Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Love Is Not Arrogant
distributed 1/20/06 - ©2006

The Interstate highway in the mountains west of Denver has an unusual traffic problem.

I'm not talking about the times when snow and ice can slow or stop all travel, or when the flood of weekend skiers creates miles-long traffic jams. I'm thinking of the times when people stop their cars on the side of the road -- and sometimes in the middle of the road -- to watch bighorn sheep grazing on the hillsides.

The distinctive and commanding presence of bighorns causes more excitement than most other wildlife. The sheep are solid and muscular, and those big horns wrap around in an almost complete circle that announces a willingness to butt heads. Even when they're quietly munching on grass right beside the highway, bighorn sheep are obviously powerful wild animals. (Click to see a picture!)

The state highway department has put up special signs along I-70, telling people not to stop on the road, and urging them to pull off in designated "wildlife watching" areas with telescopes and educational materials -- and many people do take those informative detours. The compulsion to just slam on the brakes, though, still has lots of cars parked on the shoulder on days when the sheep make themselves visible.

An opportunity to see such magnificent creatures up-close and in their native habitat is compelling. A sense of wonder and awe catches locals and "flatlanders" alike.

In our commercialized, utilitarian world, this is a pure experience. Nobody is charging admission. Nobody has put up billboards to stimulate an artificial desire. The people who stop are not hunters looking for a trophy, or business people looking for a marketable benefit. People stop on the highway because they find delight in an unexpected encounter with something wild, something dramatically other than our well-managed daily lives

In some ways, the cars stopped on the Interstate are a profound expression of love. The joy that people experience in the presence of a wild animal has to do with what that other creature is, in and of itself. It has very little to do with what we humans can gain from the encounter. That's true whether the other creature is a bighorn sheep, or dolphins at play in the ocean, or a soaring hawk.

I hope that the implicit prayer voiced at every such occasion goes beyond, "thank you, God, that I was able to see this." I hope the prayer is also for the well-being of the other: "and may these animals continue to be wild and free and abundant." That is certainly the prayer that comes to my lips.

When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth -- a congregation that was all too prone to misunderstanding faithful perspectives on freedom and community and love -- he reminded them about the ways in which true love focuses on the other, not the self. "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth." (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)

At our best, that is the sort of love that we express when we "love nature" or when we are caught up in a profound moment simply at the sight of wild animals. That love genuinely wills the well-being of the other, for their own sake, for their own good.

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Seeing wildlife can inspire an emotional reaction of love. Enacting laws can be a very appropriate way of expressing that love. Whispering "live long and prosper" at the sight of wild bighorn sheep is nice; making sure the sheep have adequate habitat and are protected from poaching goes a long way toward making the prayer real.

One of the great US laws embodying that spirit of love is the Endangered Species Act. The ESA has called us to stand firmly behind our best values. It has brought the power of law to our wish for other species to survive -- not only the "charismatic megafauna" that make us stop on the highway, but many small or unattractive critters, too.

The ESA is one way that we humans have throttled back our tendency to be arrogant and rude. The ESA is one place where we "do not insist on our own way" and where we do not rejoice in the great wrongdoing of extinction. The ESA begins with a presumption about the well-being -- or at least the survival -- of other species in their own habitat. It then tries to find responsible ways of expressing that goal in relation to our pervasive human world of commerce and private property and pollution. Through the last 30 years, the ESA has been very effective at protecting and recovering the animal and plant species that are most at risk. It has been a excellent expression of our most genuine love.

But the core principles of the Endangered Species Act are under legislative attack. A bill passed by the House of Representatives last fall is now on its way to the US Senate.

Rep. Pombo's bill is arrogant and rude. It is more concerned with compensation to property owners than it is with the preservation of species. It denies the need for critical habitat, and diminishes the notion of recovery. Under the guise of "reforming" the ESA, Pombo's bill shifts the focus to human interests. It insists on our own way, and is resentful of any constraints on business as usual.

The historic ESA is an expression of our best and most loving principles; the proposed amendments to the ESA are selfish and callous. There's simply no way to reconcile the two approaches, or to craft a compromise that preserves the loving intentions of the ESA.

I urge you to contact your Senators. (See the US Senate website or Project Vote-Smart for telephone numbers and other contact information.) Tell them that your faith and your values call you toward a loving relationship with all of God's creation. In light of the misguided bills that would distort even well-intentioned legislative compromises this year, urge them to reject any of the proposed revisions to the Endangered Species Act.

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A friend wrote this week to describe a recent editorial cartoon. The drawing shows three figures. There is a cow labeled "Burger," a chicken labeled "McNugget" and an American reading a newspaper with the banner headline, "Global Warming Causing Extinctions." The American is saying "How many species do I need??"

May God call us to the genuine love that delights in the well-being of other species.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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