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March 24, 2016

"Laudato Si': Ecology, Poverty and Eschatology"

by Elliott Maloney

In his encyclical letter Laudato Si' Pope Francis shows how we can use our Christian faith convictions and turn to Sacred Scripture to discover great wisdom for the burning ecological questions of today. He sees in SS., "ample motivation to care for nature and [also] for the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters" (Laudato Si' #64). Notice how he sees the relationship between ecology and poverty. I'd like to explore with you this relationship by examining first how we got to our complacency in the destruction of nature, second, how we came to such great disregard for the poor, and third, the teaching of Jesus Christ on our role, the role of the Church, in the salvation of all people, the coming of the Kingdom of God which is to be here on this earth.

1. Human Abuse of Nature

First, the biblical claim that we were made in the image and likeness of God means that we "are capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession and of freely giving ourselves and entering into communion with other persons" (LS #65). This means, the Pope continues, that "human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself" (LS #66). Just consider the direct commands of God in each of the Genesis creation accounts. In the first account, in Gen 1:28-30, God gives the humans "dominion" over all the living things both plant and animal of the earth. I might add that the word "dominion" means that we are to act as "domini" over creation, just as God is the ultimate loving and caring "Dominus" over all. In the second account, Gen 2:15, God places Adam in the Garden of Eden "to cultivate and care for it." The expected relationship of respect for nature and caring concern for it couldn't be clearer in the Scriptural teaching!

The Pope then addresses a tragic mistake common in biblical interpretation over many centuries, namely, the distorted anthropocentrism that subordinates all other creatures to humans "as if they have no worth in themselves and can be treated as we wish" (Laudato Si' #69), as if the Bible commands us to be ruthless dominators. But biblical teaching shows that it was by sin that this relationship between humans and the earth was ruptured, first in the sin of Adam and Eve ("Cursed be the ground because of you! In toil you shall eat its yield. Thorns and thistles it shall bear for you, and by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread" -- Gen 1:17-18).

Immediately afterward in the text of Genesis it is the sin of Cain against his brother Abel that destroys the harmony between humanity and the earth, when God says "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground" (Gen 4:10). These stories teach us that when human beings stop believing in the Something that is Transcendent to all of humanity, they begin to think that they are the transcendent. The next step is to think that for them all things are chattel, the objects of their complete possession and control, things to be used up or even abused for pleasure or gain.

2. Disregard for the Poor

Now to the second point: in this same way the lack of an understanding of God as creator of all allows some people to think of other human beings as mere objects to be manipulated or simply ignored. Certainly these "elites" imagine that they have no responsibility to others or for them. "They are not our people, not my problem." The manipulation of the masses by a supposedly superior class of people, with the idea that "Might Makes Right" in human relations, is high atheism!

By contrast, the Bible shows that God begins the rescue of humankind because of the goodness of one single man named Noah, who causes God to relent from destroying humanity from off the face of the earth. Eventually God chooses a Patriarch, Abraham, and promises him an abundance of offspring who will be responsible for the spread of salvation to all nations. After wicked humanity enslaves God's Chosen People, God then lovingly sets them free and chooses them to witness, now in their own land, to God's goodness for the rest of the world.

Among the radical ideas for human relations in the Law are the sabbatical year, a time when the land can rest from farming, and amazingly, the Jubilee Year when all land goes back to its original family proprietors. These ideas touch both aspects of our question: the Sabbatical Year shows respect for the needs of nature and the Jubilee Year shows mercy to the unfortunate poor who have not been able to manage their land and have lost it. Such merciful Laws can only be imagined in a culture that knows that the land really belongs to God. God even commands farmers to leave a bit of grain in the fields for the poor at harvest time (Lev 19:9-10). As Pope Francis says, "The best way to put an end to [all] claims of absolute dominion over the earth is to speak of . . . a Father who created and who alone owns the world" (Laudato Si' #75).

Moreover, the God-as-Creator idea can have a powerful impact in the realm of private property. According to Pope Francis, every economic strategy that is worthy of being considered must take into consideration the poor and underprivileged (the Preferential Option for the Poor). This preference is the right thing, as Pope Francis says, "the principle of the subordination of private property to the universal destination of goods, and thus the right of everyone to their use, is a golden rule of social conduct" (LS #93). To make this very dense dictum more easily understandable we might say that there is a golden rule, a most central and important demand, in the area of responsible social behavior, and it is this: although private property is part of our understanding of human living and an inalienable right for humans, "the earth is essentially a shared inheritance, whose fruits are meant to benefit everyone . . . since God created the world for everyone" (LS #93). Thus private property must never be used to deny a human life to the poor. This dictum according to Pope John Paul II, "[is] the first principle of the whole ethical and social order" (Encyclical Letter, Laborem Exercens, #19). Consider the full ramifications of this kind of thinking with regard to international aid and debt forgiveness!

When Pope Francis turns to the NT, the first thing he notices is how often Jesus stops to contemplate the beauty of nature and tell his disciples to learn about God from it (LS #97). In his hidden younger days Jesus sanctified human labor in the simple life of a workman (LS #98). He preached his message, appearing not as a separatist ascetic but as someone who enjoyed eating, drinking and socializing with all kinds of people. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for our day, the Pope says that for us Christians the destiny of the world is bound up with the destiny of Jesus Christ. What does he mean by that? He says, "This leads us to direct our gaze to the end of time, when the Son will deliver all things to the Father" since he is "the risen One mysteriously holding [all creatures] to himself and directing them towards fullness as their end" (LS #100). Pope Francis' new awareness and emphasis on eschatology is reminiscent of Teilhard's expectation of Christ as the Omega Point of history, and both have roots deep in the teaching of Jesus himself in the idea of the Kingdom of God.

The eschatological emphasis of the NT has long been underplayed in our Christian living for several reasons, not the least of which is what Pope Francis identifies as certain "unhealthy dualisms" from which, he says, "Jesus was far removed." "These philosophies that despised the body, matter and things of the world, nonetheless, left a mark on certain Christian thinkers in the course of history and disfigured the Gospel" (LS #97). Such thinking gave rise to too many misinterpretations of biblical teaching on God's future for the world:

1) Paul's statement "I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better; yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary" (Phil 1:23), as if being on the other side of death was in itself better. At that moment of suffering Paul had almost died in a wretched prison!

2) "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor 15:50) -- but this means that the body as it is now, on this side of death, cannot receive its final reward. That does not mean that there will not be a "spiritual body" in the future (see 1 Cor 15:36-44, esp. 44 -- "If there is a psychikon , this side of death" body, there is also a spiritual body").

3) "My kingdom is not of this world" (John 18:36), does not mean that it is not in this world, but meaning that it is not like those other kingdoms that are "of the world."

4) Matthew's use of "the Kingdom of heaven" is a euphemism for "Kingdom of God."

5) "Until heaven and earth pass away, no letter will pass from the Law" (Matt 5:18) means that Torah can't pass away (God's dwelling—a hyperbole!) any more than heaven and earth can.

6) Similarly, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31 and parallels). neither will pass away!

7) "Our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil 3:20) means that the rules are not "of this world" but they are "for this world"—only transcendent to it! I always think of this holding my American passport while I am fully engaged in living and teaching in Nigeria!

8) "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7//Matt 26:11), meaning the unfortunate, the physically and mentally disadvantaged, not the economically poor—everyone was poor back then!

9) "Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours." (Matt 5:3). It took the experience of the poor in Latin America to teach the world the fuller meaning of the Kingdom of God!

Because of all of this, most modern Christians do not have a sufficient grasp of the basic teaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God. We should understand by this teaching first of all that the Kingdom is not in heaven but that it is to have its existence here on earth. As Jesus says, "The kingdom is in your midst!" (Luke 17:21) The new heaven and the new earth should be explained as a renewal of this world rather than its abandonment and destruction. In the Book of Revelation God's judgment will fall not on God's own creation of the world, but on the Roman Empire and all earthly evil. These must be subdued before the Kingdom can flourish and God can come to live fully with us on earth.

One cannot enjoy the Kingdom fully if one is constantly turning the other cheek. Just as abject poverty dehumanizes the poor to do unspeakable things in order to survive, so the fullness of human sharing in Christ can only occur inside a community dedicated to God's will and God's will alone. There is no complete destruction of Planet Earth in the Bible: it is clearly here to stay and is the very place to be renewed according to every Old Testament apocalyptic text of destruction. After the Day of the Lord in Isaiah 13, for example, when "the Lord and the instruments of his wrath will come to destroy the land," in 14:1 "the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land." In Joel 2:1-3 "the Day of the Lord is coming . . . as a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds . . . before it fire devours . . . behind it desolate wilderness . . . from it nothing escapes," but immediately afterward the Lord takes pity on His people and says,

"I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied;
The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.

(See also the apocalyptic reversals in Amos 9:11-15; Haggai 2:6-7; Isa 35:1-2; Ezek 34, etc.)

As Theodore Hiebert, OT professor at McCormick University, puts it, "NT scholars have questioned the otherworldly reading of the Book of Revelation, claiming instead that John's visions look forward to a renewal of this world rather than its abandonment or replacement . . . . God redeems not by drawing people up to heaven but by descending to live with them on earth, taking residence in creation and renewing it" (Interpretation 65 [2011] 346).

My own conclusion to all of this is that, as we have said, the Kingdom of God is a state of affairs in which all men and women may partake in a community of believers for whom God's will is the major concern of life, the prime objective of all we do. The will of God is that we love and honor God and our neighbors as ourselves. The way we honor God is to live proudly as God's creatures dedicated to our Creator. The way we love God is to bring God's love to our fellow humans, and to do this we must give our love to others.

By way of conclusion let me share from my book on Saint Paul, Master of the Spiritual Life "in Christ" where I point out the great Saint's own wishes and prayers on a Christ-like life:

1) to esteem others and honor every living person as a creature of God, made in God's image and likeness, whether my neighbor, my friend, an alien in the land, or my enemy;

2) to live in service of people because we acknowledge their worthiness and the fact that God loves them;

3) to engender in people the goodness of God in what they do and in their very being by sharing all our resources both public and personal with them;

4) to bring about the containment and eradication of evil in their lives and in the world (this world) by our absorbing it just as Jesus did on the cross in his selfless gift to us;

5) to work together with the holy Spirit in an ever-growing community of like-minded believers to bring about the realization of the Kingdom of God, a way of being together in the presence of God. This Kingdom has already existed since the time of Jesus, even though it is still cloaked from sight, but it is available for the freedom of humanity to find it and choose it as their inheritance.

6) to realize what St. Paul says,

For creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God . . . , in hope that creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we are saved (Rom 8:19-24).

This future hope and our preparation of the planet for the eschaton I call Eco-eschatology. It means that in order to allow God's completion of the plan for salvation, we must cooperate with the Kingdom as preached by Jesus and as updated by contextual theology today. This requires us to become fully concerned with God's will for the welfare of all God's children and to renew our efforts in behalf of Planet Earth, the home God gave them to live in.