Caring for our common home

April 17th, 2018

The celebration of Earth Day each spring gives Christians an opportunity to consider God's good creation and our stewardship of it. This year, Earth Day falls on Sunday, April 22nd. This article was first published in FaithLink and appeared on Ministry Matters on December 15th, 2015

Our common home

Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home was released in June 2015 and is getting much attention in and beyond the faith community. It is similar in its concern for God’s creation to God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action (a pastoral letter and accompanying foundation document) from the United Methodist Council of Bishops in November 2009. Although Laudato Si’ is about four times as long as God’s Renewed Creation, both draw attention to the crisis of creation and its interrelated causes, and both are calls to hope and action.

The pope begins his encyclical by saying that the earth “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” He holds up Saint Francis of Assisi as patron saint of the environment and as one who “shows us just how inseparable is the bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” Francis’ appeal is “for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”

What’s happening to our common home

To describe what’s happening to our common home, Pope Francis starts with “pollution, waste and the throwaway culture.” He says that pollution has profound negative effects on human health, causing “millions of premature deaths.” He continues, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” He names other “aspects of the present ecological crisis”: climate change, the issue of water, loss of biodiversity, the decline in the quality of human life and the breakdown of society, and global inequality.

The pope presents the scientific consensus that climate change is a real, global problem partially caused by human activity and that it has not only environmental implications but also social, economic, and political ones. In some places, climate change is badly affecting entire populations and results in mass migrations, while many people who have resources and power seem unconcerned. He believes “we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation.”

The roots of the ecological crisis

Pope Francis says that although science and technology have and can improve quality of life, they have also “given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them, an impressive dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world.” Human beings need “a sound ethics, a culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clearminded self-restraint.”

Francis explains, “Our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience” that would counter our captivation with the promise of unlimited growth. The idea of unlimited growth “is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.” He says that those favoring this paradigm show “no interest in more balanced levels of production, a better distribution of wealth, concern for the environment and the rights of future generations.”

Integral ecology

Central to the encyclical’s purpose is integral ecology, “which respects our unique place as human beings in this world and our relationship to our surroundings.” We are not separate from nature.

Pope Francis argues, “The analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, workrelated and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves.” Therefore, it is “essential to seek comprehensive solutions which consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”

The need for dialogue and conversion

Addressing the question of what needs to be done, Pope Francis emphasizes that dialogue — local, national, international — is essential: “There are certain environmental issues where it is not easy to achieve a broad consensus. . . . The Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Francis argues that environmental education is critically important in the formation of a new lifestyle, in raising awareness, and in motivating action. We need not only individual conversion but also community conversion. For this conversion to happen, we need a spirituality that can motivate us to care for God’s creation. Christian spirituality can form us in moderation and the ability to be happy with less. Love is not only individual but civil and political, and “it makes itself felt in every action that seeks to build a better world.”

Similarities to God’s Renewed Creation

In 2009, the United Methodist Council of Bishops published a pastoral letter and accompanying foundation document entitled God’s Renewed Creation: Call to Hope and Action. Although much shorter, it underscores some of the same themes that are in the pope’s encyclical. It begins, “God’s creation is in crisis,” and names what human “neglect, selfishness, and pride have fostered: pandemic poverty and disease; environmental degradation, and the proliferation of weapons and violence.”

Like the pope’s encyclical, it acknowledges the interconnectedness of people, plants, and animals. The bishops “see one interconnected system that is ‘groaning in travail’ ” (Romans 8:22, RSV). They say, “The threats to peace, people, and planet earth are related to one another” and require a “comprehensive response.”

The pastoral letter calls us to “orient our lives toward God’s holy vision,” which is that we have “a future with hope” (Jeremiah 29:11, NRSV): “Christ’s resurrection assures us that this vision is indeed a promise of renewal and reconciliation.”

A central theme of Wesleyan theology is the belief that “personal holiness and social holiness must never be separated. John Wesley preached: ‘The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social. No holiness but social holiness.’ ” The bishops say that because “God’s blessing, care, and promise of renewal extend to all of creation, we can speak today of ‘environmental holiness’ as well.” They continue, “We practice social and environmental holiness by caring for God’s people and God’s planet and by challenging those whose policies and practices neglect the poor, exploit the weak, hasten global warming and produce more weapons.”

Hope and action

The bishops’ letter calls us to “live and act in hope.” The Wesleyan tradition affirms that reconciliation and renewal are “part of the process of salvation that is already under way.” We are “part of a divine unfolding process to which we must contribute. As we faithfully respond to God’s grace and call to action, the Holy Spirit guides us in this renewal.”

The bishops then pledge themselves to a number of actions, some of which the rest of us can take. We can “deepen our spiritual consciousness as just stewards of creation” and “make God’s vision of renewal our goal.” We can work with other organizations and people of other faiths in order to strengthen our efforts. We can advocate for policies and legislature that contribute to the health of God’s creation. We can measure the carbon footprints of our homes, offices, and congregations and work to reduce them.

A reason to hope is that “God is already visibly at work in people and groups around the world.” Congregations have formed “green teams” to be “testimonies of stewardship and sustainability.” Ecumenical and interreligious partners are demanding the reduction of nuclear weapons.

The bishops’ letter ends with this request: “We beseech every United Methodist, every congregation, and every public leader: Will you participate in God’s renewing work? We are filled with hope for what God can accomplish through us, and we pray you respond: ‘We will, with God’s help!’ ”

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