What about when bad things happen to the good earth?

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 2, 2008

Last week’s column on bad things happening to good people concluded with a quotation from Philo: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” But what about our beloved planet itself? Whose responsibility is it when earth is fighting a hard battle?

More specifically, does religion have anything to say about this?

I had the privilege recently of being one of four panelists at a conference on Religion and the Environment sponsored by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and held at the Cochrane RancheHouse. The panelists included Cochrane coffee companion Jill Blackie, representing Buddhism; Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, of Calgary, representing Judaism; and Dr. Mohyuddin Mirza, of Edmonton, representing Islam. I spoke on behalf of Christianity. Cochrane Mayor Truper McBride emceed the event on behalf of the town.

The simple answer to the question, of course, is yes, religion – all the religions represented on the panel, and no doubt most, if not all, other religions – have a lot to say about our relationship to the environment.

“It’s about our respect and care for the community of life,” Ms. Blackie said. It’s about ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, non-violence and peace.

“Each person has the power to overcome life’s challenges and positively influence the world.”

Dr. Mirza’s Ahmadiyya branch of Islam “rejects violence and terrorism in any form and for any reason,” and that includes violence to the environment.

The agriculturalist and author on Islamic responses to contemporary issues argued for the balanced integration of the environment and the economy. Global warming is an indicator of these two being out of balance.

Rabbi Howard referred to the oft-quoted passage from the first book of the Bible, where God tells Adam and Eve to “have dominion . . . over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

“Dominion has been misunderstood,” he said. It does not mean to destroy, but “to take care of the earth, to see it as the precious gift that it is.” But “we have abandoned the covenant we have agreed to.”

My own response began with a summary of positions of many branches of Christianity, including the Vatican’s recent listing of environmental pollution as the eighth deadly sin (the first seven being pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, wrath and sloth).

Then I shared a story that, I think, follows up quite nicely on Rabbi Howard’s covenantal thoughts – a story built on shared Judeo-Christian heritage and sensible to concerned people of all traditions:

In the sixth century B.C. the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah saw the residents of his beloved Jerusalem taken into captivity in Babylon (modern-day Iraq). These were not happy days for his people, many of whom lived in denial and false hope, wrongly believing that they would be returning to their homeland before long and therefore could ignore the day-to-day issues of life that were staring them in the face.

But, he argued, they would be ignoring the obvious to their own great peril. They might be in exile for a long, long time. They should get busy and build themselves homes, plant gardens, get their children happily married, and in general settle in as responsible contributors to the communities in which they were relocated.

And they were to do it with a good attitude.

For “thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon,” the prophet writes: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.”

Then a common-sense explanation is offered that, I believe, is as applicable today regarding our relationship to the earth’s environment as it was to the captives’ relationship to their new surroundings in ancient Babylon:

“For in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:4–7)

It is my contention, all other considerations notwithstanding, that as inhabitants of planet earth, we are not excused from doing our part to make things work happily for all concerned – including for the environment.

True, some may see themselves as mere sojourners on this planet – “just a passing through,” as the bluegrass Gospel song goes, while their “treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.”

Regardless, this earth is our home for the time being, just like Babylon was the exiles’ home for a while. And like them, we are to work for the welfare of the place where we find ourselves. For, as Jeremiah wrote, in its welfare we will find our welfare.

We and our God-given natural environment are in a mutually dependent relationship. We need each other.

© 2008 Warren Harbeck

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