A Christian Approach to Ecology and Interreligious Cooperation in Addressing the Environmental Crisis

Uncertain date.  Posted by The Washington Inter-religious Staff Community’s Energy and Ecology Working Group. Washington, D.C. Representatives of Religious Organizations and Faith-related groups have worked together on environmental issues since the 1970’s.

In the not too distant past, the Judeo-Christian tradition was accused of being responsible for the environmental crisis. In part, the accusation arose due to a misinterpretation of the biblical phrase “subdue the earth.” The charge, however, is refuted by both the Old and New Testaments, which proclaim the natural world as the loving creation of God. This is made perfectly clear in the first chapter of Genesis, as well as in the  prophets and wisdom literature.

Biblical teaching offers a theology of creation in which the relation between
humanity and nature is understood from the perspective of Creator-creature.
The human person is a created being, as are nature and all its creatures. Not
only are men and women good, but so too are all created beings and all
ecosystems.

Earth and all that it contains do not belong to humanity but to God. Men and women are the stewards of creation.  “Subdue the earth” does not give free-reign to exploit and destroy the environment; rather it is the divine command for men and women to humanize nature by relating to nature joyfully and fruitfully. Psalm 104, among others, is a moving song of grateful recognition to the Creator of the beauty and splendor of created beings: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!…You have spread out
the heavens like a tent cloth…You make the winds your messengers…You fixed
the earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever…May the glory of the
Lord endure forever.”

The New Testament presents nature as a great divine gift. In his letter to the
Romans (8:20-21), St. Paul highlights the intimate relation—for better or
worse—between humanity and nature. Creation and redemption are profoundly
linked because it is the same God who creates and re-creates all. For St. Paul,
the salvation of humanity and of the universe are part of the same divine plan,
realized in Christ, who has assumed a body like ours and has risen. All created
reality in the cosmos is present in the risen body of Christ. Therefore, the
unbridled exploitation of nature or its willed destruction by humanity is
contrary to the plan of the God of the Bible. For this reason, the World Council
of Churches, and more recently the Catholic Church as well, have responded
on many occasions to these challenges, defending and proclaiming the
responsibility of Christians to protect the integrity of creation. 

The spirituality of Francis of Assisi offers a strong motivation to become thoroughly involved in efforts to deal with the current environmental crisis. It highlights a special concern and responsibility for our mother Earth and for all of Creation. Francis was named patron saint of ecology by John Paul II in 1979 because of his attitude toward Creation. He did not confront the same questions that we do, and the environment in his time did not face the same global threats, but his approach to the world and his relationship to nature point us in the right direction. They remind us of the moral imperative to address the crisis that threatens our planet and all its inhabitants. Unlike the common spirituality of his time, Francis did not separate the spiritual world from the material world, and he certainly did not look down upon the material world. He viewed the earth and everything in nature as God’s creation. Francis related to all created things – living or inanimate – with great respect and sought to be subject to them. This attitude is different from a spirituality that sees human beings as rulers of the earth. Francis did
not see human beings as above or outside the rest of nature. He saw them as sisters and brothers, fellow creatures of the same God. He expressed his spirituality uniquely and poetically in the Canticle of the Creatures,1 composed at the end of his life. He proclaims:
Praised be You, my Lord, with all Your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, Who is the day and through whom you give us light. And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor; and bears a likeness of You, Most High One. Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful.
And Francis continues to praise God through Brothers Wind and Fire, and through Sisters Water and Mother Earth. But the canticle does not simply praise God for creation. Francis did not stand outside of nature to thank God for this gift. Rather, he stood alongside the community of creatures and – as part of that community – praised God as the source of all life and creation. The creatures’ praise of God consists in their being what they are – that they become what they were created to be.

That is what differentiates Francis’s spirituality from a concern for the environment which only relates to the future of humankind. According to Francis, care for creation springs from a deep respect for and interior solidarity with everything that God has created. Francis sensed the unity of the entire cosmos. He was aware of the teaching of St. Paul which declares that the community of Christians forms the body of Christ, and that the joys and
sufferings of each individual member contribute to the well-being and to the
suffering of the entire body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-31; Col. 1:18; 2:18-20; Eph.
1:22-23; 3:19; 4:13). Francis extended the same truth to the entire cosmos.
Today we find confirmation of his intuition in scientific reports: destruction and
environmental degradation in one part of the world leads to suffering and
problems throughout the world.
Interreligious Cooperation in Addressing the Environmental Crisis
I believe that there is little problem for Christianity, along with the other
“Abrahamic” religions, to provide ample written evidence of a commitment to
environmental issues and of an urgent concern to address the current
environmental crisis. However, not unlike the government actors who have
1 For the text of the Canticle see: http://www.appleseeds.org/canticle.htm .
been meeting fairly regularly over the last number of years to address these
issues, we find that the devil is in the details. My own work as the director of
the Office for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation for the Order of Friars
Minor has shown me how difficult it is to translate a spoken commitment into a
concrete plan of action. We have some fine documents that offer us a good
theoretical basis for such work, and encourage and inspire us to become
involved. But turning the vision into concrete action has been much more
elusive. The task becomes increasingly more difficult as we venture into areas
of interreligious cooperation, where there are few structures in place that are
able to promote such cooperation, along with a lack of funding for such work.
However, there are women and men who struggle valiantly to address these
problems through the prism of their faith, some of whom do this work in the
context of interreligious cooperation. I will now share with you some of the
examples that I have come across:
1. Our Franciscan family (we are composed of various branches) has been
involved with ARC, the Alliance for Religion and Conservation, in Great Britain.
At their invitation, we prepared a seven-year plan to address environmental
issues, and we sent a representative to ARC’s 25th anniversary celebration in
November of last year. As a result of that meeting, we have become involved
in a project that is promoting the “Greening of Pilgrimage Cities.” A first
meeting has been successfully held in Assisi, and it included participation of
Assisi, Jerusalem, Medina, Dwarka, Haifa, St. Etchmiadzin and Trondheim. The
strengths of this project is that it offers a specific area of activity, provides a
very large point of contact with the faithful of many religious traditions, and
can be broadened into any number of ancillary projects as need or interest
arises.
2. In 1991 the Franciscans in the Netherlands founded the Franciscan Milieu
Project in Stoutenberg. Its core community is composed of people from
diverse religious backgrounds and experiences. The main focus of the project
is to improve human relationship with the earth, nature and the environment,
a relationship that has become extremely distorted. The understanding of the
Stoutenberg community is that the earth is our common home, thus people of
all religions are welcome to visit and help find new ways to live sustainably.
Along with many hands-on activities, the community also offers the possibility
of reflection on relationships with one another and with our common home, the
earth. Inspired by Franciscan spirituality (which holds that all creatures are
related to one another and to the Creator and are thus interdependent), the
Project believes that the relationship between humans and the environment
can be truly changed and renewed radically. One of the Project’s objectives is
to promote the more general field of ecology and religion and to network with
the different denominations and faiths in this regard. Stoutenburg is an oasis
of peace and brother/sisterhood, and it offers welcome and hospitality,
acceptance and inclusion. Its Franciscan name and association help people of
different faiths or of no faith to feel welcome and part of the Stoutenburg
community.
3. In the United States, the Franciscan family has established an organization
called FAN (Franciscan Action Network). It was founded to promote joint
advocacy work on important issues in Washington. FAN and its members have
been involved in some interreligious projects to promote the environment.
They include:
a. WISC-EEWG (Washington Interfaith Service Coalition, Environment
and Energy Working Group), which meets and communicates regularly to
share expertise and collaborate on matters of policy (like efforts for
comprehensive climate and energy legislation at the federal level).
b. GreenFaith, which works to educate, animate and mobilize
communities of faith for individual, collective and policy change. GreenFaith
focuses on US communities of faith; it includes Christians, Jews, Muslims,
Hindus and Buddhists. They assist congregations in “auditing” their use of
energy and other resources and also train individual faith leaders.
c. Interfaith Power and Light (IPL) conducts the same activities as
GreenFaith, and adds an international component as well. One example of
such international action is the “Carbon Covenant,” which partners US
communities of faith with ecological restoration projects (mostly forests at this
point) around the world. Another example is a project to stop desertification in
Cameroon which involves Protestants, Catholics and Muslims.
4. Again in the United States, the National Religious Partnership for the
Environment is a unique ecumenical and interfaith organization that was
founded in 1993. Its membership includes the United States Conference of
Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches USA, the Evangelical
Environmental Network and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.
The Partnership and its member communities have provided key leadership
within the broader faith community in addressing seminal environmental issues
from a religious perspective. All member communities work extensively to
educate and organize believers throughout the United States, reaching millions
of people in the pews. Over the past three years, all four member groups
committed themselves to addressing global climate change and, in particular,
focused on providing leadership to address the issue of how climate change
impacts the poorest people in the least developed countries. While the US
Congress did not adopt a comprehensive climate policy, the process did lead to
establishing a set of ideas, policies and actual legislative language that was
included in the House climate legislation that did pass. This effort is
impressive on the part of the faith community, as it helps establish its support
of the effort to link poverty and climate change. The four partners worked
together on this policy project together, but they also worked independently
with their respective communities. They meet to share ideas and some of
them collaborate on particular projects. It is a process of “walking together
separately.” All have the same goal but do it within the culture of their
respective faith communities. The Partnership Secretariat raises funding and
provides strategic advice.
5. As a final example we can consider the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. It
was started by Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Laureate. She recognizes
that cooperation between religions will go a long way to re-planting the planet
and the continent of Africa, bringing about a return to a greener environment.
She has led plantings of 30 million trees across Africa to combat deforestation
and has said that an annual tree-planting drive could symbolize revival for all
peoples. She noted how such cooperation could be something to unite all
people. In the same spirit, two Franciscan men in the Central Province of
Kenya have, with the cooperation of Catholics, Protestants and other people of
good will, planted nearly one million trees in that region.
Looking to the Future
My work for JPIC (Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation) is done
specifically in the context of the Order of Friars Minor. But it has been my
experience that my own efforts can only be enhanced by cooperation with
other groups and individuals. For this reason, whenever I am preparing
resource material or putting together some program for my own brothers, I
always keep in mind other people who might benefit from my work. Much of
the material we have already produced can be found on the website of our
Order, http://www.ofm.org . All are free to use this material, as long as you let
people know where it comes from.
I will continue to work on the following issues, always looking for ways to
cooperate with others, including the possibility of interreligious cooperation:
1. Preparation and distribution of resource material on Ecology in our Daily
Lives and on Environmental Justice. Preparation of this material is a mandate
of the last General Meeting of our Order.
2. Participate with the Franciscan family in working with ARC, looking to
promote the seven-year plan that we have created, and promoting the project
for the “Greening of Pilgrimage Cities.”
3. Look to establish a series of “Ecology Centers” in different regions of the
world. The centers will serve as foci of regional ecological networks, and will
help to identify local groups and individuals that can help collaborate in our
ecological projects. Look to open these centers to interreligious participation.
4. Cooperate with other groups and activists who promote the education,
animation and mobilization of faith communities in regard to ecological issues.

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