Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

The Courage to Grieve
distributed 10/10/08 - ©2008

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Rev. Jacqueline A. & Daniel Ziegler, of Plymouth, Wisconsin. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

Eco-Justice Ministries has taken stands for and against many of the initiatives that will appear on Colorado ballots this fall. These positions are described on our website.

There is tragic news this week from the world's biologists. In the terse language of headlines, we learned: "One in Four Mammals at Risk of Extinction."

Researchers in 130 countries have examined our closest relatives within the animal realm -- those warm-blooded critters who, like us, have hair and give milk -- and found that 1,141 species of mammals are threatened with extinction. 188 of them are "critically endangered." Out of the 5,487 known species of mammals, over 20 percent are threatened. Among marine mammals, it is worse: about one third face a serious threat of being wiped out. And within our very closest kin -- apes, monkeys and other primates -- half of the species are likely to disappear in the near future.

Birds and fish, bugs and frogs are also disappearing at a dangerous rate, but it hits closer to home with the mammals.

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I read of the scientists' findings in Monday morning's newspaper. I confess that I paused for just a moment, then clipped the article, and went on to read the editorials and comics while I ate my breakfast. My morning routine was not disrupted. It was only as I re-read the news reports from multiple sources that it's dire message began to sink in.

"We are getting far too used to seeing these reports bemoaning the fate of the planet or the decline of animals. I am really concerned that we have become deadened to this sort of depressing information and now simply ignore it without stopping to think about the implications," said Mark Wright, chief scientist at WWF.

I pray that Dr. Wright is wrong, and that we will not let this news slide by, even if that was our first reaction. I pray that we will find the courage to sit with this painful and frightening reality, and to honor the horrible news with our tears. I pray that we -- individually, and in our faith communities -- will take the time and spiritual energy to grieve, to lament, to weep.

We owe it to the animals to acknowledge their precipitous decline. If we pay no heed to the disappearing Chinese river dolphins and Caspian seals, the gorillas and jaguars, Dama gazelles and Tasmanian devils, we discount their unique place within God's creation.

We also diminish ourselves if we do not mourn. If we cannot be touched or bothered by the impending loss of thousands of animal species, then we have become shallow and heartless. We are less than fully human if this sort of news does not move us to compassion and distress.

There are abundant philosophical, spiritual and ethical reasons to grieve. But there also are practical and strategic reasons to lament this flood of extinctions. Weeping is a theologically-grounded act of resistance. When we mourn, we are refusing to accept the shredding of the web of life as normal or acceptable.

Walter Brueggemann, in The Prophetic Imagination, says that the language of grief is the proper idiom for cutting through numbness and denial.

Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. ... And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.

If we are willing and able to lament in the presence of such tragedy, then we have spoken truth to ourselves and to the world. With our tears, we condemn humanity's rampant destruction of God's creation. We assert that it is not "all right" when humanity's ever-expanding presence crowds out and kills so many kinds of God's creatures.

Facing up to the destruction around us is painful, but also enlivening. Preaching professor Christine Smith writes:

Often when people weep, they are most in touch with the deepest passions, strongest yearnings, and greatest desires of their lives. These are some of the most difficult and richest moments in life. People weep when they are alive to those things they cherish and value the most and are touched by something they can hardly name or utter.

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There is no one cause for the extinction bearing down on more than a thousand species of mammals around the planet. Habitat loss or degradation -- including the impacts of climate change -- is a factor in the decline of 40% of the threatened mammal species. Marine mammals are hit by ships and tangled in fishing nets. Hunting takes a severe toll on many species. Disease and pollution hit some species especially hard.

There is no one thing that will halt this broad trend toward extinction, but there are many places to act. Urgent action to minimize global warming, legislation to slow ships in the vicinity of threatened whales, the preservation of wildlife corridors and controls on wildlife poaching -- all of these are good an important steps that will make a difference.

But we will not take those actions if we are numb. If we accept this trend as "the way things are" without being moved by grief, we will never be motivated to work for the restoration of these profoundly threatened species.

I challenge you to enter into the pain of this extinction crisis, and to feel deeply the wrongness of what is happening in our world. Take time to sit in prayer and reflection. Read details about some of the species that are at risk, and allow your grief at the world's trauma to come to the surface. Let God speak to you through your tears.

I challenge churches, too, to move out of their comfort zones, and to experience grief as the most authentic reaction to the global loss of life. In sermons and classes, liturgy and song, may Christ's church have the faith and courage to acknowledge the destruction of God's creation -- not just as a rational fact, but as a strong emotional reality. May clergy, educators, spiritual directors and other church leaders to use this scientific report as an occasion to bring their congregations out of denial.

We are most human, most faithful, and most effective when we go deeply into the distress of the Earth community. Join me in that difficult and rewarding journey.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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