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Earth Day, Easter and Our Responsibility Toward Creation

by Stephen DeWitt, OFM

Dewitt_SIn an April 5 post on his blog “A Franciscan Abroad,” student friar Stephen DeWitt, OFM, reminds us of Earth Day and the need to care for our planet, as St. Francis advocated. Stephen excerpted and revised the following text from his original entry, “Climate Change is a Moral Imperative.”

On April 22, we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The first Earth Day was the beginning of the modern environmental movement, founded to protest the ongoing deterioration of the environment. As we approach Earth Day, we are once again confronted by the need to pay attention to the critical need of the environment.

In a recent article on The Huffington Post, Dr. James Hansen called climate change the fundamental moral issue of our time. He is right. Creation is a gift from God and meant to be used in a way that respects its status as such, not abused to make our lives easier.

In the Franciscan tradition, this respect goes back to our founder, St. Francis of Assisi. Francis is the patron saint of the environment. These superficial depictions point to a deeper truth that Francis lived, namely, that creation is deeply imbued with the presence of God. In his Canticle of the Creatures, Francis is able to praise all of creation for its gifts because all creation gives glory to God. To honor creation is to honor God; to dishonor and to harm creation is also to dishonor God.

Defacing the Planet is Defacing God
The way in which we treat our planet is an affront to God, and is deeply sinful. We have abandoned the careful stewardship that we are told to exercise in the Bible because of our world’s deep addiction to fossil fuels. This addiction is killing our planet and it will kill us if we do not change our behavior. By treating creation so shamefully, we tell God that God’s work, that God’s self, is not worthy of respect.

earthdayMost religious people refuse to curse God, they rightly react strongly against even the idea. We would never walk in and deface a Church, yet, we do the same thing with our actions every time we refuse to address the damage our energy consumption does to the planet. Wherever God is present is a Church, and that is everywhere.

The United States leads the world in the use of fossil fuels. They have led us into war in Iraq, a war that continues to steal the time and treasure of our nation. These fuels generate wealth and income that helps to poison our political process with money. Coal mining rapes our forests and mountains and destroys those who dig in the ground for it.

Recently, we saw the dangers of coal mining in the tragic explosion in West Virginia. Despite this, we continue to equivocate in the face of all this harm, we continue to fail to take the kind of action necessary to end our need for such energy, and move towards a truly sustainable future in line with the care for creation God calls us to exercise.

Climate Change is a Moral Issue
I do not know if Dr. Hansen’s proposal is the right one, but he is right that something has to be done. Climate change is a moral issue and it is one the United States must take the lead on.

If we, as the biggest consumer of fossil fuels in the world, refuse to take meaningful action, other nations can rightly wonder what they can hope to accomplish on their own. We must change — partly because of the harm we are doing to the planet, but mostly because it is the right thing to do. To fail to do so is a denial of God’s sovereignty and creation of the Earth for which we will be judged.

There is a prayer Franciscans like to say every day:

We adore you, most Holy Lord Jesus Christ, here and in all your churches throughout the world and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have adored the world.

I remember reading a while ago that the prayer originally said:

We adore you, most holy Lord Jesus Christ, here and in your church, which is the world, and we bless you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Christ’s death and resurrection, something we celebrate with special reverence this Easter season, redeemed the whole world. This Easter season, let us seek to honor this redemption is all of creation, not just the human part.

— Br. Stephen lives at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, Md., and is an advocate of climate change legislation.