Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for February 2013

Joseph Ratzinger, who steps down this week as Pope Benedict XVI, was not as popular, let alone as saintly, as his predecessor John Paul II. But he has acquired a well-deserved reputation as the “Green Pope”, making the Vatican the first carbon-neutral country in the world, putting thousands of solar panels of Vatican rooftops (a project which won the 2008 Euro Solar Prize) and committing the Vatican to having 20 per cent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.

Ratzinger has always been an animal lover. He practises the Church’s official teaching that we owe kindness to non-human animals and that it is morally wrong to inflict gratuitous suffering on them. In an interview with a German journalist, before he became Pope, he said: “Animals, too, are God’s creatures. Certainly, a sort of industrial use of creatures, so that geese are fed in such a way as to produce as large a liver as possible, or hens live so packed together that they become just caricatures of birds, this degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible.”

In his first sermon as Pope he returned to this theme: “The external deserts in the world are growing because the internal deserts have become so vast. The earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”

The 40-day period of Lent in the liturgical calendar of the Church is intended to be a time of spiritual preparation leading up to Easter. But, in practise, Lent often degenerates into meaningless acts of masochism (from “I’m giving up coffee/chocolate for Lent” to ritual self-laceration in “folk Catholicism”). I’m often reminded of my Muslim neighbours who fast scrupulously during the day during Ramadan, only to feast sumptuously through the night.

If the purpose of fasting is to force us (well-to-do Christians) to be more attentive to the cries of the poor, to reflect on our self-indulgent lifestyles and to change direction, then instead of giving up (say) coffee for forty days, it would be better to use this period of Lent to study the conditions under which coffee is manufactured around the world, who gains and who loses out, and then perhaps to boycott gourmet coffee companies whose products we unthinkingly consume.

Indeed, food is a topic around which cluster numerous justice issues. Simply pausing to ask ourselves “Who makes the food on our table, and at what cost to the rest of creation and to future generations?” opens up a plethora of disturbing moral challenges. Here are just a sample:

1. Cruelty to animals. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be appalled, like the Pope, by the horrific conditions under which many animals are bred and killed to meet the demands of a consumer society. Factory-farmed pigs, geese and ducks are treated as “commodities” (separated from mothers, artificially fattened and inseminated). Many of us in the Church participate in such structural sin by our silence.

2. Intensive fishing and farming practices. The use of massive trawler nets in the north sea has depleted fish stocks, and the same is happening in the Indian Ocean. South Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen attack each other almost every day around the island’s coast; the reason being that South Indian coastal waters have been denuded of fish by unsustainable fishing methods, forcing fishermen from Tamilnadu to poach in Sri Lankan waters.

3. Waste. According to the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, as much as half the food produced in the world ends up as waste each year. They blame this on unnecessarily strict sell-by dates, “buy-one-get-one-free” and Western consumer demand for cosmetically perfect food, along with “poor engineering and agricultural practices” and poor storage facilities in many developing countries.

4. Climate Change. Poor communities around the world suffer increasingly from severe climatic events and changing weather patterns caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the wealthier nations. Desertification, crop failure and major flooding are growing at a pace. Last year was the most arid in U.S history; while thousands of small farmers in India commit suicide every year because of failed monsoons, chronic indebtedness to loan sharks, and dwindling arable land.

5. Trade Injustice. Huge government subsidies paid to farms and agribusinesses in the U.S and European Union, combined with taxes on imported food, means that farmers in poor countries cannot compete and so give up agriculture altogether. While the jury is still out on the toxic effects of GM foods on humans and the environment, the question of who has access to GM seeds has a clear answer: only rich farmers who can afford to buy the seeds from giants like Monsanto. An unfair global system of patents worsens inequalities between and within nations.

The biblical prophets were scathing in their scorn at those who thought of fasting as a religious technique for getting God on their side:

‘Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

and not hide from your own kin?                (Isaiah 58: 6,7)

Why do men like President Assad of Syria prefer to rule over rubble than surrender power? Arrogance in politics is compounded of ignorance, willful blindness, and fantasies of invincibility. And when entire societies prostrate themselves before such arrogant rulers, what comes to mind are the controversial Freudian notion of a collective “death-wish” and the Biblical language of the “demonic”.

Perceptive observers of the human condition, like the Jewish political thinker Hannah Arendt, have reminded us that evil at its most radical happens not in acts of blatant, monstrous savagery, from which most of us may easily distance ourselves, but in the mundane banality of ordinary acts of routine de-humanization. No tyrant can last for long without a vast army of people, often decent and conventionally “moral”, who passively follow orders. They don’t have to be all soldiers, policemen and civil servants/bureaucrats. The Nazi regime from which Arendt fled was served by brilliant scientists, doctors and engineers who had anaesthetized themselves to the suffering around them and contributed, often as willing agents, to that suffering and never asking the questions: “whose interests are promoted by my work?”, and “who is bearing the costs of my work?” These are questions that all people in liberal democracies, too, should be pondering; but few, alas, do.

Christian parents and educationists can best serve the kingdom of God by teaching children, from an early age, the responsibility of disobedience. Of learning to say “No” and of questioning what they see and hear, not least in the pulpits of many Christian churches.

I am encouraged that signs of such responsible disobedience are beginning to emerge in the Christian community of my own country. Monday was the 65th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s national independence, and the Anglican church observed it with a 3-hour service in the cathedral in Colombo, not of thanksgiving but of public lament for the state of the nation and especially the collapse of proper governance (see my last post). It was attended by hundreds from other Christian denominations as well as non-Christian observers, all of us dressed in white (the traditional colour of mourning).

What weapons can the Church wield against oligarchic despotisms, apart from prayer, symbolic acts of protest and courageously saying “No”? Central are the word of the Cross and the simple signs of water, bread and wine, tokens of an alternative identity and supreme loyalty (if understood and practised properly).

And, of course, martyrdom.

A few days ago, I attended a fascinating lecture in a theological college in Singapore on the “Lost World of Genesis One” by a visiting American professor of Old Testament, John Walton. His central argument was that the opening chapter of the Bible is not about “material /physical origins” as much as “functional origins”: i.e. the ordering of a sacred space in which the God of the cosmos dwells. The literary genre appropriate to the chapter is that of ancient “Temple texts”. (Thus the framework of a six-day week because many official temple inaugurations took place over a week). The climax of the chapter is the “rest” of God, when God surveys the place of his habitation and comes to make his throne in it.

I have written and preached on this chapter many times; and I found Walton’s approach deeply respectful of the integrity of the text and sensitive to the thought-world of the first Israelite readers and their neighbours in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan. I am persuaded by his interpretation of the divine “rest” by analogy with other texts such as Ps.132:8,14 and Is.66:1. The literal opposite of “rest”, after all, is “unrest”, not work. God’s “rest’ in creation signifies his sovereignty over the forces of natural chaos and social upheaval that always threaten to overwhelm God’s people. Seeing the material world as the Temple of God, with human beings (women as well as men) as both his image in the Temple and his priests engaged in service to the Temple, is religiously revolutionary and politically liberating.

But how does one believe in the sovereignty of such a God in a world that seems so godforsaken? When evil seems enthroned in places such as the nations mentioned above, and rich nations wreak havoc with the earth and its nonhuman creatures, how do the People of God witness to the “rest” of divine rule?

Much of twentieth-century theology, especially following the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has learned to interpret divine sovereignty in terms of the “trinitarian history” of a God who suffers with and for his creation without ceasing to be God. Our tears are but a drop in the ocean of God’s own tears. Easter is not only a reversal of Good Friday, but also its vindication. The risen Christ still bears his wounds, and his reign is the reign of a vulnerable, suffering love in which he calls his people to participate.  The arrogant power-fantasies of Herods and Caesars are undermined not by force of arms but by the faithful testimony of men and women, in word and deed, to  a way of life grounded in a different understanding of being human.


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