The Disruptive Power of a 'Dangerous Book'

breast feeding, climate change, climate justice, current affairs, ecology, environment, ethics, integral ecology, pope francis, spirituality

The past few days at the Vatican have been full of quite surreal moments. First I found myself introducing Naomi Klein, as I chaired (possibly) the first ever all female panel at a high level Vatican Conference. Later the same day, I was sitting on a bus beside Mary Robinson our way to an open air mass in an ancient pine forest. We were Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mulsims, athiests, feminists, liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. As the sun set over the beautiful pine trees, and the red full moon rose in the sky, the whole thing had strange dream like quality about it. I pondered how on earth I came to be there, in that moment, giving praise to God, Allah, Yaweh, Mother Earth with such an unlikely group of people. Something very strange was happening.
The occasion was the Conference “People and Planet First – the imperative to change course”, which focused on Pope Francis Encyclical Laudato Sí. I certainly wasn’t alone in sensing a surrealness at the event. What I think what we experienced was due to the disruptive power of Pope Francis’ encyclical.  Someone described the Encyclical as “the most dangerous book”. Others, such as Ben Phillips, in his blog on  NGO Courage made the point that we have been “out radicaled” by the Pope. He has said the unsayable, disrupting well positioned lines of defence and throwing them into disarray.
This isn’t just Pope Francis mania either. The group in the Vatican were the an unlikely Papal fan club. For many who associate themselves with this, there is a cost to pay for aligning with the Pope. But the encyclical has the power to bring very divergent views together for the greater good. It disrupts because it speaks the Gospel truth, with all its raw beauty and its pain, in an uncompromising and compelling way. The Pope takes a different perspective – like opening google earth and panning right out as far as you go into space. He brings us right back to the sense of wonder of existence, calling us back to a sense of awe at life on this fragile planet. It stops you in your tracks. It resonates something deep in our hearts and moves us to care. Essentially, in changing the viewpoint to one of integral ecology, Pope Francis offers us a new vocabulary to express in concrete terms the world we want to see. He has given permission to everyone to say what has to be said.
Listening to the many wonderful women speakers in the Conference, I was struck by the intensely maternal, and sisterly perspective Laudato Sí encapsulates. Mary Robinson correctly pointed out the lack of a specific focus on the role of women in the encyclical, but for me the maternal, sisterly dimension is profound and essential. The whole Encyclical in fact revolves around this opening sentence: “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Miss that, and you miss the point. In fact, the image that best sums up the new viewpoint that Pope Francis is proposing, is the image of mother feeding her newborn child. It is the image that best embodies the most fundamental, natural, intimate relationship of mutual love and dependency. It is the icon par excellance of the culture of care that is now needed. It is an idea I stumbled on several months ago, as I wrote here, but is one that seems increasingly relevant.
This image of mother and child, the first tender bond of inter-generational care is the measure of the love we now need to save us from ourselves, and the perils of a climate changed future for our children. This poem of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Marshall Islands to her baby speaks volumes of the mother-child tragedy unfolding before us. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu reminded us that thousands of children are already faced with an uncertain future as climate refugees. Rather than getting lost in useless arguing, above all we need to draw our children and grandchildren close to us and make them a solemn promise to do everything in our power to change course. For me, in fact, my main motivation in the struggle against climate change and injustice , which makes me do what I’d normally not consider doing, is simply to be able to answer the questions of my children when they grow up: “you mean you knew – so what did you do?”
Mary Robinson spoke beautifully at the Conference of this deeply maternal perspective. In her speech she focused on the encyclical theme of earth as our common home. She made the connection to motherhood and the need to see the earth as a home – and us as all as one family. For mothers all over the world, the concern with the running of the home is second nature. This gives women a better sense of limits, as they are the ones who usually focus on tending for the family, ensuring there is enough to go round. Extending that simple idea of being one family to the world scale can help us find new ways to care for our shared home. The word ‘economy’ in fact, comes from the greek word for home – oikonomia ‘household management’, based on oikos ‘house’ + nemein ‘manage’. Through re-imagining the economy from that image of the home, from maternal care, sisterhood, and Ubuntu we can start to build a truly transformative vision.
Perhaps the encyclical’s most profound message is that the earth is our mother, with whom we need a loving relationship to survive and thrive. As Naomi Klein pointed out, we are simply realising we are not the masters of creation. The truth is we utterly depend on mother earth – in reality we are as helpless in the face of nature, as a newborn child feeding from its mother’s breast. We urgently need to feel that again. When that loving relationship with the mother is broken, the impact on the child is devastating, and often irreparable. Repairing that loving relationship once more is essential. That is a dangerous message to those who wield unscrupulous power.
 

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Answering the call to Gospel Justice

ethics, pope francis, religion, spirituality

The past week has seen harrowing images on our TV screens, opening our eyes and our hearts to the plight of tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean seas. The question on all our minds is how to respond? Seeing their plight brought to mind a fable (adapted from a well known story) which I wrote for Intercom magazine earlier this month. The story reminds us that for Christians, justice is not an alternative to charity but about a deeper love: a love that is restless and has the courage to ask why.
“And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?” Luke 18:7
Once upon a time, there was a young nun working in a faraway land. One day she was walking by the river and saw a baby floating by. She jumped straight into the river and pulled the baby out. She brought the baby back to her congregation and they made a place for it in their home. The next day she was walking by the river again. She saw another baby in the river, and once more jumped straight in and rescued it. The next week there were two more babies, then four, six, until there were babies coming every day.
Soon their house could no longer cope with the babies, so the congregation called in extra support. People were very generous and started to build a special house for the abandoned children and a school to educate them. People were posted to look out for babies on the river bank. They devised a special recovery system for getting the babies out the water, and made sure they were fed and had proper medical care. Many people from far and wide came to support their efforts. The local government even offered support to them. They grew to love the children like their own. The children were healthy and seemed content.
One night the young nun woke up and heard a young boy crying. He wanted his mummy and to go home. She hugged him tight and comforted him, but he continued to sob inconsolably. Eventually he fell asleep, but the cry of that boy would not leave nun and she spent the rest of the night awake wondering about the mother.
At dawn, she got up and left the compound without telling anyone where she was going. She started to walk up river. She walked for many hours under the hot sun. Eventually she came to a village and saw a long queue of women by the river. She wondered what on earth was going on. She approached one of the women who was holding a young baby tight in her arms.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“We have heard our children can have a better life down the river. There are some very kind people there. They will be safe. There is nothing here for them – they have taken everything.” The woman replied.
At the top of the queue were two armed men. One was taking money, whilst the other put the babies into containers and send them down stream. Each mother kissed their baby tenderly and handed it over, wiping away their tears.
The nun ran all the way back to her congregation. In floods of tears, she told them about everything she had seen. She realised that something had to change if they were to prevent more families from being torn apart. But what to do?
She realised that they were being asked to have a far deeper love. It wasn’t enough to simply help the children in the river. They needed to understand the reasons why the mothers were so desperate they would pay someone to send their children away. They had to have the courage ask why? They had to speak out about the injustice and help to address the root causes.
Asking why was not easy. It meant going into unfamiliar places and talking to unfamiliar people. It meant working to resolve age old disagreements and educating the community to understand their basic entitlements. It took time, perseverance and a solidarity that went far beyond what she could have imagined. There were also many risks involved and they were often accused of meddling in politics. Some people even made threats against them.
With the nun’s support, local leaders started to speak up about their situation in the community, asking that they be given what was truly theirs. The community, in fact, was entitled to communal land and water but it had been stolen by corrupt officials. Soon the media reported on their story and people far and wide began to tweet about their courage. The courageous nuns stood side by side with the community – their love was unfailing. Eventually, after much perseverance, the lands of the community were restored to them and the government started respect their human rights. There was great rejoicing when the last child returned home.
The young nun reflected on the cry of that child, and that of many others, now reunited with their mothers. A far greater love had been asked: a love that met the demands of justice.

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