Published: February 2008
"The Second Vatican Council alerted the Catholic world to the plight of the poor in a dramatic way as a "sign of the times." We were encouraged to see it as religiously significant--the Holy Spirit teaching us new dimensions of the virtue of justice. It became possible to extend our sense of the sufferings--the Passion of Jesus to include the poor and speak of the Passion of the poor--calling us beyond a moral response to a religious investment of meaning. For Thomas Berry... it is crucially important for Christians to respond in a similar way to the Passion of the Earth."
Stephen Dunn, Passionist Father, University of Toronto Professor of Ethics, and Director of the Holy Cross Centre for Ecology and Spirituality, 1998.
My husband and I have been watching The National on CBC TV now for decades. In the past year or two, however, we've been dismayed by special reports on global warming, melting Arctic ice, extinction of species, extreme weather, water shortages and massive oil spills.
I find these reports and their subtext, that humanity is rendering planet earth uninhabitable for our children's children, so disturbing that I often cannot watch. Sometimes I dismiss the reports as exaggerated fear mongering, knowing full well that my avoidance is an inadequate response. The image of the polar bear isolated on its melting ice floe haunts me.
What are we, as Christians, to do? The following comments offer the underlying premises of a possible Lenten devotion on God's creation and creatures. The basic belief is that caring for our planet is God's will for us. Exploiting this fragile earth for short-term profit is evil, as is the abuse of any of God's creatures.
The Genesis instruction that people should have dominion over the earth and its creatures is a dangerously obsolete imperative. The science of the Old Testament was applicable two to three thousand years ago, but now, with human overpopulation the root cause of our environmental crisis, we have obeyed too well the command to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it." Jesus, the focus of the "New" Testament, also lived long ago, when the earth's population is estimated to have been between 170 and 400 million. He did not need to address issues of environmentalism. We do.
Interpreting the spirit of the Bible for our new age is one of our primary challenges. Doing so wisely is difficult because of the danger of reading one's own ideas into the biblical text. Fortunately, there are, within mainstream churches, respected theologians who can teach us new ways of understanding the relationship of Creator and creation. For instance, Thomas Berry, an American Roman Catholic priest and ecologian (theologian/ecologist), wrote a number of books whose ideas have been adopted by many religious environmentalists. The concept summarized in the phrase, "the Passion of the Earth," connects the Earth's current suffering to Christ's.
We need to revise our intercessions beyond our typically anthropocentric focus and pray for the physical world where God is incarnate, for the balance of nature and the well-being of each ecosystem and each species.
Then, maintaining our focus on God's creation and creatures, we can act appropriately, whatever our age, position and ability. If we are business people, we can adopt Scrooge's learned credo ("Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business!") and extend it to "The well-being of all creatures is my business!" If we are legal workers, we can work for eco-justice for all life forms. If we are students, we can learn the theory and practice of ecology. If we are cooks, we can buy and prepare foods respecting the 100-Mile Diet. If we are cleaners, we can use non-toxic products. If we are farmers, we can grow organic. If we are artists we can, in Robert Bateman's words, "Think like a mountain." If we are in a line of work that is primarily destructive, should we not look for another, earth-friendly job? As citizens, we can emphasize to our representatives at all levels of government that our top priority is the environment....
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