Traditionally there is a split in Southern Africa when it comes to environmental issues. The late Steve De Gruchy explained that we have two agendas – firstly the traditional development agenda - concerned with poverty – housing , sanitation, unemployment – what he called the ‘brown agenda’. The second agenda is the 'green agenda' and this has characteristically been the agenda of people who are not poor – 'greens are concerned with saving the whale or the rhino, protecting endemic flowers, removing alien species and preventing urbanisation. Christians and others are confronted with these two agendas – the brown agenda with its focus on poverty, and the green agenda with its focus on the environment.'
The solution he argues is to develop an 'olive agenda' – 'the mix of green and brown suggests an olive agenda; which in turn provides a remarkably rich metaphor – the olive – that holds together that which religious and political discourse rends apart: earth, land, climate, labour, time, family, food, nutrition, health, hunger, poverty, power and violence.'
Pope Francis brings these two agendas together as he challenges us to 'hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.'
Three voices can be heard in this passage. Firstly there is the voice of Jeremiah himself, in anguish over the plight of God’s people, pleading with God to end their suffering. Secondly there is the voice of the people of Israel who complain that God is absent, their harvest has failed and a hard winter is ahead of them. Thirdly there is the voice of God, angry because the Israelites have abandoned him to serve other gods. Jeremiah feels both the pain of the people of Israel and the broken heart of God.
In the Bible communal suffering is understood to be caused by being estranged from God through unrighteousness and injustice. Jeremiah longs to be the mediator - bringing them back to God. 'Is there no balm in Gilead?' Balm is an aromatic, medicinal substance derived from plants. Gilead was an area east of the Jordan River, well known for its spices and ointments. The 'balm of Gilead' was an ointment with healing properties. The Bible uses the term 'balm of Gilead' metaphorically as an example of something with healing powers. His tears become a symbol of balm and healing, bringing peace and also rain soaking the drought stricken fields. Tears are a symbol of repentance and also of healing and new life.
As Christians we must lament the huge suffering being caused to the most vulnerable because of drought, flooding and sea level rise as a result of climate change. But we must also lament that we have turned from God and embraced the consumerist life-style which is bringing misery to so many.
As Christians we do not often lament. When we consider the state of our countries – crime levels, environmental degradation and levels of inequality, we must indeed lament. Ecological grief is a new challenge – fear of the future as we consider climate change. Acknowledging ecological grief is not submitting to despair and it should not ‘switch us off' from the issues, because we feel helpless to act. However, being open to the pain of ecological loss may be what is needed to mobilise us to act and prevent such losses. In the Bible, suffering, and particularly communal suffering, is often a consequence of sin. So in lament we also confess – we cannot accept a society where the poor live in shacks with no access clean running water, while other homes have more toilets than inhabitants. We cannot accept a society where profit is made for shareholders by degrading the face of the Earth. In our lament we must hear both the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth.
Hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth. Read about the impact of climate change on the poorest communities, watch documentaries about the impact of plastic on our oceans. Read about the animals that have already become extinct. Bring that pain before God in personal prayer or group confession.
The weekly pointers for the Season of Creation www.seasonofcreation.org have been provided by Reverend Canon Rachel Mash, Environmental Coordinator at Anglican Church of Southern Africa.
Published on 16 September 2019