The people contended with Moses, exclaiming, “Would that we too had perished with our kinsmen in the Lord’s presence! Why have you brought the Lord’s assembly into the desert where we and our livestock are dying? Why did you lead us out of Egypt, only to bring us to this wretched place which has neither grain nor figs nor vines nor pomegranates? Here there is not even water to drink!”Numbers 20: 3-5
This morning is one of those days where the scriptures seem to parallel the lead news story of the day. The lead paragraph of the top story in today’s New York Times reads:
The world’s land and water resources are being exploited at “unprecedented rates,” a new United Nations report warns, which combined with climate change is putting dire pressure on the ability of humanity to feed itself.Christopher Flavell, “Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns, New York Times, August 8, 2019
As the people of Israel, being given freedom by God, find themselves in rebellion against God which is rooted in their mistrust, so too do we find ourselves in every age. The Israelites, as all of us since and clearly to the present day, have been freed by God from slavery, but, spiritually speaking, they fail to comprehend the true nature of human freedom. Freedom for us cannot be arbitrary and absolute, for we are not separate from the world, from the reality in which we live. We are not free to violate the conditions of our creaturehood. When we do so, as Moses and Aaron at Meribah, then we violate the conditions for the realization of our promised destiny. “Because you were not faithful to me in showing forth my sanctity before the children of Israel, you shall not lead this community into the land I will give them.”
So today, we are issued yet another warning that we either change our ways as a species or we shall wreak havoc and horror on ourselves. We either submit to the reality and the truth of our environment or we destroy the life (the freedom) we have been given by God. In Paradise Lost, John Milton puts into the mouth of Satan the description of our primordial conflict as human beings. As Satan is thrust into hell for his disobedience, he proclaims a victory of sorts:
Here at leastBook I, 258-63
we shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
The condition of a consonant life, a life lived in harmony with that which is other than ourselves in all of its forms, is to use our freedom to choose to be a servant of the truth, of reality. As the Islamic tradition teaches, “There is no God but God” or, as our own tradition puts it, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6: 4-5). Yet, each of us has the same inner conflict as Milton’s Satan. We would often rather reign, even in our own personal hells, than serve in heaven.
Jesus teaches that in everything we do, we are to be servants (Luke 17: 10). Yet, because it is rare (Perhaps someone like St. Francis of Assisi is the exception.) that we are able to acknowledge and appropriate that everything, including our life and our world, is a gift of God, we confuse freedom with domination. Unless we can “rule” we are not free. The problem of climate change, like every human problem is at its core a spiritual problem. And, as a spiritual problem, it is a problem in living truthfully, a problem of the kind of self-recognition that is required for us human persons to see and to respond to the Real.
As a species we, says the United Nations’ panel, are exploiting “the world’s land and water resources at ‘unprecedented rates.’” When we make ourselves the center of the universe we waste and exploit: natural resources, human labor, the good will and love of others. Every other sinful act of Satan springs from his ambition, his need and will to be above all. It is his refusal to recognize and appropriate his true place in God’s creation.
Why is it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19: 24)? It is because, for us humans, it is seemingly impossible for those with wealth and power to share it. Whenever we have privilege, when we are “on the inside,” we tend to become indifferent or even hostile to those who are not privileged or who are on the outside. Our prisons are filled with poor people, people who are so marginalized in our society that they have no way of sharing in our wealth and privilege except by “taking” their share. Those who suffer the results of civil wars in Central and South America, wars largely created and supported by the United States, come feeling here for their security and well being, and we tell them, with great self-righteousness “to get in line.”
The United Nations’ panel tells us that “The potential risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing.” We are facing the probability of famine on a mass scale, and, of course, that will affect poor regions of the world much more than affluent ones. The precipice on which we find ourselves as a species is in very large part a result of the affluence some of us have, and which is having devastating effects in our own societies. Like Satan we have built a hell for ourselves out of our greed and ambition. The human psyche is nothing if not adaptable. And so, we have adapted to living in fear and enmity of our neighbors. When a motorcycle backfires in Times Square, panic erupts out of fear of a mass shooter. So, even as we attempt to live our ordinary, normal lives it is clear that barely under the surface we live in mortal fear of each other. But, by dint of our wealth and weaponry, we are able to assert our preeminent power in the world.
Yet, in the face of the epidemic of violence or the destruction of our very planet, we are helpless. We are not free in the most important ways. Freedom can only come to us through conversion, not conversion to one “way” or another, to any given set of religious tenets. Rather, we, like the Israelites, must convert by remembering in the depth of our being who we really are and what is our true place in a world that is not our possession but a gift from God. Among the last words my Father spoke to me were “I’m not any better than anyone else.” The implications of this truth are enormous. For, I have no right to any more than anyone else does. “My share” of the world’s resources, in justice, should be no more than anyone else’s. Satan prefers hell because there he is at the top of the hierarchy. To “reign” is to have. It is to have more power, more wealth, more privilege than the others. It is easier for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye than it is for the one who rules in hell to enter heaven.
We read in the New York Times, of all places, this morning that it is not too late to repent. Those of us born into and living in relative affluence must recognize that we shall not be free until we eschew that power, privilege, and wealth to which we have come to feel entitled. We must acknowledge that it is the way we live that we have come to see as our right that threatens both the life of humanity and the very habitability of our planet. The power that our wealth and privilege give us must be put at the service of human life and survival, not of protecting our privilege, what we’ve arrogantly come to call “our way of life.”
I am a member of a religious congregation whose members are actually vowed to poverty, to a witness to the truth that everything belongs to all. We have just completed a meeting called a General Chapter, held once every six years to set congregational direction for the next six years. As we entered that meeting, an international Chapter planning committee which had spent two years in preparation for the event issued to the meeting a focus that had emerged through its time of prayer and discernment together. That proposal read in part:
Our Fundamental Principles call on us to: “Study and reflect also upon the history of the congregation, for this history Is the actual lived expression and development of your Founder’s charism. It will reveal to you the mysterious ways of God in the cycle of death and rebirth that has been the life of the congregation. . . As you prayerfully reflect on the past, assess the present, and ponder the future with our brothers, be considerate of this history and of this ministry (of Christian education). Yet, like Ryken, foster an attitude of openness to the needs of the Church and your world, and a willingness to follow Christ wherever he leads.” As the Chapter Planning Committee studies, reflects, and prays in this way, it hears the Church and the world appealing to the fundamental aspect of our charism that summons us to be close to the poor.
In praying to Jesus to be sent where he wants us in this time, the Committee experiences a call to renewal and refoundation, by taking those concrete steps that will restructure our life and work in accordance with our foundational calling to be with and for the poor. This will require of us a detachment from the works and ways of living we have developed that distance us from the poor, and an openness of mind and heart to respond as we are able to the needs of the local and universal church and the world.
This proposal before the General Chapter summoned our own small congregation to a repentance and conversation that would have restored our “true place” “with and for the poor.” However, this most specific proposal for a new direction was not even considered by the meeting. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the needle’s eye than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” To say there is a compelling and necessary call for repentance is not said naively. For even a group vowed to the counsels of the gospel could not face a summons to radically change our lives in service to those counsels. The call of gospel poverty is not merely an ascetical ideal. We are now experiencing that it is a matter of the life or death of our species and our world. It is not a call to impoverishment for all. It is a call to realize that “I’m no better (and so deserve no more) than anyone else.” On September 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke before the General Assembly of the United Nations. At that time, speaking of the threat of nuclear proliferation, he concluded with the memorable words:
Ladies and gentlemen of this Assembly, the decision is ours. Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose, or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can–and save it we must–and then shall we earn the eternal thanks of mankind and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessing of God.
Although the focus of the threat is now different, his summons remains equally true. We shall repent and so act “together” or together we shall perish.
“Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.Pope Francis, Laudato Si: On Care For Our Common Home, 1-2
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.