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Dr. Richard A. Davis, PTC Faculty

Reading — Isaiah 24:3-6 (NRSV)

3 The earth shall be utterly laid waste
and utterly despoiled;
for the LORD has spoken this word.
4 The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers;
the heavens languish together with the earth.
5 The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
6 Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left.

Reflection

Last week saw a greatly anticipated event as Pope Francis issued his second encyclical letter, “Laudato Si’“. The title is Latin, and can be translated “Praise be to you”. The subtitle in English is “On Care for Our Common Home.” For non-Catholics an encyclical letter is a message issued by the Pope for teaching the church, and sometimes others. In this case The Pope addressed his encyclical to all peoples on planet Earth. It was largely on the topic of climate change, which, as we know, is an especially important issue for our Pacific region. The Pope’s wider concern was that humanity is destroying the earth and that we humans need to take greater care of the planet on which we depend on for our very survival.

In place the Pope used colourful language in the encyclical. For example, he wrote:

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

He also commented on the kind of situation some of us face in the Pacific. He wrote:

“it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions … in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.”

What does this all this have to do with peace, our special concern this week?

First of all, and most simply, war and conflict is not good for the environment. As Pope Francis rightly observes:

“War always does grave harm to the environment and to the cultural riches of peoples, risks which are magnified when one considers nuclear arms and biological weapons.”

To anyone who has been in conflict or even seen the photos of war, this seems obvious. But even in peacetime, preparations for war are massively harmful. For example, the USA is planning to use Pagan Island, far north of Papua New Guinea, for live bombing practice and land invasion training. This is expected to devastate the pristine forest, home to some rare species. And we all know of the damage done by nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific by both the American and the French.

So it makes sense to say that peace, true peace (in which we are not preparing for war), brings a huge benefit for the environment. But there is another, perhaps more important link between peace the environmental care. And that is that one cannot harm the environment too much without oppressing people and undermining the basis for peace.

Isaiah makes clear the connection between environmental degradation and human sin. In Isaiah 24:5, he writes

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.

Firstly, we could say that according to the Pope’s analysis, humanity is at war with the planet. The land and sea and atmosphere have been violated and laid waste by our extraction, production, and consumption. Mining and oil companies have penetrated and attacked the earth so that the earth will be forced to give up its riches. And we have all treated the land and atmosphere as a dumping ground for our waste. I think that this imagery helps us to see more clearly what we are doing to the earth.

We can predict that this war on the planet will become increasingly aggressive as the earth gives up its resources less and less readily. Oil used to be easier to find, but now oil companies are moving to drill in the fragile Arctic. They are already extracting oil and gas through fracking which involves violating mother earth to force it to give up its hidden wealth.

We should also be aware that this is also a war on people. Communities are disrupted and displaced to make way for oil and gas extraction and mining. These practices of extracting and then burning fossil fuels have become the kind of curse that Isaiah wrote about. In verse six he says:

Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left.

People are already suffering for these industries, whether through air pollution, sea level rise, or other climate change related problems. Scientists fear that the worst is to come.

This curse is often justified in the name of human domination over nature. And here is another important link between peace and the environment. The domination of other humans and the domination of nature are mutually reinforcing. What does this mean? Let me give two examples.

If we think it is OK to remove the top of mountain to get at the gold and copper underneath, we might also think that it is OK to remove the head of the person protesting the arrival of the miners.

Or, if we think is OK to rape someone’s mother, it will probably not occur to us that there is anything wrong with violating mother Earth.

I’m not sure which way the connection works, perhaps we dominate people because we have first dominated the earth, or perhaps we dominate the earth because we first dominated people. Whichever way it is, I’m convinced that these forms of domination and power and violence are closely linked.

In this vein, the Pope writes of our sister creature, earth:

“This sister now 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. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.”

To be peace-makers means that we must seek to be peace at God, with God’s creation and with each other. We cannot separate these.

Isaiah would, I think, agree. The earth suffers not only because we violate the earth, but also because we don’t follow the statutes and laws of God, which are often rules about how we treat each other.

But Isaiah also offers a glimmer of hope. In the middle of chapter 24 there is a group praising and honouring of God. It is difficult to tell whether these people are oblivious to the destruction of the earth, or whether they are a faithful remnant in the midst of the unfolding chaos.

One interpretation comes from the Ancient Christian theologian Eusebius of Caesarea. In commenting on Isaiah 24:15, which in the Septuagint translation partly reads “the Glory of the Lord is in the islands of the Sea”, he speaks of the church, “Which is located in the midst of the godless nations as if an island in the sea.”

What might this mean for us in a world of conflict and environmental degradation?

  • Can our churches be islands of peace in nations at war?
  • Can our churches demonstrate a way of life that respects both our world and our people?
  • Can our churches bring the reconciliation of Jesus to fighting factions and the Spirit of God into how we life at peace with other creatures of God?

If our churches can do these things then perhaps we might be able to claim to be those islands of the sea which show the Glory of God. We can be a faithful remnant in a world that is actively destroying its social and environmental fabric.

Eusebius also evokes an image of a church surrounded by a potentially hostile culture. This image also speaks to our lands in a time of climate change. It is other nations, those that surround us, that have largely caused climate change, with the island nations of the Pacific paying a heavy price for their greed.

The sea when it rises will transform from being a source of food and a means of travel into that which washes whole nations into a hostile sea. Can our churches live a different way of live and show the world how to live at peace with the earth and each other?

To be this church we need to transform conflict in our hearts, communities and with the earth. To do so we need to embrace an ecological way of thinking that recognises our interconnectedness. As the Pope reminds us:

“everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”

Not only is everything in nature interconnected, meaning that the tree is connected to the bird to the sea and to the atmosphere, but human behaviour is connected to how we relate to other creatures.

In being peace builders we are helping to heal not only human relationships, but also harm to mother earth. There is no more important task today.

Amen.

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