Something Sacred Defiled: The Ecological Ethics of “First Reformed” by Walker Storz

There is a large ladder of religious atrocities, with many rungs. But three of them are the most important. First people sacrificed human beings to their gods, perhaps the very ones whom they loved best. Here belong the sacrifices of the first born in all prehistoric religions, also the sacrifice of Emperor Tiberius in the grotto to Mithras on the island of Capri, that most terrible of all Roman anachronisms. Then, in the moral ages of humanity, people sacrificed to their gods the strongest instincts which man possessed, his “nature.” This celebratory joy sparkles in the cruel glance of the ascetic, of the enthusiastic “anti-natural man.” Finally, what was still left to sacrifice? Didn’t people finally have to sacrifice everything comforting, holy, healing, all hope, all belief in a hidden harmony, in future blessedness and justice? Didn’t people have to sacrifice God himself and, out of cruelty against themselves, worship stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, and nothingness? To sacrifice God for nothingness—this paradoxical mystery of the last act of cruelty is saved for the generation which is coming along right now. We all already know something about this.

            – Friedrich Nietszche, Beyond Good and Evil

In 2016, I became incredibly sick following a tick bite, several viral infections, and multiple exposures to mold. I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), an immune condition which results in inflammatory, allergy-like responses to various environmental factors. MCAS is particularly difficult to manage, in that you can react to almost anything without testing positive on a standard allergy test. The illness therefore comes on without warning or explanation, and its ultimate cause is unknown.

My symptoms included cognitive difficulties, often called “brain fog.” I had also been diagnosed with a fairly devastating spinal issue which would likely require surgery and cause neurological effects. I sometimes became so incapacitated that I could not move. I spent months in bed, having to wear a cervical collar because of the spinal condition. I was in great pain, and a heightened sensitivity to external stimuli made it hard to listen to music or watch movies.

The odd thing was that this spinal condition was usually linked to either a genetic connective tissue disorder or a head trauma, and I had neither. I was starting to intuit that environmental factors, including exposures to mold, might be playing a role in my illnesses. I researched a link between MCAS and my neck and spinal issues. At first I was skeptical of the connection, but gradually, after realizing that a house where I had been living was indeed moldy, I began to be more open to the idea. It would, at least in theory, explain how a combination of inflammatory responses to infections and environmental toxins could cause such damage to my spine as well as many of my other symptoms.

I share this backstory to give context to my understanding of First Reformed, the 2018 film by Paul Schrader that deals with violence, asceticism, and sacrifice in a way which brings to life the most extreme impulses of Christianity and martyrdom.

Loosely based on Robert Bresson’s 1951 film adaption of the George Bernanos novel Diary of a Country Priest, First Reformed follows the story of Reverend Ernst Toller, a pastor in a small Protestant church in the fictional town of Snowbridge, New York, as his faith is tested by everything from the commercialization of religion, to alcoholism and physical ailments, to an encounter with a despairing ecological activist that forever changes him, filling him with both despair and new sense of purpose.

Some reviews of First Reformed have discussed it as a film about depression and religious crisis that can be separated from their specific causes. I strongly disagree with this interpretation, and I think the film even argues against it in a metatextual way. At one point, Toller argues while counseling the despairing eco-activist Michael that “blackness” and despair—the “dark night of the soul”—have always been part of human existence, even if the fact that humankind has brought itself to the brink of extinction with its inability to regulate its consumption or tend to the garden of creation is relatively new.

The speech acknowledges an important duality in the film. The bleakness, despair, and asceticism of Toller’s life has much historical and religious precedent, but the content of Michael’s despair about the ecological crisis, which then becomes Toller’s despair, matters urgently in a way that makes it unique among previous historical crises. The film argues that levels and intensities of crises matter, that they aren’t interchangeable, that while the religion that Toller practices has given strength to people in times of great trial, our current trial of a collapsing, polluted world in which we are engaged in massive ecocide should be viewed as something specific.

The despair over the ecological crisis isn’t the only thing Toller inherits from Michael upon the younger man’s death. He also inherits his suicide vest and the idea of ultimate martyrdom that it represents. Toller makes plans to use the vest in the presence a corrupt megachurch minister and his fossil-fuel magnate sponsor. The film builds to the climactic scene, and the viewer is kept in suspense about whether Toller will execute this final sacrifice.

There are various traditions of social activism and social justice within Christianity, and while some involve a self-sacrificing civil disobedience, none can twist Scripture into a justification for suicide and murder. So when our protagonist—a mild-mannered, intelligent, and educated theologian, a man who reads Thomas Merton and gently counsels the grieving widow of an eco-activist—plans to make this choice, what are we to make of it? Just as cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s transcendent visuals saturate simple objects and landscapes with meaning, this plot point becomes something that can be meditated on through repeated viewings of the film.

Christian martyrdom is mentioned early on, when Michael disturbs Toller by bringing up the subject (with a bit too much zeal) in the context of ecological activists being murdered in Brazil. But martyrdom in Christianity does not involve murder; it involves pacifistic resistance ending in being murdered. Toller’s looming choice of whether or not to immolate himself might be justified by some utilitarian or consequentialist ethics: climate change looms over us as a coming catastrophe which will destroy millions and potentially billions of lives; we don’t need to project to the future catastrophe to find example of mass death and disability caused by pollution; we are already living in an era with an epidemic of chronic illness that many scientists such as Robert Naviaux argue is ascribable to the thousands of novel pollutants chemical companies have introduced to the world. Mainstream environmentalism and political and legal actions have mostly been toothless against this destruction, these ethicists might argue, and the most effective environmentalist groups like the Earth Liberation Front and Earth First! were mostly kneecapped in the 1990s and 2000s by legislation that made even mere property damage or trespassing to protest oil or lumber companies severely penalized as “ecoterrorism.” 

Thus Toller’s urgency and despair is contextualized: by the time he contemplates putting on that vest, many more peaceful and legal actions have failed. That said, I sincerely doubt that any Christian ethicist would argue this his is an acceptable action. “Thou shalt not kill” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” are at the absolute center of Christian doctrine, and murder is wholly anathema to even radical social justice–oriented Christianity, no matter what the ends are. Yet Toller claims to be animated by faith; he says that he has not lost it, and in fact it is reinvigorated by his new, albeit extreme, sense of purpose.

In a shot that may be one of the best pieces of cinematography in the film, Toller slowly walks around in the cold, wearing a black jacket, while a pink-drenched sunrise illuminates the damaged landscape around him, the shore of a polluted body of water. The pollution is the result of an oil spill that has destroyed the area’s wildlife. Although much of the film’s cinematography is distinctly American in the way it focuses on the seediness and bleak grime of suburban and urban landscapes, this shot is different. It reminds me of certain moments in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, who made work about everything from war to ecology to religion to apocalypse, all with a certain sense of reverence for landscape, a way of bringing out its interior qualities rather than treating it as a simple backdrop or canvas. The shot also reminds me of the ending scene of the animated film End of Evangelion by Hideaki Anno, in which there is a different sort of apocalypse that nevertheless ends up on an eerie terminal beach with shattered infrastructure scattered through a red ocean. 

Visual comparisons aside, Toller in this moment says that he has found “a new form of prayer.”  If we take him at his word, his religious or mystical connection to even a destroyed landscape is animating him when he contemplates the aforementioned act of violence. But surely he knows that murder, as well as self-murder, is a grave sin, and that ending his life in this way, no matter if it is a means to an end, will possibly lead his soul to hell. Though we cannot ultimately endorse his choice, we can understand his sense of urgency.

Duga-3, an abandoned early warning radar for anti-ballistic missile system, near Chernobyl, Ukraine. Artem Zhukov / Unsplash

A few years after my initial MCAS diagnosis, my sister brought me on a bed in the back of a minivan across the country in search of extremely pure air. Anecdotal evidence and other citizen scientists had led me to believe that this would potentially cure me, or at the very least alleviate some of my symptoms. We camped at 7,000-foot altitude in a forest in southern Nevada, a sort of verdant island of cooler air and shade that rose above the surrounding desert. I began to see improvements to my condition. But, as is the case with many treatments, they were sometimes frustratingly slow.

The mountain where we camped reminded me of Dante’s mountain of purgatory because it occupied a liminal space between two realms. In one realm, there was the decay of our current industrial civilization and the pain and hopelessness of my incurable illness; in the other, a refuge of ancient wilds which held the tantalizing promise of deep healing and potentially a full remission. Viewing First Reformed in this setting, on a cracked phone screen in the wilderness rather than in a movie theater, led me to understand that this work was overflowing with meaning, and that it reached me in my crisis through no accident.

My experience is not unique; there are untold number of people enduring health issues because of environmental toxicity. At its root, the problem is a spiritual one: we have lost our conception of “sacred space” and replaced it with a homogenous, interchangeable “profane space.” The notion that an old-growth forest is a collection of unprocessed lumber which is fungible with capital is one example of how a profane, secular notion of space leads to ecological destruction; instead, the forest should be seen as valuable in a way that cannot be reduced to exchange value. A sacred notion of the cosmos as a living, unified space leads to less ecological destruction because man is seen as integrated; if he defiles nature, he is harming himself and inviting pollution, spiritual disorder, and the wrath of God (or the gods, depending on his religious inclinations).

“Growth for the sake of growth is the ‘ideology’ of the cancer cell,” Edward Abbey once wrote. The quote makes me think of a moment I had when riding from Los Angeles towards the San Bernardino Mountains, passing through palm desert and the surrounding area, seeing pieces of pristine desert followed by strip malls and suburban developments popping up like monstrous growths. It felt like witnessing something sacred defiled. In traditional religions, humans participate in creation of the world and repeat this creation in their rituals. Until we readopt such a worldview, and shift our fixation on economic profit above all other concerns to something more holistic and integrated, we will continue to inflict undue harm on ourselves as a species. ♦

Walker Storz is a musician, artist, and writer living in New Mexico. His work covers the themes of faith, suffering, and illness. Additional information is available at his website,

Banner image: Ronan Furuta / Unsplash
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.