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Sustainable Development ~ A Spiritual Imperative

Author: Bishop Geoff Davis ~ Southern African Faith Communities Environmental Institute

( Article Type: Sustainable Development )

All religions recognise and acknowledge the need to care for the natural environment. It is all the more surprising that they have, until recently, been significantly quiet in the face of growing environmental deterioration. There is, however, a new awakening. Increasingly, faith communities are becoming concerned and even alarmed about the present direction of our world. It is necessary that faith communities are involved for two reasons:
•The crisis we face is essentially moral and is strongly influenced by a lack of moral principle in our present economic structures.

•It is increasingly clear that our physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing is dependent on a healthy environment.

Christian churches were vociferous in the Jubilee 2000 campaign calling for the end of ‘odious and unrepayable debt‘. Though the call was not heeded by the turn of the millennium, debt cancellation is now underway to a limited extent. The economic injustices of our contemporary world are a primary cause of environmental destruction and degradation. Economic justice is needed.

There is a call among most faith communities for economic justice. A moral base must be established for the economic systems of the world. A start can be made with ‘triple-bottomline accounting’, which takes into account social and environmental impacts of economic activity, as well as its profitability. However, we need to go further than looking at profitability only. The impact of development projects on the poor, the natural environment and whether it is morally right must become an important consideration.

Economic decisions have a direct impact on most areas of environmental concerns, such as climate change, extinction of species, farming methods, pollution and depletion of natural resources.

Because the current neo-liberal capitalist economic system encourages us to be acquisitive, self-centred and greedy, we demand more and more, regardless of whether a finite planet can provide the resources, such as water, arable land, fish and – increasingly – fossil fuels.

These areas of concern point to the need for faith communities to take responsibility for caring for the world, which we believe God has brought into being. How God brought about this world of intricacy and infinite variety – whether by working through evolution or other means – is not at issue. What is clear is that it is not for this generation of people to cause the Sixth Great Extinction of what God has brought about.

The second issue is our own spiritual dimension and our spiritual connection with nature. We are part of the natural world that surrounds us. In spite of the alienation brought about by townships and cities, we cannot separate ourselves from the rest of creation. We are spiritually renewed and restored through experience with the natural environment, particularly in wilderness places. Such experiences are psychologically healing.

To help faith communities do their work, the Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute (SAFCEI) was established with representation from all the major religions of South Africa at a national conference in March 2005. Its purpose is to encourage and motivate the faith communities to take on their environmental responsibilities.

On 20 July 2005 the first African woman recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Professor Wangari Maathai, from Kenya, officially launched the Institute at the Delta Environmental Centre in Johannesburg. The national conference appointed a steering committee to develop the structure, aims and objectives (see the Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute listing in Networking Directory)

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, the scriptures are quite clear. In the first chapter of the Bible, God said: ‘[Have] dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ In being given dominion, humanity was tasked with caring for, looking after, nurturing and protecting all living things. It was not so that we could treat the rest of creation as objects to be abused and exploited for our own self-gratification. In that first chapter of Genesis it is noteworthy that we were given the plants for food. We were to be vegetarians. It was only after the flood, when we emerged from Noah’s ark, that we were allowed to eat meat.

Thomas Berry writes that during the early Christian ages the natural world was considered a scripture. They talked about the two books, the book of the Bible and the book of the natural world. It is clear from scripture as well as for our own wellbeing that it is essential we stem the tide of extinction currently overwhelming God’s creation. The diversity of life is essential for our survival on Earth.

We, believers and non-believers, must make sacrifices to our personal comfort in order to ensure the survival of future life on earth. We must learn to live a much simpler, less luxurious lifestyle if our children are to be able to appreciate a world of the beauty and wonder we know. At present, particularly because of the insatiable desire of the affluent for more comfort, luxury and wealth, which require more and more fossil fuel energy, we are destroying the book of the natural world. Our own spiritual impoverishment, as well as more precarious survival, will be the consequence.

In 1986, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) gathered the major religions of the world together at Assisi in Italy, the home of St Francis. The following are extracts of the Assisi Declarations. They speak of values and ethics that challenge many of the assumptions that secular conservation has held to be true – such as the anthropocentric nature of conservation. The declarations help us to recognise humanity’s spiritual links to nature and our ethical responsibilities towards all life on Earth:

Buddhism is a religion of love, understanding and compassion, and committed towards the ideal of non-violence. As such, it also attaches great importance to wild life and the protection of the environment on which every being in the world depends for survival. We regard our survival as an undeniable right. As cohabitants of this plant, other species too have a right of survival.

Humanity’s dominion cannot be understood as license to abuse, spoil, squander or destroy what God has made to manifest His glory. That dominion cannot be anything other than a stewardship in symbiosis with all creatures. Every human act of irresponsibility towards creatures is an abomination. According to its gravity, it is an offence against that divine wisdom which sustains and gives purpose to the interdependent harmony of the universe.

The Hindu viewpoint on nature is permeated by a reverence for life, and an awareness that the great forces of nature – the earth, the sky, the air, the water and fire – as well as various orders of life, including plants and trees, forests and animals, are all bound to each other within the great rhythms of nature. The divine is not exterior to creation, but expresses itself through natural phenomena.

The essence of the Islamic teaching is that the entire universe is God’s creation. Allah makes the waters flow upon the earth, upholds the heaven, makes the rain fall and keeps the boundaries between day and night. The whole of the rich and wonderful universe belongs to God, its maker. It is God who created the plants and the animals in their pairs and gave the means to multiply... Humanity’s role on earth is that of a ‘khalifa’, vice-regent or trustee of God. We are God’s stewards and agents on Earth. We are not masters of this Earth, it does not belong to us to do what we wish. It belongs to God and He has entrusted us with its safekeeping… Unity cannot be had by discord, by setting one need against another or letting one end predominate over another; it is maintained by balance and harmony.

Man was given dominion over nature, but he was commanded to behave towards the rest of creation with justice and compassion. Humanity lives, always in tension between his/her power and the limits set by conscience.

The Prophet founder of the Baha’i faith outlines the essential relationship between humanity and the environment: the grandeur and diversity of the natural world are purposeful reflections of the majesty and bounty of God. For Baha’is, there follows an implicit understanding that nature is to be respected and protected, a divine trust for which we are answerable.

Since the beginning of the Sikh religion in the late fifteenth century, the faith has been built upon the message of the ‘oneness of Creation’. Sikhism believes an almighty God created the universe. He himself is the creator and master of all forms of the universe, responsible for all modes of nature and all elements of the world. Sikhism firmly believes God to be the source of the birth, life and death of all things.

The Jain ecological philosophy is virtually synonymous with the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) which runs through the Jain tradition like a golden thread. Ahimsa is a principle that Jains teach and practice not only towards human beings but towards all nature… ‘there is no human quality more subtle than non-violence and no virtue of spirit greater than the reverence for life… All aspects of nature belong together and are bound in a physical and well as a metaphysical relationship.’

African Traditional Religion
The great gift African Traditional Religion gives to the world is to break down the divide between the sacred and secular. In Africa the sacred pervades all, so meetings and events start with prayer and land itself is sacred. No distinction can be made between sacred and secular, natural and supernatural. All is one and is pervaded by divinity. An individual finds his meaning by maintaining harmonious relationships within his cosmos.

According to myth, human beings emerged out of a reed bed, a cave or a hole in the ground together with their animals (other beasts and birds are included in some myths with cattle emerging first). The so-called ‘Creator’ or originator is conceived as enabling them to emerge. Animals therefore have as much of a right-to-be as human beings and must not be exterminated indiscriminately.

Because people emerged together there is a strong sense of community, and community with nature. ‘I am because we are.’ The chief held the land in trust for his people. The land houses the sacred places of the ancestors and the burial sites and therefore must be held for all and cared for all. There was no concept of dividing the land up as we have done in capitalist societies. The present economic system is bringing about alienation from land and tradition.

Development will not be sustainable unless linked to spiritual and moral development. Integral to spiritual maturity is our awareness of the majesty and wonder of God. Visit an unspoilt kloof on the Wild Coast, surrounded by cascading waterfalls and flowers and tress with vultures soaring overhead and waves crashing in great plumes on the rocks and whales and dolphin offshore, and be aware of what an intricate wonder creation is. Wildlife and wilderness areas are necessary, not only for our physical, emotional and spiritual renewal, but for a sustainable future.