Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cruelty or Compassion

End of the Day, Feast of St. Francis, 2018

My heart has been heavy this year on the Feast of St. Francis. After looking at today’s main news stories this morning, I went outside — where the temperature had dropped some 50-60 degrees since yesterday afternoon — thinking that breathing some fresh air and moving around doing some garden clean-up would make things brighter. I was working on a flower bed that surrounds our small statue of St. Francis when one of our resident cottontails hopped out from under a bush. It surprised me, though, by not hopping away as they often do when we startle them. Instead, it hopped to a spot a couple feet away from me and then stopped and simply watched me.
This bunny’s lack of fear reminded me of the stories of wild animals and birds approaching him. The animals and birds seemed to sense that Francis was compassionate, that near him there would only be kindness and not the cruelty other people sometimes aimed at wild creatures. 

Francis sensed the interconnectedness among all things that the modern study of ecology has demonstrated. That interconnectedness in the natural world is paralleled by interconnectedness of events and issues in the economic and political spheres that may at first glance seem unrelated. There are many important issues demanding our attention right now, but all of them — including our failure to address climate change in a significant way — are interrelated. Environmental concerns tend to get pushed aside given other immediately compelling issues, but our welfare depends on not losing sight of the state of the biosphere both for its own sake and because of the way it connects with all the other concerns before us. 

The welfare of the birds is something to consider as we remember St. Francis. BirdLife International’s 2018 State of the World’s Birds report describes a “steady and continuing deterioration” in the state of the world’s birds. Even some of the world’s most well-known bird species are declining, and this should concern all of us: “These statistics aren’t just bad news for birds, they are also warnings for the planet as a whole. The health of bird species is a good measure of the state of ecosystems in general.”

One of the news stories I read this morning bore the discouraging heading Climate scientists are struggling to find the right words for very bad news. Reporting on the 48th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Washington Post reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis report on our increasing understanding that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. is essential to avoid global catastrophe and the IPCC’s task of communicating their knowledge and helping the world’s nations come to agreements that allow us to do this urgent work in a fairly short amount of time. 

Other news stories today were about the confirmation process for a new Supreme Court justice and the related issues around women’s rights and the #MeToo movement that have been highlighted by this process. And there were stories about other things such as the immigrant children who have been separated from their parents, gun violence, and ongoing wars and civil disturbances. 

Given all of that, here is what struck me as especially insightful on this day when we remember St. Francis. The Atlantic published a piece by Adam Serwer called The Cruelty Is the Point. Serwer suggests that the many events and current policies which seem cruel aren’t cruel as an unintended consequence of some noble goal, but rather that the cruelty — and the bonding around the “joy” of inflicting cruelty among supporters of current policies — is the point. In reading it, I thought about our lack of concern for the birds and other living things, the indignation of many Americans at the thought that we might choose to change the ways we produce and use energy so that people in other places might live, and the cruel things said and shouted at women in recent days who dare to speak their truth. It’s all of one piece, and that one piece couldn’t be further from the compassion that St. Francis embodied and taught.

Deeply rooted kindness, heartfelt compassion, simple Christian love are the antidote to cruelty. Animals do sense which people are kind like Francis and which people are cruel, and when we humans are paying attention we do a good job of sensing that, too. Francis was known for his devotion to God and his compassion for all living things. Strengthening our own devotion to God and our own capacity for compassion are the essential elements to ready ourselves for the work that lies before us for our nation and for every living thing with which we share our planet.