivating food based on principles found in the nature, as set out by God in creation. This means that one does not plough thereby disturbing the soil, but protects the soil through mulch, and practices biodiversity through rotation of crops. Farming God’s Way uses the Bible, hoes and high standards to cultivate modes of Christian living that care for nature.

Image: Hans Olsson

(Green) Christianity and the environment

In a way, Farming God’s Way could be seen as a part of growing “greening” trends within Global Christianity in relation to emerging environmental challenges and climate change that include (eco)theological thinking, Christian environmental ethics and Christian agrarianism. The context of an impending, human-made, ecological crisis also questions a Christian anthropocentric heritage that placed humans above nature and non-human life forms. This is a position seen to contribute towards both ecological and colonial forms of oppressions as Christopher Carter points out. How is Christianity (re-)interpreted and enacted within African contexts, where human, non-human life and the spiritual world are intrinsically connected?

African Earthkeeping

One of the few studies that thoroughly addressed the spiritual and religious connotations of Christian environmental approaches in Africa is Marthinus Daneel’s work African earthkeepers. It focuses on African Independent Churches’ tree planting rituals to heal a broken world in Zimbabwe. Compared to Farming God’s Way it helps unfold some common lines and some important differences to contemporary Christian environmental approaches in Africa. Both movements stress God as creator and that humans have a responsibility to  steward and care for creation (Gen 2:15). Destruction of the land is condemned as sinful, while earthkeeping (planting trees, cultivating vegetables) cleanses land from evil. However, in Daneel’s study Christian stewardship is grounded on traditional African culture (and local struggles against colonialism) that generate an interreligious environmental movement that includes African traditional chiefs and spirit mediums. While Farming God’s Way also sees Christian agriculture as a way of restoring God’s promise of abundant living, African traditional culture and religious values are not seen as compatible with God’s way. Rather, traditional practices on lands—including conventional agriculture, and ploughing—are viewed in connection to human error and lack of knowledge caused by generational curses. Lands are sites where a spiritual war takes place. With divine revelation (the Bible and creation) converging in practices on farms, gardens and fields, Faming God’s Way situates soil erosion and environmental degradation as a spiritual problem, in need of spiritual restoration.

The Bible & creation

By imitating biological processes found in nature _an approach for farming increasingly endorsed also within conservation agriculture and permaculture design _Farming God’s Way is able to promote a model for sustainable agriculture, which they see as compatible with the Bible. Considering the growth and public influence of Pentecostal and Charismatic forms of Christianity in Africa, contemporary Christian approaches to environmental concerns therefore require attention. Farming God’s Way’s approach provides a lens into how charismatic forms of Christianity today engage and call for changes that influence people’s relationship to land, plants and environments. As such, it continues a long history of engagement between human and non-human life forms in Africa. Yet, enacted in African contexts where the use and control of land remains politically contested, Farming God’s Way’s solution of turning land to the “righteous” Christian farmer hence warrants attention to how faith-based environmental discourses approach social justice in the present. The work of restoring the divine design nonetheless (re)charges African landscapes as spiritual places.

Hans Olsson is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Centre of African Studies, University of Copenhagen working on an ongoing research project that addresses the relationship between Charismatic Christianity, farming and environment in South Africa. He holds a Ph.D. in Global Christianity and Interreligious relations from Lund University. His doctoral work Jesus for Zanzibar, was published by Brill (2019).

This blog post is part of a project that has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 843798.

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