Noah the Environmentalist: The Great Flood and Ecological Justice Today

The story of Noah and his ark is often one of the first biblical narratives children learn and one of those most widely-known by adults. With many Scripture stories being unapologetically anthropocentric, there is something endearing yet dramatic about the inclusion of every perfectly paired-up creature-couple in this perilous tale of survival. With the assurance that, thanks to Noah, every creation breathed into existence by God continues to live, we tend not to think much about the unfortunate members of each species who were left in the waters below the ark’s hull. Yet, when climatic phenomenon such as Hurricane Harvey hit, the plight of those caught in great floods surges to the forefront of our attention. Could this situation have been prevented? Who will save these worthy souls? How will life be restored to right relation after the water subsides? Can I help? The story of the Great Flood and Noah’s role throughout its unfolding suggest much for how humanity is called to act in response to today’s rapidly changing weather patterns and our own, increasingly prevalent, great floods.

The creation accounts of Genesis make known the human call to care for creation (Gen. 1:28). The story of the Great Flood (Gen. 6) clarifies exactly what that means and suggests the interconnected way in which human and non-human creation’s survival must be conceptualized. Anne M. Clifford writes:

God gives Noah a mission. He is to participate in God’s plan for the survival of living species. God instructs Noah to build a huge ark and directs, “Of all kinds of birds, of all kinds of beasts, two of each will come into the ark to stay alive” (Gen. 6:20). The species of the earth that were gathered included clean and unclean, domesticated and wild animals. Many of these animals were of no real use to the people. God’s directive makes the meaning of having dominion clear: Noah and his family are charged with seeing to the survival of the other living creatures (not only the ones of direct benefit to humans).

The survival of all creation is prioritized not because of any direct value or benefit it holds for us personally, but because each creation serves a purpose in God’s grand design and, furthermore, all creation is of God and deserves to live. God’s command to humans about their role in creation’s survival does not present a passive relationship, where we merely coexist, or even a relationship where we consciously refrain from destroying or harming non-human creation. What God’s command calls for is conscious, compassionate action on the part of humanity to see to the survival, livelihood, and flourishing of all.

It is difficult to deny that the rate at which atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, sea water levels, and the earth’s temperature are rising are primarily due to the actions of humans. We know that irresponsible use and abuse of creation has ushered in much of the climate change and environmental degradation experienced today. Storms exist as part of the natural weather patterns on the planet, but warmer oceans produce stronger storms and heavier rains, which in turn increase flooding. “The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted,” Pope Francis writes, by our attempt to dominate and control creation, by our insistence on consuming that which was not meant for our limitless use. He explains, “Responsibility for God’s earth means that human beings, endowed with intelligence, must respect the laws of nature.” This requires looking beyond immediate and personal desires and considering how one’s choices affect the entirety of creation. It is good to aid those suffering in the wake of the storm, but it is better to prevent the storm in the first place by
(as Pope Francis says in Laudato Si) “respecting the rhythms inscribed in nature by the hand of the Creator.” Just as on Noah’s ark, Clifford explains, “human survival and that of animals are intimately related (Gen 7:1-4).” Pope Francis is right: “the Bible has no place for a tyrannical anthropocentrism.” And neither does the world today.

In the biblical story of the Great Flood, Clifford notes, “we find God deeply grieved about the extent of the wickedness of human beings. Their sins result in an ecological disaster of worldwide proportions.” While the particular sins in question may differ, the underlying themes of the Scripture story and our current reality are the same. Act justly or bad things happen. This is not a divine threat, but the natural consequence of disregarding the rhythms and relationships designed by God. Acting in discordance with God’s will brings disaster; acting in accordance with God’s will brings abundant life.

Noah, in an example of right relationship between God, humanity, and non-human creation, is entrusted with all of creation’s care. This gives us direction and this gives us hope. Pope Francis tells us, “Although ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth’ (Gen 6:5) . . . through Noah, who remained innocent and just, God decided to open a path of salvation…. All it takes is one good person to restore hope!” Imagine the significant impact that can be made by many of us collaborating together and cooperating with God.

On September 1st, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued the first ever Joint Message on the World Day of Prayer for Creation, a message that both states and reflects the necessity of working together to restore right relation among creation. Appealing to those in social, economic, cultural, and political positions of power expands their emphasis even beyond the context of theists. Creation care is an issue of universal importance from an ethical perspective. For believers, it is also an issue of salvation.

God designed creation in a way that allows it to survive, to grow, to adapt, to flourish! Human beings are a part of this sacred creation–arguably the only part that has acted in a way that disrupts the incredible design, but also, the only part that has the ability to make it right. With Noah as faithful environmentalist exemplar, we must strive to listen to God’s call in the face of rising storms today. The floods can be prevented and God calls each of us to participate in that mission.

Stephanie Clary will receive her MA in Systematic Theology from Catholic Theological Union as a Bernardin Scholar and currently serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.


Colin Kaepernick’s Opposition is an Act of Solidarity

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Colin Kaepernick—the very mention of his name elicits strong reactions from football fans. Last August, as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of ongoing police violence against black men and women around the country.  The decision sparked considerable controversy and has likely cost Kaepernick his football career.

Football season is now upon us, and while I do not intend to rehash all that has been written on the NFL protests, I must say that I find the knee jerk claim that the players protesting are unpatriotic disturbing.  In Christian ethics, opposition and political protest are important ways of participating in the common good. They are methods utilized by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, as well as, by the Solidarity movement in Poland. Catholic social thought (and St. John Paul II, in particular) understands opposition as an important component of solidarity.

In Poland, Karol Wojtyla actively opposed communism as a student leader, as a philosophy professor, and as Bishop of Krakow. He is famous for his support of the Solidarity movement as pope and his support of opposition to communism.  St. John Paul II’s understanding of participation and the role of opposition is crucial to understanding his theology of solidarity, as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (SRS 38).

He understood that solidarity required a delicate balance between accepting the duties and responsibilities imposed by the community and opposition to unjust forms of exclusion and oppression.

For John Paul II, solidarity does not exclude opposition; it can mandate it. In Toward a Philosophy of Praxis, Wojtyla explains:  “Experience with diverse forms of opposition . . . teaches that people who oppose do not wish to leave the community because of their opposition. They are searching for their own place in the community –they are searching for participation and such a definition of the common good that would permit them to participate more fully and effectively in the community” (49). Catholic social thought has long recognized racism as both a structure of sin and as intrinsically evil. Public opposition to unjust social structures should be seen as participation in the common good.

Professional athletes have long utilized athletic spaces to publicly oppose injustice.  If we examine Kaepernick’s own explanations of his protest, a clear commitment to his understanding of the common good emerges.  When asked why he was doing this, he replied, “People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.”

And how long did he plan to sit? His answer was clear, as long as the injustices persist;  “When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”

His protest is not a rejection of the community; it is a demand that the community be one of greater justice.  His protest, like the protests of many athletes before him, is an example of opposition in service of solidarity. The national anthem and flag are symbols of the community and, as such, are a logical locus for calling the nation to more fully live up to its highest ideals.  In the wake of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, it should be evident to all that we still have considerable work to do in bringing about racial justice and dismantling white supremacy.

This preseason, Michael Bennett of the Seahawks, Marshawn Lynch of the Raiders, and a number of other players continued the protest begun by Kapaernick and others. On August 18, 80 current and former NYPD officers rallied in support of Kaepernick in Brooklyn. For his efforts, Kaepernick will be honored at the Smithsonian African-American History Museum as part of the Black Lives Matter exhibit.  As NFL owners and fans consider his future in football, it is worth noting that instead of seeing his actions as unpatriotic, according to St. John Paul II’s theology of solidarity, his opposition one genuine avenue for advancing the common good.


When I Drink

“Okay, mijo, make the number three with your fingers and hold them together.” My grandfather’s hard, gruff voice could cause a nine-year-old to quiver. “Place your fingers at the bottom of the glass, like this,” he guides my hand to do what he’s describing. The familiar smell of Old Spice and tobacco bookmarks this moment into my memory. “Pour whiskey into the glass; stop when you reach the top of your fingers. Add some ice. And some soda.” He takes a drink. He smacks his lips. He gives a satisfied smile. “Now you know how to mix a drink.”

I have a large extended family. A family that loves to eat, drink, dance, and party well past nightfall. And when the momentum of our gatherings moved late into the night, drink orders increased. As kids, my cousin Laura and I would play a game of pretend. We called it “restaurant.” We’d hang towels on our arms and carry trays in our hands.

“Grab me a beer,” someone would shout. “How ‘bout…(shaking the glass, sounds of ice indicating emptiness).” And off we’d go. Pulling off beer tabs and mixing drinks, mostly Jack and Cokes or Seven and Sevens.

Needless to say, I got real good at making these simple cocktails. And as I grew older I knew how to make them without the use of my fingers. By 16, I was no longer pretending. I could hold my own with my family.

***

It’s 2010 and I’m exploring the possibility of a priestly vocation. I live in Chicago and I’ve reached out to the Jesuits. I’ve been invited to attend a July 4th cookout at Loyola Chicago. Because I don’t know Jesuits very well I was told this is a great way to begin making myself familiar. Sounds perfectly legit. I start to get nervous.

I’m a bashful person, but once I warm up, I can be a social butterfly. The easiest way for me to move from shy to butterfly is to imbibe. So when I arrive, I locate the table with all the alcohol. I’m hoping for Jack and Coke or Seven and Seven. But, there’s only Canadian Club and Sprite. It’ll have to do. I mix. I take a swig. I feel less tense. I gulp what’s left. With a deep breath I exhale away the edge and mix another. Now I can sip and socialize.

I have a few of these drinks throughout the evening. More than a few. And I’m talking and laughing. All those insecure thoughts that run through my head are muted:

You are out of your league.

You don’t belong here.

No one likes you.

Luckily I know how to hold myself in proper decorum after having consumed several glasses of liquid courage. I scrunch my eyes, furrow my brow, and deliberately nod to make myself appear focused. I even make audible sounds like, “mhm” and “yes” and “oh,” to punctuate this effect. And just to be sure I’m balanced, I stand with my feet shoulder width apart, or find gentle support from a wall or table, especially when holding an overpoured rocks glass of whiskey soda.

I drink to let go of my timidity. When I’m restrained I remain quiet, observant, passive in my participation. Thanks to Canadian Club and Sprite at this July 4th celebration – crowded with strangers – I’m uninhibited. I’m no longer reticent in how I participate in conversations. I’m actively engaging discussions. On this particular festive day I achieve my goal.

***

Prior to my Jesuit life I managed where I went and who I met. Self-doubt, deficient self-confidence, and anxiety lacked ample opportunity to reveal themselves. But if they did I never felt compelled to acknowledge them. Choosing to rely on the dependable drinks of my family I could pretend my way through anything. Exactly as I did on that particular 4th of July.

Now I do things I would never independently choose to do – like return to school to study philosophy. And it seems as if I attend large social events constantly. All of it an invitation to step out of my comfort zone. I meet these experiences with enthusiasm and joy, but the fervor I feel clashes with an intense disquiet. So I mix some familial drinks and cope. Which isn’t healthy. And mixing insecurities with whiskey has occasionally roused friction between me and people I love. The fun I found in drinking is diminishing.

To pray about my consumption of alcohol is to wrestle with deep unresolved pain and hurt. I no longer want a crutch in self-perceived uncomfortable situations. Through therapy and a stable prayer life I have grown, but there remains more work to be done. After some 20 years of drinking it’s a little sobering to face the reality I may need a change. Perhaps it’s time to stop. Perhaps it’s time to discover new ways to have fun. Perhaps it’s time to grow up. No matter how this self-examination unfolds, it is clear God walks with me. No more pretending. It’s time to mix a new recipe for being me.

This article by Damian Torres-Botello, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


Building an Economy that Serves and Uplifts the Vulnerable: An Interview with Eric LeCompte

Eric LeCompte is the executive director of Jubilee USA. Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed him on his work to address global inequality and build an economy that serves all persons, particularly the poor and vulnerable.

What does Jubilee USA do?

Ahead of the Jubilee Year, when Christian churches were preparing to celebrate the 2000th Anniversary of Christ’s birth, global religious leaders called us to celebrate by tackling the root causes of poverty. Pope John Paul ll encouraged us to reflect on the true scriptural meaning of Jubilee during the Church’s Jubilee 2000 celebration. Jubilee is a central them in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. The Jubilee story starts in Genesis. God loves us so much that God created a resource rich world for us to share in seven days. We are closest to the Creator when we are sharing those resources amongst us. Then we have the early law books of scripture that attempt to legislate how we live according to Jubilee laws. Deuteronomy and Leviticus lay out how we can be in right relationship with one another and our God. They dictate that every seven years we should forgive debts, let the land rest, and set free slaves. They establish a set of laws that protect all of us from having too little or too much. Then the prophets come to remind the people they are no longer living according to the laws of Jubilee. And then in Luke, in the first public act of our Lord, He reads from Isaiah ‎about setting captives free and proclaiming the Year of the Lord’s Favor or the great Jubilee year. This is seven times seven years where there is a restoration of equality among all of God’s people.

From the call of Pope John Paul ll and other faith leaders, the Catholic Church took on an incredible leadership role to win debt relief for the world’s poorest countries and move forward greater protections for some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.

That’s the story of how Jubilee USA started as an interfaith coalition of Jews, Muslims, and Christians to address the structures that cause poverty and inequality. To this day, we take on US and global policies on debt, tax, trade, and transparency issues. When we address these issues, we impact millions of people living in poverty in the US and across our world. From resolving Puerto Rico’s financial crisis to corporate transparency to student debt, Jubilee USA wins solutions that impact our global community. Ultimately, we are building an economy that serves, protects, and promotes participation of the most vulnerable.

Congressional Quarterly cites our interfaith efforts as the last successful bipartisan efforts on Capitol Hill.

What are some of the accomplishments that Jubilee USA has achieved?

We’ve won more than $130 billion in debt relief for the world’s poorest economies. Because of the US and global agreements we’ve won, that $130 billion is invested in schools, hospitals, and other social infrastructure. In Sub Saharan Africa alone, 54 million kids have gone to‎ school who never would have seen the inside of a classroom. Recently, Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank President, cited Jubilee’s efforts as the reason for economic growth in parts of Africa.

Debt and financial crises‎ often affect the most vulnerable in the most extreme ways. It’s tragic that the global financial crisis punished those who had nothing to do with creating the crisis. Nearly 100 million people, mostly women and children, were cast into extreme poverty because of the crisis. Beyond debt relief, Jubilee USA transforms the debt, tax, and trade policies that cause poverty and inequality. For every 10 dollars in aid developing economies receive, they lose more than150 dollars from debt payments, tax evasion, and corruption.

In the last few years, here are some of the strategic campaigns we’ve won:‎ debt relief in Haiti and the 3 Ebola-impacted West Africa countries, a new International Monetary Fund trust fund to aid poor countries struck by disasters, multiple anti-corruption measures impacting low income countries, ‎super bankruptcy legislation for Puerto Rico‎, three international agreements to promote responsible lending and stop predatory lending, two victories to keep student loan interest rates low, G7 and G20 agreements to curb tax evasion and corruption, pushing trade agreements‎ that help end poverty, and securing zero interest loans for poor communities. Read More


A Message of Hope in the Desert of Fear

Being a news junkie today is to be hit daily by an avalanche of bad news, a lot of it sensationalistic. News of mass shootings, deportations of the parents of young children, and the rise in hateful speech – so casually spewed – often overwhelm me. That is not to say that I am unaware of the good going on. I just wish there were more of it.

This is why I was refreshed by the tone and message of a pastoral letter issued last week by Bishop Mark Seitz of the diocese of El Paso, Texas. He addresses the situation of migrants and refugees in his border city, separated from its sister city Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by the Rio Grande. Rather than just lament the suffering, poverty, and violence that brings migrants to the USA, or dwell on the ways that fear of round-ups and deportation migrants face in the current political climate, he speaks a word of hope to all people caught up in these realities.

The title of the bishop’s letter, Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away, comes from Isaiah 51:11, which tells of the final joyful entry of the dispossessed and exploited in Jerusalem. It’s a message of God’s promise of salvation being fulfilled for his beloved suffering people. He goes on to connect the literal desert in which El Paso is located—in which many migrants die trying to cross—and the metaphorical desert of fear and marginalization migrants are facing today, with Isaiah 35:7-10, which prophesies that the desert will turn to springs and burning sands to pools of water.

This is not a head-in-the-clouds letter, however. El Paso has a history that resonates with these scriptures and this vision of hope – and the bishop stays grounded in that history. The bishop recounts that the area is the ancient home of several indigenous groups, then a long list of migrants have come in turn—first the Spanish, then from the Republic of Texas, the young United States, Ireland, China, refugees from the Mexican Revolution, escapees of the Cristero War, and now those fleeing Mexican and Central American drug lords and gangs. The city’s ability to welcome and absorb each group has created the integrated shared culture that freely spans the border.

Echoing Pope Francis’ constant exhortation to build bridges, Bishop Seitz blames no particular group for the current mess. Starting from what is common—a shared agreement that our immigration system is broken—he proposes a vision of reform that upholds both national security and the right of people to migrate when life becomes untenable at home. This is not a new message. The US bishops have been advocating comprehensive immigration reform for many years, and Congress has continually failed to act. This pastoral letter, however, takes the matter from the level of policy and principle and roots it in contextual spiritual discernment that is incumbent upon each person and the community at large.

He names three sequential steps: (1) encounter, (2) conversion, and (3) compassion. El Paso has been and continues to be a place of encounter between people of different backgrounds. In an encounter with others, approached with openness and the belief that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, God is revealed. This leads us to conversion, because we encounter God in the other and are challenged and changed. Conversion then motivates us to do things and to do them differently – with Christ-like compassion. More than a pastoral approach to a problem, Bishop Seitz offers a model for unity of the Church, the unity of the Body of Christ, which we manifest and pray for in every Sunday Eucharist.

Bishop Seitz is connecting many dots that we often fail to: linking worship, the web of relationships, Catholic teaching, public policies, and collective action. The message is clearly focused on what can unite rather than divide, build bridges rather than walls, encounter rather than isolation. This message of reconciliation is so unusual and refreshing to me in the United States of 2017.  I’d like to shout it out from the rooftops: Sorrow and Mourning Flee!

This article by Brent Otto, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.


We Need a Revolution in Solidarity

In recent years, we have seen the narrowing of the American middle class and diminished social mobility as economic inequality balloons, the intensification of consumerism, the rise of an opioid crisis, the breakdown of family stability among working class Americans, the resurgence of ugly forms of populism, and the general fraying of communal bonds. Many of these are interconnected. And the personalist communitarianism of the Church offers the best window for understanding what is happening and how we might resist hyperindividualism and the libertarian policies that accompany and drive it (while avoiding alternatives that diminish human dignity).

Chris Arnade, one of the most astute observers of an America that many political and cultural elites cannot or will not see, reflected on some of these developments in a series of tweets earlier today:

What is needed is radical: a revolution in solidarity. We need to reform and re-democratize our political institutions. We need to build an economic system that rebuilds the middle class, increases distributive justice, and promotes more widespread flourishing. We need policies that ensure everyone has access to their most basic needs, including quality healthcare and childcare. People need jobs that reflect their dignity and increased access to treatment for drug abuse, not the legalization and commercialization of additional illicit substances, so that even more corporations get rich preying on the vulnerable. The federal government needs to empower intermediary institutions that strengthen local communities rather than ignoring their responsibilities and forcing these institutions to pick up the government’s slack.

But we also need cultural changes. An obsession with individual autonomy not only harms our communities, it is often a recipe for misery for the person who embraces it. Human beings are social by nature; the pursuit of unlimited, uninhibited choice does not lead to human flourishing. Consumerism will not fill the spiritual void of those who have left religion behind or do not live it out in their daily lives. We need more people to believe in the importance of duty, the value and permanence of marriage, and that morality is more than enlightened self-interest. We need people to resist objectifying others, even in a culture that floods people with the message that it is only natural and human to do so. Though all humans inevitably come up short in our attempts to live morally, we need more people to believe in virtue and order their lives around this commitment.

Pope Francis is calling for radical change. But it’s up to everyday Catholics to promote this revolution by breaking from bourgeois conformity, resisting the currents of individualism and libertarianism, and fighting for the common good in a culture that is often hostile to the demands of human dignity. It’s not an easy road. But Christianity is about following the way of Christ, not a path to comfort and approval.


Chen Guangcheng on the Death of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo

Millennial‘s Daniel Petri interviews Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng on the death of his friend and fellow activist Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and the future of the Chinese democracy and human rights movement:


Read more about Liu Xiaobo’s life and death (via NY Times):

Liu Xiaobo, the renegade Chinese intellectual who kept vigil at Tiananmen Square in 1989 to protect protesters from encroaching soldiers, promoted a pro-democracy charter that brought him a lengthy prison sentence and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while locked away, died under guard in a hospital on Thursday. He was 61….

The police in China have kept Mr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest and smothering surveillance, preventing her from speaking out about Mr. Liu’s belated treatment for cancer.

“Can’t operate, can’t do radiotherapy, can’t do chemotherapy,” Ms. Liu said in a brief video message to a friend when her husband’s fatal condition was announced. The message quickly spread online.

Mr. Liu’s illness elicited a deluge of sympathy from officials, friends, Chinese rights activists and international groups, who saw him as a fearless advocate of peaceful democratic change.