CREATION CARE AND ECUMENICAL DIALOGUE

Orthodox Perspectives

First, allow me to thank the organizers for this ecumenical week and ecological webinar. I am also honored to join such distinguished colleagues.

Let me open with a confession that an ecumenical event such as this is surely neither coincidental nor accidental. I have come to believe that, in our relationship with creation, we are called to evoke and affirm our interconnectedness with the rest of the world. That is what I would call the ecumenical imperative of creation care. Because this sense of interconnectedness reminds us that the earth unites us all – before and beyond any doctrinal, political, racial, or other differences. We may or may not share religious principles, ethnic backgrounds, or political convictions. But we most definitely share an experience of the earth: the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the ground that we tread – albeit not always equitably or justly. By some mysterious connection that we do not always understand, the earth reminds us of our interconnectedness.

 

The power of ecumenism or ecumenical dialogue lies in beginning to open up beyond ourselves and our own, beyond our communities and our churches. It is learning to speak the language of care and compassion. It is giving priority to solidarity and service. And in this respect, creation care has a vital ecumenical dimension in that it brings us divided Christians and insulated believers before a common task that we must inevitably face together. As Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stated in his encyclical for September 1st this year: “It is clear that the integrity of the natural environment is the shared responsibility of all inhabitants of the earth.”

You see: People often think of ecology as leaves and bees, as flora and fauna, as sun and soil. But it’s not just that; it’s about the social nexus around them. Let me talk about what is happening in my country. When Donald Trump took office, he announced that the US would leave the Paris agreement. On the one issue that demands a worldwide, collective response to safeguard the earth for future generations, the US chose to walk away. That simply isn’t the way forward any longer. It’s not good policy; and it’s not good spirituality.

And let me point out here, that I’m not referring to Donald Trump as a party leader or as a scapegoat; I am referring here to Trump as a symbol of all that was already morally wrong before he took office and will remain morally wrong after he leaves office. Donald Trump is not an aberration in the system; he is a mirror-image of the system. People think that, if somehow someone else is elected, everything will magically change; everything will go back to “normal.” But Trump is not unique or exceptional; in fact, he is as American as apple pie! Trump is the inevitable culmination of a society that combines instant celebrity and cheap capitalism, consumerism and corruption. Trump is the embodiment of all that is wrong when society promotes the rich and pulverizes the poor, when profit is the only standard.

Second, let me underline the fact that the Christian approach to creation care emerges from our fundamental teaching that God created the world out of love, that God so loved the world that His Word assumed flesh and dwelt among us, and that we are called to treat creation like our own flesh.

For thirty years, the Ecumenical Patriarch has emphasized this: that the environment is not only a political or a technological issue; it is not a fashionable exercise in public relations. It is a fundamental and profound spiritual issue. The degradation of creation can only be reversed or resolved by addressing the moral causes of the ecological crisis. This is precisely why religion has a key, a vital role to play.

And – more than this – it is a theological issue. This is why the Ecumenical Patriarch introduced the revolutionary notion of ecological sin. Because we need to expand our understanding of sin and reconciliation from what we have long considered as purely individual transgression or, at best, social wrongdoing to a much broader, generational, and even ecological abuse of creation. As the Patriarch again noted in the encyclical for September 1st, “the very life of the Church is an applied ecology. And, by the same token [he continued], destruction of creation is an offense against the Creator, entirely irreconcilable with the basic tenets of Christian theology.”

Third, in order to appreciate this spiritual worldview – this “cosmic liturgy,” as St. Maximus the Confessor called it in the seventh century; this vision of the world as larger than ourselves and our interests – we must adopt a spirit of humility and simplicity. Far too often, we look for solutions to the environmental crisis without listening to creation. We either rush to alternatives or remain complacent in our lifestyles, and we forget that it is our choices and lifestyles that led us in the first place to the situation we face. The present ecological crisis is not simply the result of bad judgment or boundless greed; it is also largely a result of oblivious success and impressive development. We should try to discern the connection between military war, the insatiable lifestyle of the rich, the calamitous flight of refugees, and the ecological plight of our planet.

But to achieve this, we need first to stop and reflect. Paradoxically, the answer may lie not so much in action as in in-action. This is what we learn from the spirituality of fasting (of not consuming), prayer (of not constantly being preoccupied), and asceticism (of surrendering our selfish desires). It is the way of humility, of learning to tread lightly on this planet, of assuming responsibility for the consequences of our actions on others, especially the poor). If we are guilty of relentless waste, it may be because we have lost the spirit of compassion and sharing.

So what can we do? In order to alter our self-image, what is required is nothing less than a radical reversal of our perspectives and practices. Most importantly, we must all learn to do and live with less. The balance of the world has been shattered. And the ecological crisis will not be solved with sentimental slogans but by self-denial as a solution to self-centeredness, by learning to exercise self-restraint and a readiness to say “no” or “enough.”

And here, I think, lies the heart of the problem. Because we are unwilling – in fact, we violently resist any call – to adopt simpler lives. We have misplaced the spirituality of simplicity and frugality. The challenge is this: How do we live in such a way that promotes harmony – not division? How can we acknowledge “the earth as the Lord’s” (Ps. 23.1)? We have to live more simply so that others can simply live.

This brings me to my fourth point, namely the parallels between the ecological crisis and the current pandemic. Whether speaking of climate change or Covid-19, we are dealing with an unprecedented crisis. And crisis (the Greek word κρίσις) implies “judgment.” We will be judged by our response to these critical phenomena that shape and jeopardize our lives. How we respond is where the church comes in.

Again in his recent encyclical, the Ecumenical Patriarch noted the close connection between the two: “The fact that, during the period of the pandemic . . . with the mandatory restrictions of movement, the shutdown of factories, and the diminishment in industrial activity and production, we observed a reduction of pollution and encumbrance of the atmosphere, has proved the anthropogenic nature of the contemporary ecological crisis.”

         In some ways, the greatest threat to our planet at this time is actually not the novel coronavirus (for which a vaccine will at some point be discovered), but climate change. The growing but largely unrecognized death toll from rising global temperatures will eclipse the current number of deaths from all the infectious diseases combined if planet-heating emissions are not constrained. Rising temperatures and intensifying storms will cause greatest devastation in poorer, hotter parts of the world; but the economic loss from the climate crisis, as well as the cost of adaptation, will be felt all around the world, including wealthy countries.

The World Economic Forum has called for “a great reset” of capitalism in the wake of the pandemic, arguing that true sustainability will only be achieved through drastic lifestyle changes. And a team of international scientists recently concluded that, in order to address climate change in light of Covid-19, “we cannot rely on technology and science alone; we have to change our affluent lifestyles and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change.”

All this means that we cannot play politics with climate change, the defining issue of our time. We cannot play politics with science or the health of our planet and its people. When politicians dismiss leading infectious disease experts as “alarmists,” they are in fact using a pejorative straight from the playbook of those who deny the science behind climate change as a “hoax.” The strategies used to dismiss climate change and Covid-19 follow a similar pattern and are employed by many of the same people. It starts with denying that the problem exists; then people try to obstruct action, claiming it’s too hard or too expensive to fix; and finally, they complain that their freedom is under threat.

My son recently told me that Covid-19 provided us with a fascinating and invaluable social experiment: Throughout the pandemic, scientists and at least some civil and religious authorities asked us to do the slightest, most trivial thing for the sake of others and the world: just wear a mask! And still the answer is no; still the answer is politicized; still the answer is “my rights” and “my freedom.” What are the chances that people will respond to having less and hoarding less, or wasting less and sharing more?

In closing, permit me to highlight a recent document on the social ethos of the Orthodox Church. It’s entitled For the Life of the World, and was composed by a commission of Orthodox scholars appointed by His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew and blessed for publication by the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It has already been translated into more than a dozen languages.

The document addresses contemporary issues in a sustained manner that is frankly unusual for the Orthodox Church – issues like poverty and racism, human rights and reproductive technology, science and the environment. The purpose of the document is to provide a reference on vital challenges in ways that are consistent with living as Orthodox Christians. It is a “translation” of basic Christian teachings into the language of compassion and justice. Because by understanding the social principles of the Gospel and the Church, we can shift the narrative from threat or mere survival to concern and love. Then the church can assume a prophetic role and articulate a moral response to climate change and Covid-19.

Economy and politics decide who will survive, who will have clean water and healthcare. But economy and politics will often do so at the expense of the poor and minorities. In this sense, climate change and Covid-19 are wake-up calls. We often hear it stated that Covid-19 is the great equalizer, the great stabilizer. But it isn’t really. It is actually what has exposed structural inequality, institutional corruption, and systemic racism. The world will change through climate change; and the world will change as a result of the pandemic. The question is what direction it will take. Will the global economy be more exclusive and divisive? Or will it become more inclusive, more equitable, more sustainable? These are the questions we must ask ourselves and one another.