“Care for Our Common Home,” is the title of Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, which was issued several years ago.
Of course, there was immediate criticism of the Pope for getting involved in economics and science—he was told that he should stick to theology. Numerous politicians and pundits chimed in. Jeb Bush quipped. “I do not take economic advice from the Pope.”
On the one hand, it is a false dichotomy to attempt to separate thinking about God from the rest of life. And it’s disingenuous that many of these same politicians and pundits invoke the name of God and quote Scripture to shore up their own favorite causes, passions, political calculations, and fund-raising. They do it when it meets their needs, but they don’t like it when a preacher—the Pope’s a preacher, you know—they don’t like it when a preacher disagrees with them.
What the critics seem to miss is that Francis frames global climate change and environmental concerns as “theological and moral” issues. Yes, there are economic, social, scientific, and political implications. But what the papal encyclical does is to re-frame the question.
Climate is a theological issue. As the Psalmist says in our text for today, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, * the world and all who dwell therein.” (PS. 24:1)
Climate is a moral issue. The poor suffer the most from improper care of the environment—even though they have contributed the least to climate change. As our biblical scholars and theologians have insisted, Christianity has a preferential option for the poor—meaning that the weak and vulnerable take priority in our concern and action. And certainly, future generations are placed at grave risk if we fail to act significantly and in a timely way.
So our starting place in thinking about the environment is theological and moral.
The Bible opens with stories of creation—God’s creation. The universe is brought into being by the word of God. People are created and placed, where? In a beautiful garden. Everything they need is there. All they have to do is to leave that one tree alone. But they wouldn’t leave their hands off of it. And they ruined life in the garden. What a powerful metaphor.
In fact, the broad scope of biblical history can be read in terms of gardens and vineyards—gardens and vineyards obtained and lost. Abraham lived in the Tigris/Euphrates valley—the lush cradle of civilization. He left for a Promised Land.
Joseph led his people to the fertile farms and vineyards of the Nile delta to escape famine. Four-hundred years later Moses led them out of slavery in Egypt to roam the Wilderness of Sinai. Joshua led them into the Land of Milk and Honey. On and on it went—land obtained and land lost—exile and return.
Jesus frequently told stories of gardens and vineyards. Listen to this one from the 12th Chapter of Mark.
‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.”But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. (Mark 12:1-8)
On the one hand it’s a parable about Jesus being killed by usurpers of God’s power and authority. But on the other hand it’s a story about us and about our relationship to God and to God’s vineyard. God created our world asking only that we care for one another and for the earth, and to return our love and worship and praise. But like the wicked tenants, we’ve done a pretty lousy job. Even worse than the tenants in the story, we’ve not only refused to return what is due to God, we’ve made a horrible mess—we’ve spoiled the vineyard.
Theologian Matthew Fox has written:
“When we resist something by denying it, the condition worsens. Climate change is a perfect example. There are still those who deny its existence even as ocean levels rise due to melting glaciers. That’s why we have to address denial. (The Christian mystic) Meister Eckhart says that ‘God is the denial of denial.’ Until we let go of denial, the creative, joyous energy of the Divine cannot flow.”
We parents of Deaf children know that when a Deaf person closes her eyes, she effectively cuts off almost all communication from the outside. With a distinct advantage over hearing children who must just pretend they don’t hear, she can prevent any new information from penetrating her world.
Jesus was always trying to get deniers to open their ears to hear and their eyes to see.
The Psalmist also anticipated the deniers when he referred to those who “pledged themselves to falsehood” and have “sworn by what is a fraud.” (PS. 24:4) The sad thing is that they have diverted too much time and energy away from seeking solutions—or in theological terms—redemption and healing of the earth.
What I most appreciate about the Pope’s encyclical, is that it calls the world to begin to think about the care of our common home in terms of our relationship to God and to each other. We are part of the creation. If we can continue to devalue the creation, we devalue humanity itself.
I was pleased to hear that our General Convention (which met in San Antonio from July 5-13) made creation care one of the chief priorities for the Episcopal Church.
Become an environmental advocate and activist, calling for industry, business, government, faith communities, civic organizations—all God’s people—to make better choices for the redemption of the world. Numerous organizations exist to promote activism and advocacy. Interfaith Power and Light is one of those to which the Episcopal Church belongs and supports.
And finally, pray. The power of prayer is that when we practice it regularly and fervently, we start to become more like what we pray for, and we join our hearts, hands, and voices with God’s. Let us make God’s garden to be, once again, a place of beauty, health, and wholeness—for after all, it is our common home.