Every since I got caught up in the world of climate action, I have been curious about how theologians and ministers have approached the topic from a Biblical perspective. So many people look to the Bible for guidance and comfort, so no wonder they may seek out messages that can apply to our current climate crisis.
The first and most prominent message I heard over and over seeks to refocus the way we look at the earth. Instead of something to conquer and subdue, our role can be that of stewards of the planet. It is a lovely thought and definitely better than the Man shall have dominion over all creation approach. Still it felt tepid to me.
Recently I heard a Franciscan priest in Arizona talk about this concept of stewardship. His critique of it and his broader view of the world, stimulated my thinking and helped me better understand my discomfort around the whole stewardship model. Here is audio of Fr. Joe Schwab from the Franciscan Renewal Center followed by my own commentary. (Transcript below. Hope you like the music by Romo, Raúl Díaz Palomar, and Derlei)
In the next part I speak with a Lutheran pastor about the unpardonable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit and what on earth that might have to do with climate change.
As part of my epic tour of the the American Southwest earlier this fall, I attended a climate change rally in Phoenix Arizona. The organizers, mostly faith-based groups, focused on the moral imperatives to act to address climate change. I recorded most of the speakers, and in future episodes will share some of what they had to say. But for this episode I have for you the public comments of Father Joe Schwab of the Franciscan Renewal Center, which you can visit at thecasa.org.
I admit that when the priest approached the microphone wearing his flowing brown Franciscan robe, similar to the one my childhood parish priest wore, I did not expect too much. At best I thought I would hear the same old talking points about how we are required to be good stewards of the planet. Instead Father Joe surprised me with his twist on the stewardship message. I’ll play you what I recorded and then share the thoughts it dislodged in my head the following day in Quaker meeting.
Here is some of Fr. Joe’s message:
Inspired by Pope Francis, the Franciscan Renewal Center decided to amplify his call for decisive action at the United Nations Paris Climate Talks in December. To this end, we invited a variety of organization to join together to speak with one voice on the moral imperative that we act NOW to address global climate change. For Franciscans and Franciscan- hearted people this is not a new focus. We have been dedicated for the last 800 years to understanding St. Francis’ call to be brothers and sister to all of creation. St. Francis saw himself in a kinship relationship with the rest of creation. This kinship relationship is like the workings of a family. He did not see himself as something separate, like a steward standing outside the created world striving to guard it. Rather he saw himself on the inside, one of the created world and protecting it as he would protect his own mother, sister or brother. This stance of St. Francis created a different relationship with the rest of the world, a more humble one. As in a family, he saw his relationship with the rest of the world as being mutual, with each being having something to offer and each having something to learn.
I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word, Steward, no concrete image comes to mind. Well, other than Stewie from the Family Guy. I can’t think of a person I know who is a steward.. A friend of mine for a time was the warden of the Friends Meeting in Oxford England. In America we would call that person a Caretaker or a Super or Manager of Buildings and Grounds. But I don’t anyone who is a steward.
Steward is an archaic word like covenant and kinship. These old timey words have a formal weight to them but do not resonate like the words barista, guidance counselor, or caretaker. A caretaker is in charge of things and land. But when we are talking about being stewards of the earth we know that also includes looking after many living things, animals and people. Some words that might apply then are Caregiver or the British term, Carer, for someone who assists a person with medical needs. We also have the word attendant and assistant.
All these terms though I find problematic when talking about climate change and the earth. There is a distance, an othering about them. I care for you. You need me. But is that really the relationship we have to the natural world and the atmosphere?
I am not a touchy feeling granola new age environmentalist, but even I can see that there is an interconnectedness. When I breath out, I release a little bit of carbon dioxide and a lot of nitrogen. The carbon dioxide is in turn absorbed by plants and ultimately gets transformed and released as oxygen.
I am not a distant other caring for a needy planet. Rather I am part of a system, one that I need for food, air, and life.
If I were to be cynical about it though, the actual relationship I see that humans have with the planet is parasitical. A parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the host’s expense. We have a negative connotation to the word parasite. It can be used as an insult in an argument, “I tell you Leonard, I can’t take any more. You are sucking the life out of you. You are an emotional and financial parasite!”
My husband is writing a novel that includes a character that is a tape worm, so over meals and before going to sleep, I have heard a far too much about parasites. Now there are actually good parasite, beneficial parasites. Researchers have begun to point out that many intestinal parasites actually help us.. These microbes swimming in our guts might be responsible for activating our immune system and staving off problems caused by intestinal inflammation. There is a give and take with these parasites in our systems. We benefit each other.
While it doesn’t sound terribly appealing, I believe that instead of seeing ourselves as stewards of the earth, we should think about how we can be downright neighborly beneficial parasites on this planet.
The reality is we need the earth far more than it needs us. As we alter the chemistry of the atmosphere and harm multiple species, ultimately the earth will move on and reorganize itself to the new conditions it faces. It will adapt. If need be, it will do so without out, ejecting us from the system.
While I do not see us as stewards or caretakers or caregivers brought in to manage and save a sick planet and eco-system, I do think we have our part in undoing the damage that we have done, well as much as we can. If like St. Francis preached, the natural world and all in it is family to us, sisters, brothers, and others, kin, we can right the relationship where we have been cruel, selfish, or thoughtless. We can take our part.
As St. Francis said, Keep a clear eye toward life’s end. Do not forget your purpose and destiny as God’s creature. What you are in God’s sight is what you are and nothing more. Remember that when you leave this earth, you can take nothing that you have received…but only what you have given; a full heart enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice, and courage.