Nicolas Stebbing CR makes a case for valuing our vulnerable planet as much as its impoverished people
‘I’m over 80. I don’t produce anything. I’m of no value. I shouldn’t still be around.’ I heard this recently from a friend. It is, of course, not true, but many old people feel it is true and that says a lot. They feel it is true because our society values things and people according to the money they earn. However much people may talk of the value of beauty, old people, lovely countryside and all that make us human, money tends to trump them all.
Rich people are thought to be really important because they are rich. Top businessmen and industrialists deserve their million-pound salaries because they make so much money for others to share in. Poor people are worth very little because they contribute very little. Unemployed people and refugees are a drain on the economy. They are a sort of aberration which shouldn’t really exist, so we make the minimum possible allowance for them and hope they will go away.
I hope none of us thinks quite like that, but these do seem to be the values of our society and we easily go along with them. It certainly affects the way we think about the environment. We all know now that trees, grass, birds and insects matter. They matter in themselves because God created them. They matter also because they are essential for the health of the world we live in. But if we have a patch of ground doing nothing we think it is of no value until we sell it for ‘development’ (a euphemism for buildings that destroy grass, trees, insects and birds.)
We know now that chemicals used to improve crops and destroy insects tend also to damage the soil. They may produce better crops in the short term, but in the long term they can be an environmental disaster. Yet farmers still use them, because you make more money in the short term, and money always trumps the long term destruction. That is true of the economy. Any argument in favour of preserving or restoring our damaged world will be trumped by the argument for economic growth. Money is more important than anything. I was shocked in America at the time of the last presidential election when rich businessmen (some of whom I met) who knew perfectly well what Donald Trump was like, still voted for him as president. Why? ‘Because he is good for business.’ The fact that Trump’s policies destroy the environment, increase global warming, alienate Muslims and Mexicans, and could well start a war does not matter compared with the short term making of money.
And all this is directly against the Gospel of Christ. Christ said it all in four words: ‘Blessed are you poor.’ (Luke 6.20) He was not being sentimental. He knew how hard life can be for the poor, but he knew they were much more likely to value God above all else, because they depend on God. The rich depend on their money for security, so God comes a poor second (or third, or sixth!) The poor are also blessings to us. They enrich our lives, if we listen to them and let them share their knowledge of God with us. Again I am not being sentimental; that is how they are.
Bishop North reminded us of this in the recent New Directions, not for the first time. Catholic Christianity has always flourished in the poorer sectors of society; that’s what gives it credibility (not, I am afraid, its fancy vestments or love of gin!) The gritty mining towns and depressed estates do not give us massive congregations and oodles of money, but they keep us rooted in the people who know that life is hard, yet still find it good. The missions of Africa and the Pacific did the same in the days when Anglo-Catholics worked there. When Pope Francis was elected Pope, a fellow cardinal told him, ‘don’t forget the poor’ and he hasn’t, so changing the face of Catholicism. It is easy for us to be envious of those parts of the Church which have huge, middle class congregations, crowds of bright young people and seemingly limitless resources of money, but we only need to look at the Beatitudes to be glad we are where we are. That is where Christ will find us and change the lives of the people we bring into his presence.
None of this is new. These are old truths which go back behind the gospel to the time when the Jewish people were discovering the law of Moses, or listening to the prophets Amos, Micah and Isaiah. They put the poor into the centre of God’s message. The law of Moses constantly puts care of ‘the widow, the orphan and the stranger’ (Exod. 22.21–24) at the centre of the law. The prophets castigate the rich for building big houses at the expense of the poor. If we ignore these great prophets and think the rich are more important, we are ignoring what God himself is saying.
What is new today is to see that the world we live in is like the poor. It is vulnerable: trees can be chopped down, and they can’t defend themselves; insects can be wiped out with chemicals, and they can’t fight back; grass can be paved over, and the fragile food chain which keeps us alive can be disrupted. If bees go, pollination goes and so do most of our crops. The sea is dying, poisoned by our rubbish. It is losing its oxygen; it cannot support the fish we like to eat. Nature and the seas can recover from the damage we have inflicted on it, but they need time and space, and we do not give them time. Time is money, and we spend all the time we have trying to make more money, then spend the money. In the end we believe if we can make enough money we can throw it at the problems of the environment and solve them: the very thing, the pursuit of money, which is destroying our world becomes the thing that is supposed to save it. Satan has won. The vicious circle devours everything while it pretends to be saving it.
Anyone who has worked among poor people knows how quickly you see them differently. People who looked dreary, drab, battered, even defeated, are revealed as people with courage, resilience, generosity and a deep capacity for joy. We need to see the world of nature differently as well. A tree is not just a green thing at the end of a field. It is a home for birds, beautiful in its own right and an amazing machine taking poisonous gases out of the atmosphere and putting breathable gas back in. Boring looking grass does that too. Insects, looked at close, are delicate and complex. When we take time to look at the world around us we come to love it and cherish it, as we do the weaker and vulnerable people in our midst. Is it not part of our catholic heritage of care for the weak and vulnerable that we care for every part of it, not just out of self interest (we need the world of nature to stay alive) but because it is God’s?
‘Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek.’ Jesus wasn’t talking in paradoxes; he was telling us what will save the world. Also, he is not telling us a gospel that is actually bad news: that we have to be miserable, trapped in poverty and constantly down trodden to be ‘blessed.’ He is telling us that his way of being poor and meek actually sets us free and gives us a completely new understanding of life: ‘I came that they might have life, and might have it more abundantly.’ (John 10.10) Twice a year I go to Zimbabwe and spend quite a lot of time living with people whom we think are poor. It is not always comfortable—roads are terrible, beds can be hard, sleeping conditions crowded, food boring—but it’s wonderful. I feel more real. I don’t need all the things I think I need in the UK. And I have these marvellous people around me, people who are joyful, resilient and full of confidence that God is caring for them. It’s a real privilege to be able to learn about God from them.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote: ‘I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.’ It is not just people, but the world around us in its fragility that can teach us to be like Christ.
Nicolas Stebbing is a member of
the Community of the Resurrection.