Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.

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