The Demon, the Desert, and the Wardrobe | Sojourners


Illustration of mountains of clothes spilling out of a wardrobe in a desert

Photo illustration by Nico Ortega

The Demon, the Desert, and the Wardrobe

Monstrous mountains of our own making are growing in number in the driest non-polar desert on Earth.
By Céire Kealty

IN THE CHRISTIAN tradition, the desert serves as the rugged backdrop against which biblical figures and mystical successors encounter God and the ungodly. The desert is a place to grapple with fear, temptation, and self-understanding. From the patriarchs to the Desert Mothers to Christ, the desert is a place of great consequence.

Moses’ numinous encounter with the burning bush in the desert directs him from bewilderment toward understanding his mission for God’s chosen people. David’s time in the desert, spurred by the threats of Saul, inspires him to write poetry and prose to articulate his deep desire for God. Jesus, too, journeyed into the desert in preparation for his public ministry. For 40 days, he fasted and endured temptation from the devil—equipping him well for the trials he would later face.

The Christian tradition continues to uphold the desert as a place of encounter and renewal. For example, the Eastern Orthodox tradition reveres the spiritual endurance of St. Anthony who battled demons in the desert for decades, scorning intimidation while asserting his devotion to Christ. His trials and time in the desert granted him apatheia, a Greek word that loosely translates to “emotional equilibrium.” For many believers today, these stories provide inspiration in navigating one’s own deserts, whether literal or metaphorical.

I find the desert portrait useful when confronting the disturbing forces that persist throughout the world. Though they may not resemble the spirits tormenting Christ and the church’s saintly successors, we might be so bold as to call them demons. The demon that has caught my eye in recent months lingers near; it nestles carefully against our skin. We think that the clothes we wear are ours to don, wash, and discard—that they take a tidy journey from drawer to donation bin. In reality, they often land in piles of clothing cast-offs in the Atacama Desert in South America. Thousands of miles away, these monstrous mountains of our own making are growing in number in the driest non-polar desert on Earth.

Dumped in the desert

IN NOVEMBER 2021, Al Jazeera published an article exposing an environmental problem plaguing Chile: excess clothing waste. The country receives a whopping 59,000 tons of clothing from Europe, Asia, and the United States every year.

The garments begin their journey through Latin America at the Port of Iquique, which sits in a free trade zone of northern Chile. From here, they can take three paths: Some clothes may be bought by merchants from Santiago, the country’s capital. Others will likely be intercepted by smugglers who will distribute the clothes to other countries in Latin America. The third path is bleak: Garments that cannot be sold, whether due to prior wear or damage sustained before or during transport, are dumped in the Atacama Desert.

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Céire Kealty is a doctoral student in theology at Villanova University, where she studies fashion theory, spirituality, and ethics.