Book review: The Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor

Anvil journal of theology and mission

Kathleen P. Rushton, The Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor: Hearing Justice in John’s Gospel (London: SCM Press, 2020)

by Cathy Ross, CMS

I loved reading this book. It is a superb mix of spiritual and scholarly, accessibly written and challenging. Thank you to David Shervington for commissioning it after hearing Kathleen give a paper on “Jesus and Justice in John’s Gospel”. I was drawn to the book by its title and it does not disappoint. Kathleen is an independent scholar and a Roman Catholic religious sister from Aotearoa/New Zealand with the order of the Sisters of Mercy. She has a particular interest in integrating Scripture and tradition with cosmology, ecology and science, which led to a research project on the Johannine Prologue as the 2011 Cardinal Hume Visiting Scholar at Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology, University of Cambridge. This scholarship is apparent throughout the book.

The book follows the RC lectionary and a fivefold pattern of lectio (reading the text), meditatio (mediation), oratio (prayer), contemplatio (contemplation) and actio (action). I was particularly inspired by the action section as this challenged the reader to act on the text and to make a difference.

As a fellow New Zealander, I could imagine as well as appreciate her clear explanation of her context, a white woman in a Pacific nation of bicultural heritage. Her hill-country upbringing on a farm and the earthquakes in Christchurch have influenced her understanding of creation and the evolving universe. It is refreshing to see this spelled out – we all come to and read the Bible from our own contexts, yet so many scholars seem to bypass this or claim some objective bird’s-eye view.

She writes this book guided by three strands:

  • To hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the marginalised;
  • To offer a contribution to spiritual ecumenism about prayer and mission;
  • To sustain Christians in the huge task of addressing two of the most urgent issues of our time – the degradation of the planet and the displacement of the poor.

Although this was written before our global pandemic, it is prescient and is a book for our time. I will share just three insights from it. She introduced me to five “p” codes, which I shall remember when I read the text from now on as a useful hermeneutical lens. They are power, privilege, property, poverty and persecution. She claims that when we consider these, they “move us from a quest for biblical interpretation that is objective and detached to a quest for an ethics of interpretation to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the marginalized” (p. xxviii). This lens can alert us to the way the text can undermine power relationships today – for example, male–female, master–slave, rich– poor, patron–client, citizen–alien.

One of my favourite reads of the lockdown(s) has been Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botany professor and enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.1 So I was thrilled to see Kathleen encourage us to draw on TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) in her reflection on “rivers of living water” (John 7:39) and what this means with respect to believers’ receiving the Holy Spirit and the preciousness and sacredness of the earth. This section concluded with a challenge for us to live in ways that value the gift of water as a symbol of longing for God and to respect this gift from our planet.

In a later section on Jesus as the Vine, she draws on Nobel Prize-winner and social, environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, where women were encouraged to plant trees, enabling them to have access to water and firewood and so restore their dignity and self-confidence.

Finally, I love it when commentaries highlight or have a different take on the women – this is so rare, it is a joy when it happens!

She writes that interpreters of the Woman at the Well (whom she calls Photini) are obsessed with speculation about her husbands. Yet they tend to overlook that she was a poor woman carrying water over a large distance for the benefit of others. She was caught in a system that demanded hard labour of women – the lot of so many women and girls today.

Also, her suggestion about Mary equating Jesus with the gardener is really intriguing. She suggests that perhaps Mary was not confused. Creation is the garden of God. John begins by reminding us of the garden of Genesis in his prologue and ends with the tomb in the garden. These are powerful themes to reflect on as we remember that God sustains and renews all Creation and is the ultimate gardener.

The book has an extensive bibliography and a helpful list of key words in John. I think this is a great book for both biblical scholars and ordinary readers who want to be reminded of our discipleship to Jesus, to the poor and to the earth. What better time to read this book than during a global pandemic that is forcing us to reconsider the nature of our lifestyle, relationships and the purpose of our faith.

More from this issue


1 Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013)