Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Different Take on the "Praise Be" Encyclical

Laudato Si’ in the Midst of the Day
by Sue Smith

June 18, 2015 was a date marked on the calendars of many in the environmental movement, particularly those who do this work from a perspective of faith. Pope Francis was releasing his encyclical, Laudato Si’ (Praise Be!) on Care for our Common Home. I fully expected to wake up and see the release as one of the lead stories on the morning news shows. Instead I woke up to news reporting on the aftermath of the racist terrorist attack in Charleston, SC. Nine people died, nine images of God.

When I agreed to write something about the encyclical, I anticipated writing about key points in the document: climate change and environmental justice are moral issues; protecting creation and protecting people who are poor are interconnected virtues; we are part of creation and kin to it, greed is the greatest threat – to the poor and to the earth itself; the time to act on climate change is now. All of these points are present and well supported. Francis is blunt about what we are doing to our environment, “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” (21) But I was now reading the document through the lens of what happened in Charleston. This document speaks to that situation as well.

Francis writes about the interconnectedness of all creation, and reminds us that the Genesis creation narratives “suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” (66)* We have to be right with each other as well as with the earth. But we are not; when we locate toxic waste dumps, we harm the earth in that place, and we intimate that we do not value the lives of the people who live there as much as we value other lives. Francis writes that “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings…Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” (91)

Some may find parts of the encyclical difficult to read. The language about God is very patriarchal, and in places, the language is male dominant. The encyclical talks a good deal about those with power and privilege not wanting to give up their behaviors, and how that negatively affects others. For me, this use of male dominant language is an example of those with power and privilege (in this case the authors of this encyclical) not understanding how their language is heard by the other (those of us who believe we also are in the image of God, but can never be patriarchs). Yet it is still a critically important document. Pope Francis has invited everyone into a dialog on the pressing ecological issues facing humanity. He has moved the climate conversation forward and emphasized that our response needs to be a moral response. He calls for us to act now.

Francis asks a question: “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” (57). It is a question we can ask about work on issues of race, gender, class and the environment.

Praise be!
Sue Smith

A prayer for our earth from Laudato Si’
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures. You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty. Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one. O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes. Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction. Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth. Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light. We thank you for being with us each day. Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.

*numbers refer to paragraphs in the encyclical

Sue Smith is PEC Treasurer, member of the First Presbyterian Church of Rumson (NJ), GreenFaith Fellow, and recent M. Div. graduate of New Brunswick Theological Seminary.

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