‘There was a wolf, terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals.’ Naturally, the townsfolk of Gubbio were frightened and didn’t dare to leave their houses after nightfall. Only one brave champion was prepared to help. He had compassion upon the residents, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Before long, all his companions had fled, petrified by the thought of the wolf. But he carried on. When he finally happened upon the beast, he made the sign of the cross and ordered: ‘Brother Wolf, you do much harm in these parts and you have done great evil’. Marvelously the wolf lay down and was tamed. The people learned to feed the wolf regularly and in return, the wolf would no longer hunt them. When the townspeople asked the hero for his name, he simply answered ‘Francis’.
No, it wasn’t Pope Francis. But indeed, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, upon his election as Pope on March 2013, chose Francis as his papal name in honor of our hero, St Francis of Assisi. As legends like this one have it, the saint had a great love for animals and the environment. For this reason, in 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St Francis to be the Patron of Ecology. In his honor, today, October 4, Catholics celebrate the feast day of St Francis, who preached the duty of the people to protect and enjoy nature as the stewards of God’s creation.
Worthy of Your Respect
But doesn’t Genesis 1:28 state: ‘God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground’? Some have understood this key bible quote as the separation of man and nature, giving people the right to exploit the environment. St. Francis would strongly disagree. And for good reason: just look at Noah’s Ark which was not only for humans but all creatures. Also Adam, stemming from the Hebrew word ‘adamah’, means ground or earth, implying the connection between human beings and the earth. Not surprisingly, a broad range of Christian institutions are engaged in the environmental movement.
To dispel doubts let’s look at another religion that looks for advice in the Old Testament. Rabbi Daniel B. Fink clarifies that humans, in the Jewish interpretation, ‘are the stewards of the Garden of Eden, but vitally, they are looking after it for God, not for themselves.’
Next to Judaism with some 14 million and Christianity with 2.1 billion followers, there is a third Abrahamic religion. With 1.6 billion, Islam is the second largest world religion, and has a word to say about the environment, too: ‘Devote thyself single-mindedly to the Faith, and thus follow the nature designed by Allah, the nature according to which He has fashioned mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah‘. Surah 30:30 in the Qur’an, leaves no doubt. Just like in the Jewish and Christian faiths, Muslims are instructed to look after the environment and mustn’t destroy it. Coherent with Judaism, humans are only managers of the earth and not proprietors.
Also 1 billion Hindus don’t disagree. ‘For, so sustained by sacrifice, the gods will give you the food of your desire. Who so enjoys their gift, yet gives nothing, is a thief, no more nor less‘. In this way, Bhagavad Gita 3:12, part of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, teaches people that they should use the world selflessly to maintain the natural balance. Thus, they can repay God for the gifts he has given. By living a simple life, humans learn to enjoy spiritual happiness instead of a material one, which exhausts natural resources. The Mahabharata knows: ‘If there is but one tree of flowers and fruit within a village, that place is worthy of your respect.’
Preaching Water but Drinking Wine?
What respect is for Hindus, is ‘loving-kindness’ for about 375 million Buddhists: All beings deserve equal levels of empathy, no matter if elephant, fruit fly or human. Buddha himself explained why: ‘Because the cause was there the consequences followed; because the cause is there, the effects will follow’. At its core, Buddhism is about the interrelationship between karma –the cause- and its effects. Humans are intertwined with natural systems and if they damage the Planet they damage themselves. Peculiarly, in the Buddhist story of Creation, the thriving Garden of Eden is destroyed by greedy humans.
Sadly, this sounds all too familiar. If we imagined the earth was 46 years old, the current damage –be it biodiversity loss or climate change- has been done in the last 60 seconds of the earth’s life, with the spreading out of humans.
What had happened then? Are we all preaching water but drinking wine? Are the critics of Cristian beliefs right that the dualism of man and nature gives an excuse for exploitation? And doesn’t the yearly pilgrimage of 200 million people itself leave a huge carbon footprint?
There is no short answer, but whether we are actively religious or not, religion influences our everyday lives. From our legal systems to our constitution and governments and logically to how we think about the environment: Are we an equal part of a greater unity? Or is this unity only there to serve the human race? Modern science speaks up for the former, highlighting the dependence of humans on ecosystem services, such as fresh air and water. As do many religious movements and authorities, be it the Dalai Lama, stressing environmental protection in Tibet, or the Green Pilgrimage Network. The latter recognizes the mentioned environmental impact of the millions of spiritual journeys and wants to make them more environmentally friendly. Likewise, Indonesia’s fatwa from January 2014 shows that religion can support sustainable behavior. As the first Islamic edict, addressing ecosystem conservation, the fatwa instructs Muslims to stop the illegal trafficking of wildlife. The responsible council put it in plain words: ‘People can escape government regulation, but they cannot escape the word of God.’ This is good news for the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) which coordinates the conservation of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity, with support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für interantionale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).
Know Your Peace
Also beyond Southeast Asia the important link between religion and conservation has been recognized. In 1986, HRH Prince Philip invited five leaders of five of the world religions- to speak out how their faith gives good reason to care for nature. As there are more than five world religions, by 1995 Baha’i, Daoism, Jainism and Sikhism had joined the declaration. What other name could the statement receive, but Assisi Declarations on Nature, paying tribute to our wolf whisperer and hero of the environment, St Francis of Assisi.
In the spirit of St Francis, also more than 200 million people worship nature. While indigenous religions, for their vast diversity, do not constitute a world religion, they have much in common. Most indigenous traditions have a deep awareness of the ‘lifeway’, the integral relationship of symbolic and material life. A web of human behaviors within the powerful spiritual world of the local bioregion is described and passed on by indigenous peoples in narrative stories. These stories are the base for traditional environmental knowledge. Christopher Hansard, part of the Canadian First Nations Environmental Network, shares one: ‘The world, the earth, two planets, one of nature, one of man, two worlds in collision, soon we will need to choose, in which world, we shall live, look into your senses, and follow them to their end, and there you will find your place, the world is a hunger, so is the earth, the world is glamour, the earth is love, make your choice, know your peace.’
Surely, St Francis knew his peace. One day he was travelling with his companions. They arrived to a place full of trees bursting with birds. The birds surrounded Francis, captivated by the power of his voice, and not one of them took to the air. Francis said to his companions: ‘Wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds’.