Untying the Knots

by Emilie Bouvier

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© Michele Jokinen

“I… I had no idea what the Doctrine of Discovery was. It’s unbelievable, really, it meant that land could be taken if there were no baptized Christians there.” I was jolted out of a moment of distractedly gazing at the stained glass windows during announcements. It was a Sunday morning in early September, and I was visiting a deep suburban congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) that I didn’t know well, but had worked with to coordinate an eco-stewardship project.

There he was, on a blue carpeted footstool at the pulpit microphone, leaning in with a pause: an entirely typical member of the congregation—certainly not the “peace-with-justice-committee” type—unable to hold back the passion welling up about an issue that was entirely new to him. In jolting sentences, clearly still processing, he shared what he was learning with the congregation in what would otherwise be a rather dry report about the Churchwide Assembly. The crack in his voice mid-phrase betrayed the vulnerability he felt at uncovering anguish in a history he claimed as his own. He was expecting just to show up as a delegate for a large-scale church meeting. Little did he know a resolution passed there on Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery would cause a radical shift. Our social statements as church bodies matter. They can be transformational in unnoticed corners where we wouldn’t even anticipate.

I felt much hope listening to this lay member’s reflections, because I saw colonial history as being deeply related to our environmental crisis.

Having spent time at Standing Rock last fall, I was very aware of how pipeline routes in the Midwest exemplify the ways environmental degradation harms those who are already poor and marginalized, the undying chorus to Pope Francis’s plea for greater care for this earth. Oppression of people and exploitation of the land are integrally related, parallel parts of the structural sin we carry in our world today.

As people and institutions of faith, we have often been on the wrong side of history. As a religion that came from the margins, we’ve historically been awfully comfortable in siding with Empire for the sake of safety and economic benefit. It takes slow and careful work to untie these knots, to seek reconciliation with our sisters, brothers, and the land; and ultimately to mend ourselves and our faith. I believe that social statements on the part of faith leaders and church bodies are critical in recognizing these histories—in naming these knots—and empowering people of the church to get to work unbinding their hold on us.

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© Emilie Bouvier

I have found Laudato Si’ to be one of the most profound examples of a social statement doing just that: addressing the harm and empowering action. Its reverberations have been far-reaching. When I first spent time with the document, I was moved by such a deep and faithful challenge to business as usual of overconsumption and extraction. I found grounding in Pope Francis’s abiding gratitude that stands counter to commodification and in his unabashed stand with the marginalized whose resources others are decimating. Even more, the authoritative weight of Pope Francis’s words has strengthened faith communities and church leaders well beyond the Catholic Church and invigorated me.

As an environmental justice organizer for a Lutheran bishop (ELCA), I can’t even tell you the number of times after the encyclical’s release in 2015 that I found congregation members or pastors in Lutheran churches excitedly asking me “Have you read the pope’s encyclical yet?” Countless more times I, or Bishop Ann Svennungsen, started a statement to elected officials or community leaders with, “Given Laudato Si’, we’re clearly at a kairos in the religious community’s response to the environment….” The encyclical has marked a turning point for how people of faith, across traditions, have engaged environmental justice in the public sphere. We have stood up to match the tenor the pope set: that we are here, and we have work to do.

What has that work looked like? It has looked like the following:

  • confirmation groups cleaning out and stenciling neighborhood storm drains, in efforts to keep trash out of our rivers and streams
  • members from seven congregations showing up in a packed room downtown to get commitments from mayoral candidates on clean energy and equity
  • running energy audits and incorporating green principles in renovations
  • following in the footsteps of indigenous leader Sharon Day on a “Nibi Walk” (water walk), with each step as a prayer for the healing of the water
  • adult forums and creative worship services that invite congregations to learn, pray, and sing their way into environmental practices
  • writing letters to members of an energy utility board of a rural electric cooperative, advocating to expand clean energy options for members
  • a meet-up at a local watershed district, learning the basics of water stewardship and heartily belting of “Shall We Gather at the River” through rain gardens to the bank of the Mississippi to read scripture and bless the water

This is resounding: the methods are many, but the essential feature is that we find opportunity in our own communities and contexts, always in relationship with our neighbors. It has profoundly impacted how we think about being “church together” in the synod of Lutheran congregations I serve. It falls in line with the sort of “EcoReformation” for which many are calling, as the Lutheran Church celebrates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

It’s at this 500-year moment that we also are seeing a coming together of Lutheran and Catholic judicatories. Last fall, I witnessed Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, and Bishop Patricia Lull plan a joint worship service in recognition of this milestone anniversary. What’s striking to me is the way that we’re able to come together on social issues, even amid theological differences, to work the common good. In the current political realities, it fills me with hope to see people of faith work ecumenically on issues bound to the heart of our faith—care for the disenfranchised, the immigrant, and the earth. We have an opportunity at hand to imagine a different future together—a world that honors this earth from which “our very bodies are made up… [whose air] we breathe… [and from whose waters we] receive life and refreshment” (Laudato Si’, 2).

Reactions to Laudato Si

By The Rev. Peter J. Henriot, S.J., Ph.D., with Lester A. Myers, Ph.D., J.D., CPA, CFF, CGMA

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How do I react to the monumental encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si? Well, thinking about how to respond to that question brought to my mind three things I should be very clear about from the start:

  1. I am a Jesuit, not a Franciscan.
  1. I’ve lived in Africa for the past three decades, not in the United States.
  1. I’m a political scientist, not an ecological scientist.

First of all, I’m not much of a “brother sun,” “sister moon,” “mother earth,” sort of person. To be honest, I probably had never read the Canticle of Francis of Assisi until it began appearing everywhere on the Internet after Pope Francis released his encyclical. My formation in Jesuit spirituality seemed a lot less “poetic” than the lyrical expressions of the poor man of Assisi. But recently I’ve been challenged to go deeper into the Ignatian view of our created order. A Spanish Jesuit ecologist, José Antonio García, S.J., opened for me the environmentalist reading (and praying!) of the “Foundation” and the “Contemplation” of Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.

Simply expressed, the created world deeply reveals God’s loving presence and calls for a respect and cooperation in every aspect of my life. While our Jesuit Pope does not cite Ignatius in Laudato Si, he–and I–cannot help but be influenced by what is really a radical Ignatian ecological spirituality.

Second, my understanding of today’s environmental crisis is influenced by my experience of climate change in Africa in recent years. While some prominent people might deny climate change, no one who lives in the midst of the environmental disasters of drought and flood such as I have experienced in Malawi in recent years can be blind to such a reality.

Paragraphs 25 and 26 of Laudato Si especially speak of the consequences of climate change to the livelihoods of the poor in the so-called “developing countries.” Pope Francis notes that the means of subsistence of these poor “are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry.” And these are the realities most threatened by the climate change affecting the people I know in Africa.

Third, by training I look at the responses that Laudato Si recommends primarily in political terms – and I’m pleased that Pope Francis is very much aware of the need for political action and the relationship between such action and our joint and collective economic decisions about consumption, savings, and investment. He repeatedly emphasizes that the changes that will really respect our common home require actions by citizens that will especially influence economic decisions: “Unless citizens control political power – national, regional and municipal – it will not be possible to control damage to the environment” (179).

Certainly this political emphasis is urgently needed in these days of transition of leadership in the United States. A president who denies the reality of climate change and promises to withdraw from international agreements to promote economic growth is a threat to cumulative gains, however modest these have been. As Pope Francis notes, there is an overwhelming body of scientific research supporting the conclusions that (1) climate change is real and (2) human activity is its principal cause. To suggest otherwise, e.g, through the Orwellian substitution of “climate contrarian” for “climate change denier,” is to practice a modern form of misology. Likewise, to discount the credibility of scientific researchers and the legitimacy of their work by imputing political or financial bias to them is intellectually dishonest in the face of the enormous political and financial interests that have everything to gain through such denials.

However, even the political realm is only part of the story and Catholic social tradition recognizes a pluralism of institutions: multiple centers of gravity for reinforcing salutary policies and practices. It is telling that corporations have joined civil society organizations, universities, faith-influenced organizations, and even the military and intelligence communities to hold fast to the scientific conclusions about climate change and to support global collaboration through public and private institutions to mitigate and try to reverse this threat.

When Pope Francis asks such hard questions through the lenses of the Canticle, chemistry, and cosmology, he brings us to an encounter with both sobering truths and venerable tools of Catholic social tradition for engaging with them. This is very much in the spirit of Pope Pius XI’s call for subsidiarity in the wake of the Great Depression, Pope John XXIII’s invocation of socialization after the Cuban missile crisis, and John Paul II’s exhortation to solidarity in building a global millennial consciousness in the wake of the Cold War. Pope Francis, in voicing an ethic of care for our common home and one another in Laudato Si, enlarges our ethical vision, our willingness to see afresh the challenging signs of the times, and our resolve to think differently and to act differently to build a future worthy of our principles and our promise.