Monthly Archives: July 2015

Laudato Si: The Cliff-Note Edition

We’ve all heard about the Papal Encyclical issued last month by Pope Francis. It’s titled “On Care for our Common Home,” and bears the common name “Laudato Si,” a Latin phrase taken from St. Francis’ famous prayer, The Canticle of Creation:

20150618cm01905“Be praised, my Lord, (“Laudato si, mi signore“) for all your creation
and especially for our Brother Sun,
who brings us the day and the light….”

St. Francis goes on to praise God for the moon and stars, the wind and air, the water and fire, the earth and for human forgiveness, and even for death, which we all must face.

By invoking the title Laudato Si, Pope Francis is attempting to capture his namesake’s sense of oneness with the whole creation, and God’s love for and presence in all that he has made.

Now, this encyclical is no small thing. It runs for 180 pages, and has some 250 sections, organized into six major chapters.

This isn’t the first authoritative statement on creation care and climate change that has come from the Christian Church in recent years. In 2010, the Reformed Christian Church (CRC) adopted at their general synod a comprehensive 130-page Environmental Stewardship report. At Cape Town, South Africa, the worldwide evangelical Lausanne Movement included creation care, and the threat of climate change, in both their declaration of fatih and their call to action. And these have been preceded by the Evangelical Climate Initiative (ECI), the Evangelical Declaration on Care of Creation, the Micah Declaration on Care of Creation and Climate Change and the Oxford Declaration on Global Warming. And in addition to all of these, there are the many, many statements by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Anglican Communion, and mainline Protestant denominations.

These documents vary in length and scope, from the CRC’s careful approach to science, controversy and mission, to the ECI’s actionable commitments. But I would say that Laudato Si is so much different from these that it will likely be considered apart from them all. Here are a few reasons:

  1. It is addressed to 1.2 billion people, the world’s Roman Catholic faithful. That’s a lot of people.
  2. It is a meditative, quotable, beautiful letter. I fully expect that Hallmark Greeting Cards is setting up a department now, dedicated to the encyclical.
  3. It’s authoritative. No one asked American evangelicals if they planned to obey the Lausanne Cape Town commitment when it called on the global church to “engage in radical action to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gases, the harm from which falls most heavily on the poor.” The evangelical world doesn’t speak that way. But the authority of Laudato Si is already being discussed in the Catholic Church, and it carries enormous weight.
  4. It is riskier than most other declarations. It borrows the language of St. Francis, which some will misread as pantheistic; and it challenges the existing world economic and technocratic orders in ways that others will misread as socialist.
  5. Finally, its scope is very broad, and links the calls to ecological discipleship with virtually every other aspect of social and personal holiness. If I had to choose a few words to summarize the Pope’s message, it would be this: Everything in God’s world is connected to everything else, and to Him. This is not theologically new, but I believe you’ll find that it goes beyond the previous creation-care declarations.

But here’s the thing: You’re not going to read it. Who has time? And who do you know who’s actually read an encyclical (besides me)?

Okay, okay. Some of you probably will. And if you want to read it all, then you can download the PDF for free right here: just click, and read for hours.

Or, if your time is tight just now, you can have the digest I’ve put together for you. Every single section is in there, but in synopsis, with all the most compelling quotes (or so I think). So go ahead, click on the link below, and get to know this wonderful letter.

Laudato Si Digest

J. Elwood

ISIS, Assad and Syria’s Misery: Who’s to Blame?

The news today was grim – again. By the latest count, more than four million Syrians have now fled the chaos and killings in their homeland, and crowded into camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, or onto leaky boats headed for Europe’s distant shores. Worse, perhaps, another 7.6 million have fled the violence but cling to life within Syria’s perilous borders.

That’s a total of 11.6 million living souls, in desperate conditions far from home. In a country of 23 million people, fully half of Syrians can’t go home any more.

It’s hard to fathom what a country would look like with half of us fleeing for our lives. In the US, imagine all the residents of our 15 largest cities – from New York and LA down to Indianapolis and Columbus – living in camps or under overpasses on either side of our borders. That’s what it would be like, except for this: You’d need six times more people.

We struggle to translate this crisis into terms we can grasp. The UN Refugee Agency offers this simple graphic, with the searing reality that two more of Syria’s children are forced to flee their homes every minute of the day and night.UN Hig Commission refugee agency

And this is particularly galling for Christians and others who regard the Bible as God’s word. Throughout its pages, sacred scripture consistently identifies three classes of people as deserving our special care and protection: widows, orphans, and sojourners. Sojourners – or displaced migrants and refugees. Here’s a country where half of the people are sojourners.

And so, it’s understandable that we might be getting angry. Who’s to blame for all this suffering? Who turned all these people into homeless sojourners?

If you listen to the cable news, plenty of political aspirants have an easy answer: It’s President Obama, who wouldn’t listen to the hawks and send in American soldiers to set things right. On the other side, many blame Cheney and Bush, for destroying the comparatively benign social order imposed in neighboring Iraq by its former strongman, Saddam Hussein.

But increasingly, our researchers and military commanders are pointing to another, less obvious suspect. Changes in the climate of the Middle East have created a perfect storm of conditions for civil war. A killer drought has driven hunger and mass migration into Syria’s urban slums. Sectarian, tribal and political differences always threatened Syria’s stability, but the unprecedented drought lit the fire in this tinderbox.

A war caused by drought? It’s more likely than you may think. From 2006 to 2009, Syria suffered the worst multi-year drought since record-keeping began. The parched farmland produced nothing, and crop failures drove 1.5 million mostly-Sunni farmers off their dusty farms and crowded them among Alawite/Shiite urban dwellers. President Bashir al-Assad’s resulting social policies favored his sectarian Alawite base, leading to massive discontent among the majority Sunnis, and resulting in the 2011 uprising against his regime. And with many of Iraq’s former soldiers on the run from the newly Shiite-dominated Iraqi army, all the conditions for the rise of a powerful, radical Sunni Syrian movement were in place.

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Syrian child in Lebanon camp. Credit: UNICEF

Start with a crushing drought destroying the breadbasket of the country; drive a flood of farmers into urban slums; throw in age-old sectarian distrust; upend the order of the largest neighbor; and add a heavy dose of presidential corruption and repression – and you’ve got the smoldering ruins of today’s Syria.

Earlier this year, researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences a study that concluded that the severity of Syria’s drought could only be explained against the backdrop of manmade climate change. In fact, they concluded that human factors made the odds of a drought this severe 2 to 3 times more likely than natural variability alone.

And this isn’t the first study linking manmade climate change to aggression, war and mass migration. In 2013, researchers published in the journal Science a study concluding that increasing temperatures raise the risk of all kinds of conflicts, from interpersonal spats to civil wars and societal collapse. Using results from over 60 studies covering 12,000 years, they found that climate disruptions have increased the likelihood of civil war by 14% in human history.

In recent history, the genocide in Darfur has been called the “the first climate change war,” as perpetual drought drove nomadic Sudanese herdsmen into conflict with settled agrarian communities, aggravating tribal and religious conflicts. But Scientific American cited a 22-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finding that long before Darfur, sub-Saharan Africa suffered from wars most often during unusually warm years. They concluded that one degree C warming will increase the chances of civil wars by 55 percent, causing almost 400,000 additional battlefield deaths over two decades.

The drying Sahel climate drove herdsmen and farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

The drying climate of Sudan drove herdsmen and Darfur farmers into conflict. Credit: Georgina Cransto

Of course, not everyone agrees that the causal linkage between climate disruption and war has been adequately proven, and that’s part of the normal discourse of science. But among the many that have been persuaded are the commanders of the US Armed Services. In the Quadrennial Defense Review in 2014, they warned that the impacts of climate change could “increase the frequency, scale, and complexity of future missions, including defense support to civil authorities, while at the same time undermining the capacity of our domestic installations to support training activities.”

These soldiers are really alarmed about climate-change and conflict, calling it a “threat multiplier” all over the world. “As greenhouse gas emissions increase,” they wrote, “sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating…. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies, and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions – conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

Do these warnings remind us of anything we’re seeing today? In Syria, this sounds just like what we’re dealing with right now. So if we’re angry about the countless suffering refugees from the Syrian war, and if we’re worried about the horrors of ISIS, what if our best course is to take personal and national steps to counter the rise in planet-warming gases? Because with another one or two degrees of warming, we could be dealing with 20 or 30 Syria-level disasters.

Or has it even occurred to us that we could be among the homeless ourselves?

J. Elwood

Who Owns the Air?

In 1960, my father stopped in Paris on his way home to Washington, DC, and for less than $1,000, bought himself a shiny new Renault Dauphine compact car. A few weeks later, it rolled onto a dock in New York harbor, on its way to our suburban Virginia driveway.

In an age of tail fins and chrome baubles, the Dauphine must have been the strangest sight in the neighborhood. Never a thing of beauty, the cartoonish little Dauphine was about half the size of everyone else’s car. And by the standards of JFK’s America, this car was about as ugly as they came.

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

Renault Dauphine 1960: An oddity in my childhood driveway

But for this American first-grader, the memory of my dad’s Dauphine brings back an entirely different memory. I can still virtually taste it – the suffocating, acrid smell of my father’s cigarette smoke and ash tray. It permeated everything about the car. It coated the vinyl seats, and hung heavy in the air we breathed. Before the advent of seat belts and car seats, I would sometimes ride with my head out the window to escape the nauseating fumes. But it never occurred to either my father or me that something fundamentally wrong was going on.

This was America in 1960. It would be another four years before the Surgeon General would release his report on the health consequences of smoking, and three decades before the EPA would issue its findings on the hazards of second-hand smoke. The tobacco industry had already ramped up its disinformation campaign, which would go on for decades. To me, my dad was the embodiment of integrity and reason, but somehow it never occurred to any of us that he was making us sick.

Today, this would be unthinkable for most families. We recognize this simple truth: the cigarette may be yours, but the air is OURS. We all have to breathe – and the car, or the house, or the restaurant is not big enough to absorb your smoke without harming all of us. A revolution has occurred, whether or not we’ve noticed. We think differently now. The air is not yours or mine; it’s ours.

Last week, the revolution took two more big steps forward. First, the leader of the world’s largest religious group – the 1.3 billion-strong Roman Catholic Church – cast planet-warming greenhouse gases in the same light as my father’s cigarette smoke: harmful to all of us. And second, a sovereign state, the Netherlands, was ordered by one of its highest courts to make deep cuts in emissions of those same gases for the same reason.

This looks to me like the start of something big.

Pope Francis’ Ecological Encyclical

Of course, you haven’t missed Pope Francis’ authoritative encyclical, titled “Laudato Si” after St. Francis’ prayer beginning with the words: “Praise be to you, my Lord.” From the outset, Pope Francis linked his letter to our common reliance on the blessings of the created world. “Whether believers or not, we are agreed today that the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone,” he wrote. “For believers, this becomes a question of fidelity to the Creator, since God created the world for everyone.”

As a child in the backseat of the smoky Dauphine, I would have grasped this truth intuitively – you can’t burn all those cigarettes – or all those fossil fuels – without someone else bearing the cost from pollution – of water, land and atmosphere.

At 180 pages in length, Laudato Si can’t be realistically summarized here. But Pope Francis warned of a global ecological crisis that summons Christians and all people to nothing less than a profound conversion.

“It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism,” he wrote, “tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an ‘ecological conversion’, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”

And because the injured ecological systems were created by God as gifts to us all, the gospel calls us to protect every “common good” – including the earth’s climate system. “The climate is a common good,” Francis wrote, “belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”150618115850-pope-encyclical-1-exlarge-169

Christianity is by far the largest religion on earth today, and the Roman Catholic Church is by far the largest among us. You’d think that such an appeal would have a meaningful impact on the way our seven billion humans begin to deal with the ecological crisis, wouldn’t you?

(Note: The Pope is not remotely the first Christian to blaze this trail: in 2010, the worldwide evangelical Lausanne Movement declared that care for the creation is “a core element of the gospel,” and warned of the impact of manmade climate change on the poor. And the Christian Reformed Church in 2012 adopted an exhaustive report finding that “human-induced climate change is an ethical, social justice, and religious issue,” and that climate pollution “poses a significant threat to future generations, the poor, and the vulnerable.” Scores of other Christian declarations have echoed these messages; see a partial list here.)

But last week’s news featured something revolutionary in the secular world as well.

Dutch Court Orders Emissions Cuts

With their exposure to rising sea levels and progressive attitudes, I thought that the Netherlands would be a virtual poster child for climate protection, but I was mistaken. On average, the Dutch emit 10.2 tons of CO2 per person every year, a little more than half of the 17.2 tons emitted by Americans, but much worse than fellow Europeans in Germany, France and Britain. Leading up to the global climate negotiations in Paris this December, the Dutch government has announced plans to reduce emissions by 14-17% from 1990 levels by 2020. But last week, a Dutch judicial panel ruled that that wasn’t enough – because of the scale of the global threat from climate change.

Like the Pope, the judges recognized that the global ecosystem belongs to us all, and any state’s actions affect everyone, for better or worse. The Netherlands recognizes principles forbidding states from polluting to the extent that they damage other states, and the EU’s ‘precautionary principle’ which prohibits actions that carry unknown but potentially severe risks.

“The state should not hide behind the argument that the solution to the global climate problem does not depend solely on Dutch efforts,” the judges’ ruling said. “Any reduction of emissions contributes to the prevention of dangerous climate change and as a developed country the Netherlands should take the lead in this.”

Could the Netherlands’ ruling impact other countries as well? I think so. There is a parallel case working its way through Belgian courts right now. So, what if Germany, France or the UK were next? At some point, might jurists in Brazil, India, Australia and Japan begin to mandate action as well? And Canada? And – just imagine! – the US?

The world is changing. Only fifty years ago, a good, loving father may have unquestioningly polluted the air his family breathed with cigarette smoke. Today, we pollute the atmosphere that governs climate systems in Bangladesh, Malawi and the Philippines – as well as here at home. But maybe it’s beginning to dawn on us that the air belongs to everyone.

The world’s largest church has recognized it. Christians all over the world have gone on record. Now, European courts are doing the same. Is it possible that carbon pollution is now headed the way of indoor tobacco smoke?

With hope that this has begun in earnest, we join St. Francis in his prayer Laudato Si – “Praise be to you, my Lord!” Amen!

J. Elwood