What’s so bad about the badlands? That’s the question I kept asking myself last week while visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Why call such a beautiful land “bad”? My guess is that early settlers found the terrain difficult to traverse or perhaps not conducive to grazing cattle. But do these things warrant calling the land bad? I don’t think the bison I saw there would call it bad. Neither would the thousands of prairie dogs found in the region. Nor would the pronghorn antelope or bighorn sheep say this was a bad place to live. Even the countless meadowlarks I saw there sang as if they had no complaint about the land about them.
Humans seem to have a tendency to give value to things primarily as they relate to themselves. A fancy word for this is anthropocentrism. If something benefits us it is considered good; if it does not we deem it bad. We may have a tendency to look at things this way but I don’t think God does. For some reason we often forget that God declared in Genesis 1 that all that He made is “good.” Perhaps we have trouble finding the good at times from a human perspective but that does not mean such things do not have an inherent goodness about them. All of the earth is valuable and good because it was created by and belongs to God. In one of her poems Mary Oliver says “You cannot cross one hummock or furrow but it is His holy ground.” The badlands are no exception.
As I enjoyed the beauty and diversity of Badlands National Park and pondered why they got the designation “bad-lands” I thought of the story in the Book of Acts where Peter has a vision where “he saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.” (10:11) In that sheet were all kinds of animals and Peter heard a voice that instructed him to kill and eat what he saw. Since many of the species were ceremonially unclean animals and forbidden by Jews for eating Peter protested and said he had never eaten anything impure or unclean. At this point Peter heard a heavenly voice tell him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (10:15) Perhaps we stand in need today of a new vision where we are reminded that there are no bad lands. If we are going to be good stewards of the earth it would certainly help if we recognized the goodness of the land. Wouldn’t you agree?