Divine Word Missionaries

Peace, Justice and Integrity Of Creation


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- Thomas Malipurathu, SVD

Globalized Present, Endangered Future

Through her haunting 1962 book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson inadvertently set in motion a great movement. For Carson the book was the concrete expression of her life-long advocacy of nature and environmental ethics. It is widely credited with starting the modern environmental movement. Thanks to this movement, many people—although their percentage is still somewhat small—today are aware of the serious implications of a degenerating environment. It is unfortunately true that most people still think of the ecological problem as somebody else’s problem and as something that affects the far-away polar regions and the outer space! Others, vaguely aware of some of the issues involved, by and large limit themselves to thinking that planting more trees in their compounds and keeping their backyards free of litter are all that is required of them to ensure the health of the environment.

The immediate aim of the author of Silent Spring was to alert the public about the disastrous consequences of the uncontrolled production and indiscriminate use of pesticides. But the book had a much wider scope that went far beyond the mere voicing of a sharply-defined caution against the agricultural and domestic use of certain poisons. By taking on the powerful chemical industry, this courageous woman raised important questions about humankind’s impact on nature. Silent Spring made people think about the environment and during the four decades in which it has been read and re-read, the book has exercised a profound impact on many an environmental enthusiast.

The image of a devastated earth that the title of the book conjures up is truly chilling. A spring without chirping birds, humming bees and the murmur of the gently swaying trees is both repellent and fearsome. Widespread and continued use of highly toxic pesticides has already resulted in the extinction of many rare species of birds and numerous species of insects and microbes—slowly but surely paving the way for a silent spring. Given the fact that every living organism on the face of the planet is part of an interconnected web, loss of one or more links in the chain progressively weakens the entire system. Carson pointed this out in her book with compelling narrative force.

Carson wrote her monograph long before the process of globalization had assumed the savage force that we experience today. This process sometimes reveals itself as something that goes beyond the realm of economic activity, a predatory process that has no regard for environmental concerns, national boundaries or cultural sensibilities. It considers profit as the sole driving force of all economic activity. A mindless exploitation of nature which feeds the frenzy of production and consumption is generally recognized as the hallmark of globalization. The culture of consumerism that globalization has produced considers consumption as the main form of self-expression and the chief source of identity. “I consume, therefore I exist!” seems to be the principle that has the highest approval rating in our day. The truth is that the economic and social dynamics that result from this stretches the eco-system beyond the endurance level, giving rise to a series of lethal consequences.

The recent scare caused by the rapidly spreading bird flu infection, although for now mostly limited to birds, has once again set the world thinking about environmental issues and about the human misuse of the nature’s bounty. Discerning people have been pointing out for a long time that interfering with the laws of nature to maximize production and profit can lead to disastrous consequences. The sudden outbreak of hitherto unknown strains of deadly viruses and the ferocious nature of their attack are causing sleepless nights for medical researchers and healthcare experts all over the world.

Many, for instance, see the bird flu infection as a result of the callousness with which poultry is raised—or rather mass-produced—in most countries. Huge numbers of birds are forced into tiny cages, where they have no room to move and are forced to stand constantly on their legs. This horrifyingly unhealthy living conditions experienced by many generations of birds, they contend, have resulted in the deadly H5N1strain of virus. Foot-and-mouth disease and mad cow syndrome prevalent in farm animals in many of the developing countries are widely believed to be the consequence of the indiscriminate use of hormone injections to boost the quality and quantity of meat production.

The introduction of the Genetically Modified Seeds is frequently hailed as a breakthrough in scientific research. The use of GMS to boost agricultural production is now common in many countries. We are stepping into the age of ‘designer’ crops. But what remains to be seen is what kind of effect it will have on the metabolism of humans and animals consuming grains and pulses produced by this breakthrough method. Sane but isolated voices are already advising caution.

Bird flu and foot-and-mouth disease are just two of the more evident examples of nature getting back at us for our total disregard for its laws. Many of the ecological problems that we are facing today can ultimately be traced back to the same disregard exercised in ways both evident and subtle. Air and water pollution that impairs the health of vast sections of population, depletion of the ozone layer, global warming, shrinking bio-diversity as well as the unusual and often harmful weather fluctuations are foreboding in nature. Add to them such potential threats as the rapidly dwindling stocks of non-renewable sources of energy, the gradual disappearance of wetlands and water bodies, diminishing water tables, the melting of the polar ice-caps, expanding deserts, the mindless destruction of rainforests for cattle-raising especially through illegal logging and large-scale erosion of topsoil, and the picture becomes dismal.

The point is this: the process of globalization, although it has been beneficial in many ways, has accelerated the degradation of the environment, inexorably pushing the earth to the brink. The situation is fast becoming critical, because at stake is the ability of the planet to support life.

Christian Mission and Environmental Activism

It is now commonplace knowledge that mission theology has been constantly evolving. Some would say that this evolution is visible already in the different layers of the New Testament tradition. It has surely come a long way from the days when the focus was on an expansionist agenda progressing in tandem with the Western colonial enterprise. Through the providential intervention of Vatican II the process of reinventing was accelerated, and today the concept of mission is developing along the lines of dialogue. Dialogue in this context is to be understood in a very broad sense. Normally people tend to think of dialogue as an exchange of ideas between two or more parties which is almost exclusively carried out through the exercise of the human vocal chords. But when dealing with the topic of mission, dialogue is to be understood as a comprehensive process of respectful interaction with the other. It is making space for the other in our scheme of things. It is an effort to put ourselves in the shoes of the other. It is trying to see reality from the point of view of the other. Looked at from this angle, dialogue has less to do with speech and more to do with an attitude: of inclusiveness, of solidarity, and of respect. Some would designate this process as the dialogue of life.

It is from this perspective of looking at mission as an activity inspired by an attitude of dialogue that we can establish our initiatives for protecting the integrity of creation as a genuine act of witnessing to the Reign of God. If we proceed from the starting point that an attitude of dialogue must permeate every aspect of our missionary outreach, we can easily see that the whole creation, with its divinely ordained richness and diversity, becomes our partner in dialogue. It is instructive to note that ‘ecology’ is derived from the Greek word ‘oikos’, meaning house or home. Every act that in some way contributes to the restoring of ecological soundness is in reality an act of caring for our home. It is true that missionary outreach is primarily addressed to human beings in all situations of need. But human beings are intimately linked to their physical environment. Our desperately endangered environment deserves to be considered as a situation of need calling for committed action.

In the Bible’s first story of creation, the book of Genesis makes it clear that God created the universe for the sake of human beings and indeed placed humans at the head of creation. That is the unmistakable meaning of the creation of humans at the end of a gradated process (cf. Gen 1:1-25). It is made explicit through clear statements, first in God’s own words in direct speech (cf. Gen 1:26) and then in indirect speech in the words of the narrator (cf. Gen 1:27)—a double affirmation that human beings are created in God’s image. Subsequently God entrusts the whole of creation to the humans in words ringing with significance: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on the earth” (Gen 1:28).

God entrusted humanity with the noble task of being the steward of creation. Now, a steward is someone who takes care of things for the owner. God is the owner of creation and God passes it on to us humans for safe-keeping. In the same act of being appointed stewards, we are also endowed with the supreme liberty of subduing creation and making use of it for the advancement of the common good. There are certain limits and responsibilities implicit in the process of subduing and making use of creation. As we all know, freedom entails a corresponding responsibility. Perhaps initially we were mindful of those limits and responsibilities, but somewhere along the way the human family lost sight of this important dimension of God’s generous act of trust.

There are many who point out that today’s humans have lost the sense of wonder that was so much a part of life in earlier stages of history. This is assumed to be one of the main reasons for the thoughtless exploitation of nature and its bounties. Today’s humans think of themselves as well-informed and sophisticated in an unprecedented manner, with the result that nothing in the created world inspires a sense of wonder. When we are deprived of this vital sense of wonder, we end up abusing the gifts of nature. The grave ecological crisis on our hands is its inevitable consequence.

The restoration of a healthy attitude towards the environment perhaps has to start with the rekindling of this sense of wonder. Some of the damage that we have inflicted on nature is irreversible and therefore we have to live with the consequences. But determined action now can still apply the healing touch to the wounded earth and make it safer for future generations. This is precisely where Christian mission has a role to play.

It is in this context that the whole of creation, considered as a corporate personality, emerges as a dialogue partner. It is true that the description of creation as a partner of dialogue has to be understood in a modified sense as we are not dealing with a person with self determination and free will. But just as missionary outreach is essentially an effort to care for especially those in situations of dire need, the wounded earth becomes an eminently worthy target. Mission thus also involves the task of promoting the integrity of creation and bringing it back from the brink. Missionaries as leaders and animators of communities at the microlevel can and should make a serious effort to motivate people to care for mother earth.

On the macrolevel missionary institutes and congregations can lend their weight to impress upon lawmakers and rulers to accept the concept of “sustainable development” as an imperative of economic growth and social engineering. The Brundtland Report had already in 1987 defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.” It is built on the principle that growth should be carried out in such a way as to recycle physical resources rather than deplete them, keeping the levels of pollution to a minimum.

Spreading awareness is surely the first step. Most people, even the well-educated, are blissfully ignorant of the environmental problem and its perilous implications. Making people aware of the issues, starting with what may be immediately present to them—the contamination of water sources, streets strewn with non-biodegradable plastic objects, bulging dump sites, etc.—is an achievable target. Awareness of a problem is often half its solution. By sustained efforts even people with little or no formal education can be conscientized regarding this matter.

The example of the “Chipko Movement” is very illustrative in this context. It is an initiative started mostly by the rural women of the erstwhile north-western state of Uttar Pradesh in India (parts of which are now found in the new state of Uttaranchal), who were deeply concerned about the alarming destruction of the forest around them through commercial logging. ‘Chipko’ literarily means ‘to embrace’ or ‘to hug’. These highly motivated women, known as ‘tree-huggers’, tried to protect the trees by physically posting themselves between the tree and woodcutter’s axe. This eventually grew into a powerful movement, and the government was forced to intervene and to decree stringent rules to protect the forest.

Adopting and persuading others to adopt an eco-friendly lifestyle is crucial. There are numerous little ways in which we can contribute to the process of healing the earth. Sparing use of water and electric power, preferring public transport to private vehicles, creating car pools, opting for recycled paper, refraining from the use of disposable carry bags, opting for environment-friendly consumer products, etc., are small but very significant steps towards environmental protection. Small steps now are infinitely better than megaplans for later implementation.

It is time that the human community as a whole pays closer attention to an eco-friendly lifestyle. It is time, then, that we use every available forum to lobby for upgrading the integrity of creation as a top-priority issue. It is time, above all, to begin sustained efforts to raise humanity’s collective consciousness to the optimum level to ensure that decisions made today do not diminish resources and opportunities owed to future generations.