Religion, to listen to its critics and skeptics, is one of the biggest causes of antagonism and violence in the world. With much of the world’s attention riveted on the devastating refugee crisis caused by Daesh (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria; the Pope’s call for global action on climate change; the stampede that killed over 700 Hajj pilgrims in Saudi Arabia last week; and the role that evangelical Christianity plays in American politics, the pitfalls of institutionalized religion (and the perversion of religion) will remain a hot topic for the foreseeable future.
There is, however, another side to religion that is quietly being discussed by religious leaders, practitioners, and sympathizers. This side was encapsulated in Pope Francis’ address to the U.S. Congress on September 24th. It concerns the role of religion – specifically, its institutions and adherents acting in the name of religion – in the global environmental movement.
The Pope asked us all to “redirect our steps” and face the ongoing environmental challenges that have been wrought by human activities. This is more than a recall of the principles encapsulated in his environment-focused encyclical, Laudato Si, and greater than a nod to the environmentalist bent of his four predecessors and other prominent church figures (most famously, St Francis of Assisi, the current Pope’s namesake). It is a global call to action that echoes in the work of all those who strive on behalf of others, citing our shared humanity, whether through activism on behalf of environmentalism, social justice, economic parity, gender equity, or conflict mediation. These are not isolated issues, but interrelated ones. Solving one does not solve the others; rather, an integrated and multi-pronged effort towards the same ultimate goal, the common good, is what Pope Francis sought to emphasize in his address to Congress.
The Catholic church provides only the latest example of how religious groups have weighed in on the global environmental movement. There is a long history of religions and their representatives making an impact in this arena. Catholicism has been prominently linked with environmental justice movements, and has long sought to demonstrate the inextricable links between abuse of the environment, discrimination against and persecution of the disenfranchised, and the widening gap between the very rich and the very poor. However, the other Abrahamic religions have also voiced their concerns in these areas, simultaneously mobilizing followers to take action to preserve what the Pope refers to as “Our Common home.”
For example, the ethical principle bal tashchit – do not waste or destroy – is considered by many to be a central tenet of Jewish environmentalism. Activists today draw upon the commandments of the Torah (Deuteronomy 20: 19-20) and wisdom of the Talmud and the Mishnah to expand the meaning of bal tashchit beyond its Biblical and rabbinic original directives concerning particulars (e.g. the felling of fruit trees) to one with universal intent. Wastefulness and unnecessary destruction are linked to the twin sides of human nature: the side that works to reinforce Divine Will (tasked with the responsibility of guardianship, human beings figure as stewards and caretakers of the earth and of each other), and the side that tends to turn inward selfishly, disconnecting individual acts of destruction from their ripple effects across space and time. Thus, in the words of the German Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808–1888) in his book Horeb, referring to God,
Only if you use the things around you for wise human purposes, sanctified by the word of My teaching, only then are you a mensch and have the right over them which I have given you as a human... However, if you destroy, if you ruin, at that moment you are not a human… and have no right to the things around you. I lent them to you for wise use only; never forget that I lent them to you. As soon as you use them unwisely, be it the greatest or the smallest, you commit treachery against My world, you commit murder and robbery against My property, you sin against Me!
While some Jewish environmentalists have focused on imbuing Jewish practices with ecological meaning through words and books, others have taken action by engaging in grassroots activism, whether in their own community or in interfaith groups. One such group, the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, has sponsored initiatives to spread awareness about climate change and other environmental challenges, to influence policy and political leaders around the globe, and to mobilize faith communities to act both locally and globally.
The early work of my senior colleague, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, on environmentalism, has nowadays become a touchstone for the “Islamic environmentalist” movement that has begun to emerge in recent years. Global in focus, it is oriented towards two objectives. One is a marshalling of symbols of environmentalism that are rooted in an Islamic historical and theological framework, such as khilafat (human stewardship of the earth), hima (protected zones, certain areas that cannot be developed or cultivated), and ‘adl (social justice including, increasingly, gender justice). The other is the mobilization of Muslim social actors to pressure States to protect the environment and to develop safer, sustainable technologies, to promote a message of less consumption, and to encourage citizen participation to address problems of racism, sexism, animal rights, the rights of indigenous communities to self-determination, and environmental justice.
Many of the networks that operate under this paradigm are located within Muslim communities in North America and Western Europe, while others are located in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. These latter include the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), based in Morocco, and the Muslim Associations for Climate Change Action (MACCA), led by the Islamic theologian, Dr. Yusuf al-Qardawi and launched in 2009 in Istanbul Turkey, following the Istanbul Declaration, which was drawn up by a coalition of almost 200 Muslim representatives. The Declaration endorses a Muslim Seven Year Action Plan (M7YAP) on climate change which promotes green living in many areas of life. Although Muslim activists are perhaps the latest activists to join these kinds of ecological justice movements under the banner of religion, they are part of a growing number of faith-based activists who have become even more energized by the Pope’s recent comments on climate change.
Those comments may breathe new life into faith-based movements that have lacked their own strong moral leaders with the power to appeal to a wide cross-section of humanity. Indeed, the Pope’s uncanny ability to speak in ways that have universal appeal serves as a touchstone for those who recognize the environmental challenges we face as a human community – with climate change foremost among them – to be challenges that require global solutions. These solutions can’t, and shouldn’t be bound by borders of faith, language, geography, community, or political persuasion.