Enormous powerful hurricanes are battering the islands and coasts, causing massive damage. Devastating earthquakes are rocking Mexico. Arctic ice is melting down, causing extensive disruptions of flora and fauna on sea and land, impacting the economy and lifestyle for humans in the north as well. Record floods are washing over parts of India while drought dries the life out of many African fields.
The human reaction so far includes two seriously immature but violently powerful leaders shouting threats of nuclear annihilation, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, a brutal civil war in Syria involving many of the world’s great nations, the concentration of global wealth in only a few dozen people, the destruction of forests which provide life to the planet’s breathing creatures and millions of refugees driven from their homes by all this, to mention only a few of the current concerns.
It can get a little overwhelming. Here at home, tens of millions have reacted by zoning out on a variety of prescription and illegal drugs. Even those of us who find a narcotic escape to be a bad solution, there are times when it is tempting to pull the covers over your head and avoid hearing the nightly news.
There are Christian leaders with prophetic voices who have diagnosed the problem very well. “We have come to see ourselves as her [Mother Earth’s] lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will….The earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (Pope Francis in Laudato Si). “For human beings…to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air and its life- these are sins” (Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew).
There are more than a few who would see the above words as simply inappropriate for religious leaders to utter. Why are they sticking their noses into this when they should be concerned about spiritual and heavenly things instead?
The answer is in Psalm 24. “The earth is the Lord’s.” We are not its lords and masters. God is the Lord, the owner, the continuous creator, of the universe, including the small planet on which we live. When we plunder it, we are stealing from God, simultaneously breaking several commandments. Indeed it is sin. We are instead created to be the managers, the stewards, of the earth, the species especially designed and commissioned for its operation according to the will of the owner. Because it is the Lord’s, the earth is a sacred place, so the Pope and the Patriarch are talking about spiritual concerns when they speak out on her behalf. When God finished putting it together, Genesis tells us he looked and saw that his material creative work was good (Gen. 1:31). It is the job of humans to keep it that way, in accordance with his will and with his help. It is the job of Christian prophets to keep reminding the powers that be, along with the rest of us, that the care of the earth and everyone and everything in it, is part of doing the work God has entrusted to us. It is an integral part of God’s plan of salvation, meant to restore both the earth and us to his original intentions.
It isn’t going well. It is basic to the sinfulness of mankind that we are rebels who wish to be the lords of the earth ourselves, not simply the managers of it for God. While this is an old story (see Genesis 3), the humans, formed in the image of the creative and intelligent Lord, have invented technologies able to carry out the will of man in very efficient ways. Modern man is not any more evil than primitive man, but he is more skilled and effective.
Reversing the evil is what gets a little overwhelming. What can I do, not having the attention of the world’s media, nor the finances of one of the super-rich nor the power of a world political leader? This is an especially troubling question knowing that I am not a sinless being, but that my own sinful nature wrestles to itself rebel and contribute to the wreckage. The temptations faced by Jesus during his forty-day preparation in the desert before beginning his ministry are different only in scale from my own: material wealth (bread), power, fame (see Matthew 4:1-10). The enemy to be stared down is not only in my fellow humans, it lurks within as well, like an oncologist who herself gets cancer. What can I do, even on the best of days with the best of intentions, when confronting the overwhelming impacts of evil on the Lord’s earth and creatures, homo sapiens included?
Tove Jansson was a Finnish illustrator and cartoonist who invented a troll character named Mumin (aka Moomen). Her cartoon books on the adventures of Mumin and his family are a delightful, wry and humorous comment on the world in many ways. But she also gave Mumin a motto, which was “the little he could do, he did.” When overwhelmed, it is tempting to throw up our hands and simply give up, surrendering to the powerful forces seeking to dominate us and the earth. Each of us can do so little to make the world better, or even protect it from being damaged further. Each of us struggles with our stewardship while fear, greed, indifference, anger, selfishness and false obedience well up within us to thwart our efforts.
Nevertheless, the little you can do, you could do it. If you are in central Mexico and have only your bare hands, use them to lift rubble in the effort to rescue people. If you are not in Mexico, and have a few dollars, donate them effectively to those who are in a better position to help. If you have only your voice to speak to a few people about being better stewards, speak up to those few. If you have humble skills which can contribute to helping the earth and its poor or its creatures, use them. There are very few people on earth so deprived that they can offer absolutely nothing. As the southern African Roman Catholic bishops said in a statement: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.” This is about a vast variety of vocations, real callings, only a few of them clergy, to help heal the Lord’s earth and our lives.
The epitaph for most of us will not be written in major history books nor engraved in central plazas. But in our baptism, St. Peter tells us we have been made “a chosen people, a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). Rosa Parks noted that one of her high school teachers told her, “You are a child of God. You can do great things,” inspiring her to have the courage to actually do the little she could, which was simply to refuse to sit in the back of the bus. And having done that little thing, it turned out to not be so little after all, because her stewardship combined with that of many others and effected real change for the better.
So, for us as well. The forces of evil seem overwhelming, the mountainous waves threatening to crash over that which is sacred. But, as in our baptism, when drowned in that flood, God pulls us out, resurrected to another life. In that life which you now are living if you are baptized; the little you can do, DO IT!