Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Pentecost and Endangered Species
distributed 5/11/18 - ©2018

Coming up within the next ten days are two occasions which seem to have no connection at all. On Sunday, May 20 there is Pentecost , the "birthday" of the Christian church. Two days earlier is the date for the 13th annual Endangered Species Day.

A theological realization that hit me fifteen years ago makes this year's convergence of the events seem appropriate. The disturbing shifts taking place in US policies about endangered species makes it very timely to remember those connections.

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Way back in 2003, my Eco-Justice Notes for Pentecost described how I discerned a startling new level of meaning from the story told in Acts 2. Those steeped in church traditions will remember the core of those events in Jerusalem, 50 days after the resurrection.

The city is crowded with visitors from all around the Mediterranean world, and the followers of Jesus are gathered together. Suddenly, "there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind," and they began to speak in a variety of languages, proclaiming the good news about Jesus to the diverse crowd of visitors.

Peter, explaining what has just happened, quotes the prophet Joel: "In the last days ... I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy."

Fifteen years ago, when I'd been doing some in-depth studies about biblical creation stories, I was startled by the wording of "all flesh." That term in Hebrew (kol-basar) frequently and explicitly refers to all animal life. The term crops up 13 times in the story of Noah and the flood, such as Genesis 6:19: "And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark." At the end of the flood account, God makes a covenant "between me and you and every living creature of all flesh."

No longer can I think of Pentecost as a human-centered event. The affirmation of God's spirit poured out on all flesh reminds me that God's covenant relationship is with the entire creation. God's spirit enlivens all beings. Every living thing is valuable in God's moral accounting.

My eco-justice theology finds cause for celebration when our Christian birth narrative of Pentecost connects so beautifully with the need to preserve and protect the most endangered of God's creatures. What a splendid convergence next week when Pentecost and Endangered Species Day fall in the same weekend.

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Endangered Species Day is not an occasion for celebration. The loss of biodiversity --the rapid extinction of species -- is considered to be Earth's most severe environmental problem. The information-rich graphic of "planetary boundaries" shows the crisis of genetic diversity to be far worse than the climate change problem that captures so much of our attention.

It is normal for species to go extinct, but the rate at which extinctions are occurring is not normal. The Center for Biological Diversity tells us that we're now in the midst of Earth's sixth mass extinction, the worst since the die-off of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Scientists estimate that we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal background rate. 30 to 50 percent of all species could be headed toward extinction by mid-century. And unlike those previous extinction events, this one is caused by us. 99 percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities.

The dramatic rate of extinction is not good news for Earth's health. Losing species has been likened to taking rivets out of an airplane that is in flight. For a while, those rivets can go away without causing problems, but eventually, so many are removed that the airplane falls apart in mid-air. Because we live in an ecological world -- "the world is inherently relational" are my five centering words for 2018 -- the loss of species disrupts and weakens the web of life, even with species that we have not named, and even with species that may seem insignificant to us.

The loss of species is important from a moral perspective. In his encyclical, Laudato Si', Pope Francis writes at length about the human causes of extinction. "Because of this, thousands of species will never give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right."

The rapid rate of extinction is a real crisis. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act has been the primary tool to try to protect and preserve the creatures most at risk. But those protections are themselves at risk.

A news story from The Hill a few weeks ago begins with this statement: "The Trump administration, aided by Citizens United, is poised to fundamentally cripple the broadly supported Endangered Species Act, all in the name of chasing fossil fuels, border walls, and other special interests."

A January report in High Country News is headlined, "For endangered species, politics replaces science." Another HCN story from two weeks ago describes personnel and policy changes at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency's assistant secretary, Susan Combs, is "a Texas rancher and politician with a history of hostility toward protected species." Last fall, High Country News looked at the legislative branch, and wrote about "Six bills that weaken species protections move in Congress: Lawmakers shift the focus to politics, not science, as a deciding factor in designation." (And, yes, I do highly recommend High Country News for its in-depth reporting "for people who care about the West.")

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Our biblical heritage -- from Genesis through the prophets and the Acts of the Apostles -- reminds us that God's love and care are extended to all of creation. The covenant "with Noah" more accurately is a covenant with all flesh. Pope Francis rejects the fixation on profit and human interests which drive extinction, and tells us that "we have no such right."

When our nation's best tools for staving off extinction are at risk, faithful ethics call us to political and social action. We must pressure Congress to keep the Endangered Species Act strong and well-funded, and to have decisions about which species are listed be driven by science, not politics. (Our colleagues with Creation Justice Ministries have a web form to help you contact your members of Congress on this issue.)

I urge you to speak up for the protection of all of God's creation. Be bold in naming the crisis of extinction. Be clear in speaking of the practical and theological value of all species. Be persistent in demanding vigorous action to protect endangered species.

God's life-giving spirit is poured out on all flesh. May we insist on real protection for all those creatures that God has so blessed.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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