On Care for Our Common Home

On a recent trip to China, I was reminded of one of Pope Francis’ first public documents.  That may seem like an odd way to begin an inspirational reflection, so let me explain.  I was in China with my friend to do a seminar.  There is nothing unusual or inspiring in that, I grant.  I travel with him fairly often, but normally it is not to China.  The trip was uneventful; we did what we planned to do.  Of course, being in a very different culture, as China is, leaves a profound impression on me.  But I don’t even want to talk about that.
What I do want to discuss is the air pollution I experienced.  Of course, China is not the only place on earth where that happens, but rarely have I been somewhere the air is so markedly unhealthy.  I was lucky.  Much of the week I spent inside a comfortable hotel.  And I was in Shanghai, which is usually not the worst place in China.  Typically, Beijing is worse than Shanghai and other industrial cities are even lower on the “awful meter.”
Rather than bash the Chinese for messing up their air, I recognize we are all polluters of our world.  And I am one of those who think it is real and who thinks it can become quite serious.  And I am also one who thinks about this in spirituality terms.  And that is what reminded my of Pope Francis’ encyclical letter, Laudato Sì, which he issued in May, 2015.  The Pope has done some important thinking on the climate problem and I want to return to that document to pick up some points.
What most readers won’t recognize is the title of my inspirational piece is actually the subtitle of the Pope’s encyclical.  It puts the climate issues in spiritual terms: on care of our common home.  The earth---indeed, the entire universe and world, however big it is---is God’s creation.  Our earth is our common home.  This is difficult to remember in our culture where we have ownership perspectives.  For example, I think I own my own home.  I don’t think about it being God’s!
I love how the Pope opens his encyclical with the words from his namesake, Francis of Assisi.  The earlier Francis “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.”  I like his use of two feminine metaphors to describe the earth.  But I first note his use of the adjective, common, to talk about the earth.  The earth---our home---is common to all of us.  Even if I think about owning my own home and the land on which it is built, I have to recognize this is folly.  Of course, I can legally claim it; I can sell it, etc.  But spiritually speaking, it is not “mine.”  It is on loan to me from God.
Pope Francis clearly articulates the climate change issue in the second section of the encyclical.  “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.”  I see significant spiritual insights here.  Let’s explore those.
In the first place the Pope our sister now cries out to us.  That is a great way to describe the experience I recently had in China.  As I was outside in the polluted air, the earth-sister had my attention.  It was easy to see she was sick.  The paradox struck me that her polluted state was because I and millions of Chinese and people from all around the world had polluted her.  The Genesis creation stories talk about God creating the earth and declaring the earth to be good.  We have polluted this good earth.  And now she is sick. 

And some of us don’t even believe that.  But if you had been with me that recent day in China, there is no way you could argue the earth is fine and dandy.  Even if the sun were shining that day, it would have been impossible to see it.  Pope Francis is right: we have inflicted harm on sister earth because of our irresponsible use and abuse.  Spiritually speaking, God’s gift to us has been abused.  Because we often call it “our own,” we feel like we can do anything we like.  And slowly the gift is turning to poison.

We could say that is nothing to sneeze about---but it literally is something to sneeze about and cough about and so on.  A sick earth will make us sick.  In China that day it was undeniable.  And yet, the world rushes on in our own unchanged way.  It makes me wonder how much more will we inflict, only to have it inflict more on us?  The answer seems clear to me.  And it is a spiritual answer.

The way we deal with pollution is purification. This is true of water and it is true of sin.  But before purification works, change has to happen.  That seems to be where we are now: facing a problem, but refusing to change.  It is time to change.  It is time to care for our common home.

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