Thursday, September 23, 2010

If only we had known...

Coral Reefs, the Rich Man's Cry, and the MDGs

“Ensure environmental sustainability” is the seventh of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) . Ensuring environmental sustainability and the other goals are all pieces of addressing extreme poverty in our world. A sustainable, stable environment is key to the other goals: to ensuring access to clean water, to fighting diseases such as malaria, and to making it possible to grow food and have plentiful supplies of fish. Climate instability in the form of more extreme floods, droughts, and severe storms both exacerbates poverty and makes the effects of poverty even more severe.

Yesterday the UN concluded a summit on the MDGs, a summit that many in the Episcopal Church followed with interest because of our 2003 commitment  to endorse and support these goals.  Devon Anderson and Bishop Ian Douglas of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation released a statement exhorting us to prophetic action on behalf of the MDGs – on behalf of the people whose lives hang in the balance – pointing out that where secular leaders run into political problems at home if they push for the sort of effort it will take to reach the goals by the target year of 2015, the church is freer to act.

Against this backdrop and with this Sunday’s Gospel, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, in mind, news this week about the plight of coral reefs illustrates why Christians should be especially concerned about environmental issues and what unique perspective the church has in all of this.

On Monday, the New York Times under the headline Extreme Heat Bleaches Coral, and Threat Is Seen reported that the extreme heat so far this year is affecting coral in various locations “from Thailand to Texas”. The coral’s bleaching indicates that it is going into a sort of survival mode. If the stress continues long enough, the coral dies. A report yesterday from NOAA says that coral bleaching is also likely in the Caribbean this year.

Coral reefs are an essential part of ocean ecosystems; coral reefs provide habitat for other living things, including fish. The NOAA report explains that the decline and loss of coral reefs throughout the world “has significant social, cultural, economic and ecological impacts on people and communities.” As the New York Times article points out:  “In dozens of small island nations and on some coasts of Indonesia and the Philippines, people rely heavily on reef fish for food.”

As the atmosphere and oceans get warmer, people who rely on reef fish for food will have less to eat.  As governments and peoples fail to address climate change, there are real consequences for real people. Aid programs have long operated on the principal that it’s better to teach someone to fish than simply give someone a fish, but if there aren’t any fish to be caught, it’s an entirely different situation.  People who live in island nations and along coastal areas already know how to fish; a sustainable environment would continue to make fish available.

Some folks say that it’s difficult to care enough to act when we don’t actually see the people who suffer from our inaction.  Certainly most of us are more compelled to help someone suffering right in front of us than unknown people we don’t see or know. But this inclination doesn’t determine our actions; we have the ability to think and understand the ways our actions affect others. The fact that a gut reaction spurs us to action more quickly than does a reaction that originates in our understanding doesn’t excuse us from acting.

The rich man in the Gospel story begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family of the consequences of living selfishly and ignoring the invisible poor. Jesus has Abraham give this reply: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  They already had the information they needed to do the right thing but found reasons not to act; more information would only generate more excuses.

This story suggests an image of us middle class Americans sometime in the not so distant future realizing what our inaction has done to the Earth and its inhabitants, wishing that someone from the future could have come to us in 2010 when every other issue – religious, political, or personal -- seemed more important than climate change. If only someone had told us what was happening, if only we had known…

But we do know. We have incredible access to news reports and scientific reports, to books and videos; we have lots and lots of information. We have Moses and the prophets and the Gospel; we have the leadership of the Episcopal Church encouraging us to act. Yes, it’s overwhelming sometimes; yes, it takes some effort to look beyond our own daily lives; but Jesus calls us to lay aside our excuses and act out of love.