|Sermon for Environment Sunday, 8th June 2008
Dr. Devanesan Nesiah
June 11, 2008
The Cathedral of Christ the Living Saviour, Colombo
[The Church of Ceylon (E-P) - Ceylon]
The fifth of June is World Environment Day and the theme for the current year is ‘Kick the Habit: Towards a Low Carbon Economy’. Modern lifestyles need to be supported by economic activities that release large quantities of carbon into the atmosphere, and this leads to unfavourable climate changes such as global warming, erratic weather patterns, increasingly frequent and severe storms and other natural disasters. Such adverse changes can be slowed down by corrective action but not stopped or reversed.
Some of us may remember the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in the first week of June 1992. At that time, much of Colombo and many other parts of our Island were deep under flood waters, even as world leaders were meeting in Rio de Janeiro to address the environmental crisis of which those floods were a symptom. That we are going through a similar experience sixteen years later is an indication that we have failed to change our ways in respect of carbon emissions, forest clearings, land fillings, etc.
The global food shortage is another deadly consequence of that failure, leading to starvation and poverty on a massive scale, depressed health standards and poor quality of life. Sea level rise caused by global warming increasingly displaces people living in coastal areas and in estuaries. It has been estimated that by the middle of this century the numbers of environmental refugees, mostly on account of climate change, will reach one hundred and fifty million.
What do we learn from our scriptures and our traditions in understanding and responding to these developments? The creation story and much else in the book of Genesis and the other books in our scriptures underline the intimate relationship between us, the rest of creation and the Creator.
We are required as a matter of faith to be environmentalists. We note that Solomon, the wisest of the Kings of Israel, was a renowned environmentalist with expert knowledge of wild life, forestry, medicinal plants, reptiles and marine life. As recorded in 1 Kings, Chapter 4 verses 33 & 34, “He spoke of trees, from the Cedar tree of Lebanon even to the Hyssop that springs out of the wall; he spoke also of animals, of birds, of creeping things, and of fish. And men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon”.
Our scriptures have been subject to diverse interpretations. Thomas Aquinas and many other theologians have favoured a human centred, hierarchical interpretation that has been labeled Dominionship on account of the dominance assigned to humans in that model. In the words of Aquinas, “Imperfect beings serve the needs of noble beings; plants draw their nutrient from the earth, Animals feed on plants and these in turn serve man’s use…lifeless beings exist for living beings, plants for animals and the latter for man… the whole material nature exists for man”.
Other theologians, scholars and environmentalists have suggested that the dominionship interpretation of the scriptures has contributed to over consumption, over use of resources, environmental pollution and the ecological crisis we are caught up in. In the Stewardship interpretation favoured by St. Augustine, many centuries before Aquinas, humans are merely stewards who may not exercise dominion to further their own interest at the expense of the rest of creation. In recent decades there has been a gradual shift back from the dominionship to the stewardship school, towards seeing the relationship between humans and the rest of creation as unequal but not vertical; we are not rulers but have lead roles and special responsibilities. Other components of creation also have key roles and unique contributions. The model articulated by Augustine is that of a commonwealth than that of a dominion. In his words,
“How admirable these things are in their own places, how excellent in their own natures, how beautifully adjusted to the rest of creation and how much grace they contribute to the universe by their contributions, as to a commonwealth”.
This is also the theme of all our hymns today, notably of our lovely opening hymn, of C. F. Alexander, ‘All things bright and beautiful’, and also of the story of Noah that was read to us from the book of Genesis. One of the central lessons of the Great Flood is of God’s commitment to a covenant with us and the rest of creation. Initially in Genesis Chapter 6 Verse 18, Noah is told of an impending covenant between God and Noah; we read in Genesis Chapter 9 verses 12 & 13 that the covenant covers all life forms and the entire earth. Although God’s commitment is not qualified, a covenant by definition is a reciprocal contract or agreement. God expects from all creation, and particularly from the human population, a similar commitment to that covenant. If we flout the terms of that covenant we cannot be expected to reap its benefits. It is in such a situation that we find ourselves today.
Noah was called upon to be a steward charged with the commandment to protect bio diversity. That charge extends to all of us. A critical point in that story is a massive environmental crisis. The great flood is a consequence of sin – human disruption of the harmony of creation. God alerts Noah to the impending destruction and directs him to take steps to protect bio diversity. We note the specific command that all life forms are to be protected and not just those that serve human needs. We read in Genesis Chapter 6 verses 17 -21:
17. And behold I Myself am bringing flood waters on the earth to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die.
18. But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark and you, your sons, your wife and your sons’ wives with you.
19. And of every living thing of all flesh you shall bring two of every sort into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female.
20. Of the birds after their kind, of animals after their kind and of every creeping thing of the earth after its kind, two of every kind shall come to you to keep them alive
21. And you shall take for yourself of all food that is eaten, and you shall gather it to yourself; and it shall be food for you and for them.
When the flood had subsided, Noah was directed, as set out in Genesis Chapter 8 verse 17, “Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you, birds and cattle and every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth: so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth”. In due course, God goes on to describe the contours of an eternal rainbow covenant which, we note, is not only with humans but with all of creation. We read in Genesis Chapter 9 verses 9-16:
9. Behold I establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you;
10. And with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the cattle and every beast of the earth with you; all that go out of the ark, every beast of the earth.
11. Thus I establish My Covenant with you; never again shall flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.
12. And God said; This is the sign of the covenant which I make between Me and you, and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13. I set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.
14. It shall be, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow shall be seen in the cloud;
15. And I will remember My covenant which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh
16. The rainbow shall be in the cloud; and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.
But covenants are not unilateral. Unfortunately, we humans have been cheating on our part of the covenant, disobeying God’s commandment to preserve the earth and life forms and, instead, have been engaged in activities which are causing massive damage to the earth, including loss of bio diversity, depletion of resources, pollution, and adverse climate change. Martin Palmer has suggested the following text for the human component of the rainbow covenant:
Brothers and sisters in creation, we covenant this day
with you and with all creation yet to be;
With every living creature and all that contains you and sustains you.
With all that is on earth and with the earth itself;
With all that lives in the waters and the waters themselves;
With all that flies in the skies and with the sky itself.
We establish this covenant that all our powers will be used
to prevent your destruction.
We confess that it is our own kind that put you at risk of death
We ask for your trust
And as a symbol of our intention
We mark our covenant with you by the rainbow.
This is the sign of the covenant between ourselves and every living thing
that is found on the earth.
We have noted the distinction between the Dominionship and Stewardship interpretations of the scriptures. A third and more radical school is labelled Citizenship. In this perception, which is close to the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain traditions, the relationship between humans and the rest of creation is equal and horizontal. Different life forms represent different components of creation and, ideally, no component exploits or dominate any other. This concept is more demanding and may seem to be utopian. However, there have been many outstanding Christian leaders in this tradition including Albert Schweitzer, surely one of the great Christian missionaries of the twentieth century. In his view:
A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives. He does not ask how far this or that life deserves one’s sympathy as being valuable nor, beyond that, to what degree it is capable of feeling. Life as such is sacred to him. He tears no leaf from a tree, plucks no flower and takes care to crush no insect.
No one has contributed more to this school than Francis of Assisi, regarded by many in the religious hierarchy, then and now, as an eccentric animist and heretic. He was much loved and the church did not dare to hurt him, but many of his disciples were denounced as heretics, persecuted and killed. There is now a greater appreciation of the man and his teaching. In 1979, Pope John Paul II declared him to be the Patron Saint of Ecology. His practice of speaking to birds and animals, his personification of inanimate objects and some of his canticles are even now sources of embarrassment to many, but of inspiration to environmentalists. There are many versions of his canticles; the following is an extract of one of them:
Be praised then, my Lord God,
In and through all Your creatures,
Especially among them,
Through Your Noble Brother Sun
By whom You light our day,
In his radiant splendid beauty
He reminds us Lord of You
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and all the Stars,
You have made the sky shine in their lovely light
In Brother Wind be praised, my Lord,
And in the air,
In clouds, in calm
In all the weather moods that cherish life
Be praised my Lord, through Sister Water
She is most useful, humble, precious, pure
And Brother Fire, by whom you lighten night,
How fine is he, how happy, powerful, strong.
Through our dear Mother Earth be praised, my Lord
She feeds us, guides us, gives us plants, bright flowers,
And all her fruits.
We need to read, understand and be inspired by our scriptures as well as by great visionaries in our tradition such as St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi and Dr. Albert Schweitzer. But what can we do as a Church and as individuals? We are developing a small project called Caring for God’s Creation, focused on the Cathedral Community and the Cathedral premises. We seek the widest possible participation in that initiative, Thank you.
Dr. Devanesan Nesiah