By Dan Clendenin
Last week I read the new encyclical by Pope Francis called Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home (2015). The Pope addresses his encyclical to “all people of good will,” but he has special counsel for Christians.
What many Christians need, he says, is an “ecological conversion,” whereby “the effects of our encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in our relationship with the world around us. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.”
There are many aspects of our environmental crisis that only governments, large NGOs, and multi-national corporations can address. Nonetheless, what we need most is a change in our own selves. That begins, says Pope Francis, with realizing that “humanity is one people living in a common home.”
“It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected.” We can no longer make choices or policies that defend the interests of only a few countries, or even the few within a single country. “We need to strengthen the conviction,” he says, “that we are one single human family.” The earth is our “collective good.” Indeed, “this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one.”
What we experience all around us, though, is often the exact opposite. We partition people into “us and them.” We stereotype and caricature one another, creating binary oppositions. In his book Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen calls this “sectarian singularity” — reducing a person’s identity to a single trait.
Practically-speaking, observes Sen, to understand a person fully we must consider a broad array of factors — their civilization, religion, nationality, class, community, culture, gender, profession, language, politics, morals, family of origin, skin color, and so on.
For Christians in particular, there’s an even deeper conviction that’s emphasized by Pope Francis, and articulated throughout Scripture — that we all belong to one human family. We all breathe the same air. We all drink the same water. Each and every one of us was created by God.
In Ephesians, Paul makes a clever phonetic play on words to this effect. God, says Paul, is the patera of every patria — the “father (patera) from whom every family (patria) derives its name” (1:14–15).
God isn’t the God of Jews alone, or the private possession of Christians. Rather, he’s the “father of all fatherhood,” the “father of every family,” or the “father of the whole human family.” He’s the God of Muslims, Buddhists, and atheists.
In a marvelously mysterious phrase, Paul expands God’s patrilineage even further; he says that God is the father of “every family in heaven and on earth.”
And just as God is every person’s father, so every human being is his child. To those who would partition people according to ethnicity, economic class, or gender, Paul writes that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).
Peter learned that as an observant Jew he had to welcome even a Gentile like Cornelius, for “God does not show favoritism but accepts people from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” (Acts 10:34–35). When Peter later withdrew from Gentiles because of Jewish criticisms and fell into hypocrisy, Paul says in Galatians that “I opposed him to his face.”
God’s fatherly love isn’t limited to the morally upright. Matthew says that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (5:45).
Paul quotes a pagan poet to affirm that every single person is God’s “offspring” (Acts 17:28).
The psalmist rejoices that Yahweh is “loving toward all he has made” (Psalm 145:13).
There’s a universal logic to the Christian story. God “created all things in heaven and on earth” (Colossians 1:16). He seeks the worship of all “things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth” (Philippians 2:9–11). He will “reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:20), and will sum up or bring together “all things in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:10).
Why? Because God is the father of “the whole human family in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 3:15).
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