Saturday, January 29, 2011

Doing Justice

Epiphany 4A

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Sun Come Up is one of this year’s Oscar nominees in short documentary films. It’s a story from Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific about the Carteret Islanders relocating to a new home on Bougainville, fifty miles across the open water. The Carteret Islanders are among the growing number of climate refugees in our world, people who must leave their home because the effects of climate change are making it uninhabitable. These people have a language and culture unique to their islands, but must now go live in a different place because their islands are disappearing due to rising sea levels and erosion. This film tells the story of these people and the people of Bougainville who, despite their own hardships after ten years of civil strife, welcome these refugees. Here’s the trailer of the film:

Sun Come Up Trailer from Sun Come Up on Vimeo.

Tomorrow’s lectionary includes Micah 6:1-8. Micah’s message from God tells us that God wants us to do justice. A big piece of doing justice in today’s world is paying attention to people like the Carteret Islanders who are losing their homes. Doing justice also involves working not only to ensure there are welcoming places for them to resettle, but working to bring the levels of carbon and other greenhouse gases down to a point where the effects of climate change can be kept to a minimum. The longer we live with carbon levels above 350 ppm, the more severe will be the effects of climate change. (The December 2010 reading from the Mauna Loa observatory was 389.69)

The kindness of the Bougainville Islanders is extraordinary. As the synopsis of the story on the Sun Come Up website explains:

Many Bougainvilleans remain traumatized by the “Crisis” as the civil war is known locally. Yet, Sun Come Up isn’t a familiar third world narrative. Out of this tragedy comes a story of hope, strength, and profound generosity.

Verse 5 of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-12), tomorrow’s Gospel lesson, is “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The Tulele Peisa website (‘Tulele Peisa’ means ‘sailing the waves on our own’) includes some background information about the situation on the Carteret Islands . As on other Pacific Islands, their staple food has been taro. When the groundwater on islands becomes too saline due to sea level rise and rising storm tides, the taro crops fail. The conditions on the islands have certainly made the people humble, and no doubt much of the world would prefer that climate refugees be meek in all possible nuances of the word – submissive, not creating a stir, nonassertive.

In the film trailer, one of the people with whom they are negotiating on Bougainville says, “I’ve heard about you Carterets, you are easy-going people.” But while easy-going, they are not passive. They have carefully thought through their circumstances and their options, and are relocating in a way that will help their family units and some of their culture to survive and in a way that allows them to be productive people in their new home. They are gentle people, but they are not allowing circumstances to push them around completely. Without such planning, they know they would become, as some already have, “the new marginalised fringe dwellers with serious social problems and stigma” living in slums on the Papua New Guinea mainland.

Perhaps some meekness is called for on our part, in a willingness for those of us living in places that are habitable to step aside and, following the example of the Bougainville Islanders, make space for this new kind of refugee. Meekness would call for us to set aside our desire for everything to continue to grow bigger so that others can be ensured the essentials in life. Surely that is part of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. If we do these things, we might stand a chance for all of us to inherit the earth.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Waters of Baptism

The last two posts, Water followed by ...And More Water came out of wondering about the significance of the waters of baptism in light of a couple of big environmental issues that had been in the news around the First Sunday of Epiphany, when we remember the Baptism of Our Lord. Those issues were catastrophic floods several places in the world and plastic pollution in our oceans. Increased frequency of major flooding is one expected effect of climate change, one of the many effects that bring hardship to people around the world.

Thinking about this has brought more questions than answers to my mind. As noted in the first post about this, both the effects of climate change on people and other living things and the extent of plastic pollution and its effects on people and other living things are issues of such a large scale that it’s difficult to even comprehend the challenges we face, let alone reflect on their spiritual significance.

But the questions are persistent if still in formation, so in this post, I’m offering some first questions for reflection in hopes that we might have a conversation about the way we see and talk about the waters of baptism in a rapidly and significantly changing world.

Comments, stabs at answers, answers made in confidence of their certainty, are all welcome. (If you’re commenting on the blog, please sign your comments if you want them to be shown.)

The first question is an easy one, but serves to introduce the second: What characteristics have we traditionally associated with water that suits it to be the matter – the “outward and visible sign” -- for the sacrament of baptism? What new associations do we or will we have with water as more of the earth’s water becomes permeated with plastic and as we face extremes of flooding and drought in many areas of the planet? Will this change the experience for people witnessing baptisms?

It seems almost dishonest or as if we were in denial if, as these environmental phenomena unfold, we continue to use water liturgically in the ways we have always used it without commenting on or acknowledging what has changed. If the significance for us of something like water changes in our daily lives – if, for example, we someday find ourselves in a world where pure water is rare – what, if anything, do we say about that?

The promises we make in our baptismal covenant (Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305) raise questions for us as we struggle with these new sorts of issues. We promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. When our brothers and sisters around the world suffer from the effects of climate change, how can we best respond to disasters such as the floods of January? What can we do to prevent these things from happening?

We promise to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We know that our actions, our comforts, are producing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and we know that the effects of climate change are bringing hardship to many people. We know that the plastic things we use find their way into the oceans and other waterways and have an effect on living things that comes up the food chain. What is the just thing for us to do? Are we respecting the dignity of every human being if we can’t bring ourselves to acknowledge and name the problem? What changes can we make to help us better keep our baptismal covenant?

The core of these questions seems to be centered on truthfulness with one another and with God about the changes in our environment and the part our actions play both in causing those changes and in responding to their ill effects. Where does truthfulness rank in our priorities when we approach liturgy? If we are tempted to pretend the world is something other than it is, or if we deny the realities of our world, how does that affect what we do before God and God’s people?