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Sunday, 28 June 2015

On Snakes, Encyclicals and Pope Francis's Vision

Is it possible that in these next six months the fate of our planet will be sealed? It won’t of course feel like that – life will go on into 2016 and beyond, much as before – but we are on the very edge of a cliff, with a dangerous and terrifying descent ahead of us if we slip over it. If this sounds dramatic, too dramatic, that can’t be helped.

Because the stakes are very high – nothing less than the future well-being of humanity on this tiny speck of dust in the cosmos, this precious, awesome, planet with its precious, infinitely-varied cargo: human and animal and plant, the seas and the skies and the meadows and the deserts and the mountains - all this superabundance of life and life-forms, all this complex inter-relationship between the natural world and the human natural world of living, breathing, struggling humanity: it’s in the balance.
And we sense this, because we are sensate human beings who appreciate, who glimpse, what it means to say: Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh – ‘holy, holy, holy, all of life is holy’ – m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo (Isaiah 6:3), ‘the teeming fullness of the earth is glorious’, the whole earth is full of glorious richness, it’s all glorious testimony to creation, ongoing unceasing creation. From the 12,000 species of ant to the 100 trillion synapses in each human brain to the unique patterning of each snowflake to the molten core of  smouldering volcanoes to the wondrous intricacy of the fertilisation of an egg by a sperm – creation never stops.
And even if you don’t believe in a Creator, you are still capable of being in awe of, in knowing the wonder of, the multiplicity and richness of the natural world and the miraculous complexity of individual human life and collective human diversity: m’lo kol ha’aretz k’vodo  - ‘the whole earth is suffused with something quite glorious’: us and nature, humans and human nature and the world of nature, all of it so substantial, and all of it so ephemeral, so fragile, so transient, ‘like grass that grows in the morning, that grows so fresh in the morning, and in the evening fades and dies’ (Psalm 90: 6).
And after tens of thousands of years of slow evolution on this planet, with the pace of human change speeding up in the last couple of millennia, and then the last two centuries, and exponentially in the last couple of decades, after all of this collective morning freshness and growth we suddenly face evening on the planet, and it’s come so soon, too soon, much too soon, and we are in denial that it is the evening, that evening is approaching, we don’t want to know, even though the evidence is all around us that it’s much later in the day than we’d ever realised.
We surely don’t want to know that “our common home” is being turned into a “pile of filth”. We wince at the words, the sentiment, but the Pope didn’t mince his words, he didn’t pull his punches – and we know this is a  Pope who can throw a punch. He didn’t hold back in his encyclical from saying it as it is. In spelling out the peril we face as we render the planet uninhabitable.
This encyclical was an extraordinary document. It wasn’t addressed – as I believe encyclicals usually are – only to Catholics. It wasn’t addressed only to Christians. It was addressed to humanity, to all of us. The Pope didn’t distinguish between Catholic and non-Catholic, between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Because what he was addressing involves all of us. And what he was speaking about – which had been rumoured to be an encyclical on the environment - wasn’t just an encyclical on climate change or a narrow understanding of the environment.
“When we speak of the ‘environment’”, he said, “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”
This is a very Jewish and holistic understanding – but you rarely hear it from religious leaders of any kind and Francis spoke of it with a rare and spirited passion: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
So his message was deeply moral, deeply spiritual and deeply political – all at the same time. And they were all of these because the religious perspective he was speaking from doesn’t see them as separate. Morality, spirituality and politics are indivisible in this Judaeo-Christian vision. So the care of the natural environment and the care of those who live within this environment are part of the same ethical command.
From this point of view the environment isn’t something ‘out there’ , separate from us. The environmental crisis is a crisis about relationships, relationships between nature and humans, about the inter-relationship between nature and human needs. And this is what makes it inevitable that he has to speak of politics and the “urgent need for politics and economics to enter into a frank dialogue in the service of life, especially human life.”
So the Pope held up a mirror to our current life here on earth and said: look at what we are doing, and look at what the results are of what we are doing. Look at how we fail to distinguish between needs and wants. We need medicines but want flat-screen TVs, we need clean water to drink but want long-haul flights to exotic destinations, we need arable land and birdsong and coral reefs but we want 4x4s and off-shore tax havens and free plastic bags in supermarkets.
Our appetites are potentially unlimited, though our human needs are limited and grounded in the basic prerequisites of life: nutritious food, fresh air, good relationships, good health, education, housing, freedom to think and speak and create. The rich, says Francis – and in a global context those who are reading this are all the rich – we have our appetites indulged. And the poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalised, those who struggle to stay alive, who suffer from want of a roof or a meal – they have their needs denied. And this is a painful message to hear - we will do anything to get distracted from the underlying moral and spiritual vision he has brought to bear on the greatest problem we have ever faced on this planet. Many Jews might disagree with him on the role contraception might play in limiting population growth, but that difference of perspective shouldn’t distract us.
For his message was crystal clear. There can never be a technological solution to the problems that arise in our world due to  unrestrained appetite because what we are faced with is at root, at heart, a moral problem. And while greed dominates over need we do nothing but violence to others and to the planet we inhabit, and there is no future in this. Or rather the future will be that our planet will become uninhabitable.
And this will happen because, he says, “we cannot claim to have a  culture and spirituality genuinely capable of setting limits and teaching clear-minded self-restraint”.  His call for what he terms “sobriety” is not going to be a message that will go down well in Wall Street or in the homes of Rupert Murdoch and his friends. And we will have to wait and see how it is received when Pope Francis meets with President Obama, and addresses Congress and the UN General assembly in September, all in the lead up to those crucial negotiations in Paris at the UN-sponsored Climate Change Conference there at the end of the year.  
What the Pope has done in this encyclical is the equivalent of what God told Moses to do in that strange text we read this week from the Book of Numbers. It’s one of the most wonderful and terrifying parables in the Torah (Numbers 21:4-9): the Israelites are portrayed as a people complaining because their wants  were larger than their needs – they had the daily miracle of manna but it wasn’t good enough, it’s just “miserable bread”; no, they wanted variety – and their punishment is that they are bitten to death by serpent-snakes. And these snakes are a brilliantly apposite metaphor for the insatiability of human desires, gnawing away inside us, attacking us, biting into us with their toxic fury, ‘I want, I want, I want...’, endless, insatiable wants (wants not needs), making us miserable when we can’t have more, or better, or different, or something new. These snakes are deadly – they can kill us, literally, or they just kill off our liveliness, our well-being.
And God tells Moses that the only antidote to this plague is to look at it clearly. Take a bronze serpent, he says, and put it on top of a pole, hold it above the people so that they can see clearly what is causing them the pain. When they are bitten, the only cure is to look at a representation, a picture , an image of what has done the damage. The psychology of this is spot-on. Only by looking at what you fear can you be healed. Look at it, keep looking at it – clear-sightedness is what you need to keep you alive. Don’t turn away, don’t refuse to look, look at what is doing the damage. That’s what the text of the Torah says, and that’s what Francis is saying. He has given us the picture - he has presented, represented, the problems we face, held them aloft and said: ‘We need to look, clear-sightedly, at this. This is what is killing us. But it can be different.’
And that it can be different – if enough people look, with enough clarity of vision, and with enough humility and with enough sober commitment to self-restraint, personally, collectively – this gives us a glimmer of hope. That ‘what is’ does not have to translate into ‘what has to be’ is a source of hope. It’s maybe why the Pope, courageously in the circumstances,  called his encyclical Laudato Sii – ‘Praised Be’.  That’s Hallelu!
In these next six months we will see who can bear to look and who can’t, who can face the need to change and who can’t, who can face the idea of less, and who can’t, who can accept the limits to appetites, and who can’t. Praised be the clear-sighted ones for they shall inherit the earth. Praised be the restrainers of growth, the limiters of untrammelled exploitation of natural resources, for they shall enable us and our children and our grandchildren to have an earth to inherit. Praised be! Hallelu!

 [based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, June 27th, 2015]