Religion News Service published an article on the different ways churches are responding to the fires in the Amazon rainforest. Beyond the simply ecumenical and purely political issues, it prompts some thinking about the relation between Church and state.
That’s a theme I explored in a series on the regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet and the response of the Catholic Church. Chile’s bishops ultimately abandoned the mode of exhorting and enunciating general principles and pursued actions that included networks of resistance and excommunication. They justified such involvement by claiming that the regime’s extreme methods were an attack on the Church itself—not the hierarchy or the teachings but the Church as a social body in the world. In other words, to oppress the people by denying economic and political rights and by torture is to oppress and torture the Church.
The situation in the Amazon is different inessential ways but similarly extreme and not so different from what is happening in this country. I have not heard of any systematic use of torture by the Brazilian government. Attacks against persons seem to be the work of mainly private actors. But the government of Jair Bolsonaro has instituted an attack on the very conditions that support life on earth. One could say the same about our President Donald Trump. I refer to the actions of both these leaders with respect to the environment. An attack on the earth is surely an attack on the earth’s people and on the Church. I will argue that to harm the earth in itself, not even considering the effect on people, is to harm the Body of Christ.
The “lungs of the planet”?
The facts of the situation in Brazil are a casualty of the kind of political rhetoric that Bolsonaro seemingly learned from Trump—deny whatever is inconvenient no matter how obvious it is. At the same time make up a story to blame the facts, which you have just denied, on somebody else. So Bolsonaro claims that the fires in the Amazon are perfectly normal even though they’ve nearly tripled in July 2019 compared to July 2018 and nearly doubled for the entire year so far. Then without evidence he blames the fires on environmental activists. Actually, what evidence there is points to landowners using fires to expand their farmlands. (See the RNS article.)
The Amazon Rainiforests in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and nearby countries are what people often call the “lungs of the planet.” We need to be careful not to think magically about this. A tree does more than produce oxygen. It also consumes oxygen. If it dies and decomposes completely it will have consumed all the oxygen it ever produced.
So where does the oxygen in the air come from? It comes from trees and other photosynthesizing species that have not completely decomposed. Depending on circumstances, these may have turned into oil and other fossil fuels still in the ground. Or they may have been made into tables and buildings by humans. Or they’re still living and growing. A rainforest that is growing produces excess oxygen. But the Amazon Rainforests have been declining for as long as I have been aware of their existence. Clearing and burning rainforests for power, crops and cattle, and roads for mining operations is producing excess carbon dioxide.
So much for the lungs of the planet.
The response of the churches
According to the RNS article, Christian churches in Brazil have conflicting responses to the rainforest destruction. Catholic and mainline Protestant bodies are criticizing the Bolsonaro administration and demanding action to save a “region that is crucial for the ecological balance of the planet.”
But Evangelicals, 22% of the population, prefer to ignore the problem. Government and landowners side with the Evangelicals on personal moral issues. In return they get Evangelicals’ silence or even active support on economic and environmental issues. There are more than 100 evangelicals in Brazil’s 513-member Chamber of Deputies and many in Bolsonaro’s cabinet. To many evangelicals environmentalism is a disguise for Communism and for intrusive internationalism.
Different theologies may also play a role. According to the evangelicals’ apocalyptic worldview, the world will end soon. Why be anxious about a natural world that won’t last much longer?
Synod for the Amazon
Brazil’s Catholic bishops are preparing for the Synod for the Amazon region to take place in the Vatican in October. The cause of the Amazon rainforests will be high on the agenda. The Church must advocate for both the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and the importance of the rainforests for the world.
St. Paul expresses the hope that “creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8: 21) There is no salvation of human beings apart from the natural world. Christ’s body includes the world because “all things were created through him and for him, [and] in him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1: 16-17)
The theology of the Cosmic Christ requires the Church to stand up for the environment and against any who would harm the earth. Those bad actors include President Trump with his climate denials and backward movement on many environmental issues. And they include Bolsonaro, Trump’s echo in Brazilian politics. The Catholic Church will undoubtedly make strong statements of environmental principles in the upcoming Amazon synod. May she also be bold enough to name specific grievances and actions by specific individuals and organizations.
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