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).
With these words from his new encyclical, “Laudato Si,” on “Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis inextricably links the suffering Earth, our “sister” and “mother,” with the “most abandoned and maltreated” of the poor, not the abstract “poor” but our poor. Inadvertently but perhaps providentially, the unveiling of the encyclical this morning in Rome will forever be joined with the horrific violence unleashed last night in Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Just as the Pope beckons to “every person living on this planet,” so does the blood of the murdered and traumatized in a humble church basement – cut down, it seems, by a stranger welcomed into their midst for shared prayer over the scriptures – cry out to all from the roots of the Earth herself, who absorbs their blood, and remembers.
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.
At the most integral levels of thought, self-image, and action, it is true: we have forgotten that we ourselves are “dust of the earth,” that our very bodies “are made up of her elements.” But the Earth does not forget. She holds all bodies, even the smallest and humblest of creatures, in her memory, in her very body. Again, Pope Francis writes:
We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.
There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself.
In the wake of this attack in Charleston, with its terrible echoes of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham – this attack on our watch perhaps even “more horrific,” if one can dare such a statement, given the killer’s bald face-to-face violation of a trusting community who had welcomed him bodily into their midst – the Pope’s plea for loving awareness of the Earth and for renewed social encounter with each other rings every more urgently in our ears and (let us hope) in our divided hearts.
While we forget, the Earth hears. The Earth remembers and cries out in lament.
Let us not forget, as one of my cherished colleagues in the Catholic theological community wrote via email this morning, that “environmental racism is a reality in this country, where communities of color have long borne the brunt of ecologically degraded neighborhoods and a higher prevalence of environmentally linked health diseases.”
Pope Francis challenges “both the left and the right,” as another colleague posted in her eloquent take on the encyclical, “calling us all in a new direction, beyond fear and paralysis to love and agency, from indifference and greed to global solidarity.” The encyclical is not “an ‘ecobummer,'” she continues, “as Francis reminds us that we are ‘created for love,’ and that God’s ‘love constantly impels us to find new ways forward,’ to build ‘a civilization of love.’” Sadly, the young man in Charleston seems to have taken the welcoming gesture of a loving community and spat it horrifically, violently, utterly blasphemously, back into their faces.
How will we lament the dead, come together, and “find new ways forward”?
Pope Francis, emphasizing the gratuitous, unearned, always surprising wellspring of divine Love and Mercy, points the way not only toward the renewal of nature but for the renewal of humanity itself. Even amid our laments, we must remember the loving generosity of God, manifest in the Earth and in our mutual dependency with all God’s creatures, too long abused and ignored.
The way forward, of course, will be unimaginably hard, painful, sacrificial – like the groaning and laboring of the Earth herself – but God’s love is constant, and that indeed is our deepest hope. To which we can only respond, with wonder, fearful reverence, and gratitude, “Laudato si,” “Praised be!”
Resources and commentary on “Laudato Si”
Video from the Vatican: link here.
Patriarch Bartholomew: link here.
Bartholomew with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury: link here.
NPR summary report with Sylvia Poggioli: link here.
EJ Dionne on the encyclical: link here.
Naomi Klein in the New Yorker: link here.
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists: link here.
Harvard Gazette: Interview with Francis S. Fiorenza and others: link here.
Ted Widmer (Brown University): link here.
Video presentation (19 min.) at the Festival of Faiths by Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny, adviser to Cardinal Turkson, a key drafter of Laudato Si: link here.
Resources and commentary on Charleston:
Adam Clark, my colleague at Xavier University: link here.
NPR Roundup of stories: link here.
Gene Demby, “Dylan Roof and the Stubborn Myth of the Colorblind Millenial”: link here.
Austin Channing, “The Only Logical Conclusion.”
Resources from Karen House, North St. Louis.
E J Dionne, “Liberated by Grace,” on the African American church in America.