"Harming the Environment Is Sinful"
Theology: Declaration by Bartholomew I, Orthodox Christian leader, is believed to be a first by a major religious figure.
By Larry B. Stammer
The remarks of the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians were believed to be the first time that a major international religious leader has explicitly linked environmental problems with sinful behavior.
"To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin," Bartholomew told a symposium on religion, science and the environment that drew an estimated 800 participants at St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church here. "For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands . . . for humans to contaminate the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances--these are sins."
Bartholomew heads the mother church of Orthodox Christianity, the See of Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, Turkey. His jurisdiction includes the Greek Orthodox churches in Canada, the United States and South America, as well as in Turkey, Australia and Asia. He is also considered to be the "first among equals" of the nine Orthodox patriarchs, each with his own self-governing church, because Bartholomew's church was founded in AD 36 by St. Andrew the Apostle.
Bartholomew's declaration, made on the second day of a three-day swing through Southern California during a monthlong visit to the United States, was viewed as a significant development in the awakening of organized religion to the despoilment of the natural order.
Until relatively recently, organized religion has left environmental protection to environmental activists, concerned scientists and political figures. Likewise, environmentalists have either ignored religion, or complained that churches and synagogues have been merely lukewarm on environmental causes while concentrating most of their energies on hot-button issues involving abortion rights, religious discrimination, racism, economic justice and human sexuality. Recently, for example, state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) told a meeting of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Tucson that while organized religion decries genocide, infanticide and homicide, it has failed to speak out against "biocide--the killing of the planet."
Bartholomew's statement here Saturday was viewed as a watershed event by several participants who are not Orthodox Christians, including Paul Gorman, who has closely watched developments involving religion and the environment. "That litany of environmental degradation under the rubric of sin was the first time a significant religious leader has so explicitly designated crimes against creation as sin," said Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. The partnership, based in New York, includes all major old-line and evangelical Protestant churches, Jewish denominations and Roman Catholics.
Gorman said Bartholomew's declaration points to "a whole new level of theological inquiry into the cause, and depth and dimension of human responsibility by lifting up that word--sin."
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who also spoke at the symposium, told the audience that Bartholomew's pronouncement will be seen in the future as "one of the great, seminal important religious statements of our time." It also points to a developing new alliance between environmental activists and religion. Indeed, among those present here was Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
Pope, in remarks delivered Friday night, said environmentalists had made a "profound error" in failing to understand the mission of religion in preserving creation. That failure, he said, was all the more obvious considering the fact that believers of all faiths have historically been active in sweeping political causes, from the civil rights movement to opposing the war in Vietnam. "Yet for almost 30 years we stubbornly, proudly, rejected what we knew," Pope said. "We ignored the fact that when Americans wish to express a sense of a community that is wiser and better than they are as individuals, they gather to pray." He said the environmental movement would no longer ignore the power of religion to make a difference.
The patriarch's undiluted criticism of environmental destruction and elevation of it to a grave moral failing was another of the increasingly strong signals that a broad span of organized religions is awakening to a crisis.
To be sure, other religious figures and institutions have spoken out in defense of what many term "caring for creation." In 1971, the Anglican Church declared that environmental abuse was "blasphemy." In December 1989, Pope John Paul II argued that answers to environmental destruction cannot rely solely on better management or a more rational use of the Earth's resources. The environmental crisis, he said, is a symptom of a deeper moral crisis. "The dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness--both individual and collective--are contrary to the order of creation, an order which is characterized by mutual interdependence," the pontiff wrote in a paper titled "The Ecological Crisis: A Common Responsibility." He added, "Modern society will find no solution to the ecological problem unless it takes a serious look at its lifestyle."
Bartholomew, who has come to be known as the "green patriarch," has been especially outspoken on the issue. He has sponsored symposiums on pollution in the Black Sea, which borders a half-dozen countries in which Orthodox churches are active, and has designated the first day of September each year for an annual message on protecting creation. But while the theological basis for Saturday's declaration has been consistently voiced by Bartholomew, until now he has hesitated to go so far as to call environmental destruction a sin. As recently as his Black Sea symposium two months ago, he stopped short by calling it a "spiritual and moral issue" even though other Orthodox clerics did name it as sinful.
Bartholomew said Saturday that responsibility toward creation requires voluntary restraint. "Excessive consumption may be understood from a world view of estrangement from self, from land, from life and from God," he said. "Consuming the fruits of the Earth unrestrained, we become consumed ourselves by avarice and greed. Excessive consumption leaves us emptied, out of touch with our deepest self." "We are of the deeply held belief that many human beings have come to behave as materialistic tyrants. Those that tyrannize the Earth are themselves, sadly, tyrannized," the prelate said. "If human beings treated one another's personal property the way they treat their environment, we would view that behavior as antisocial."
Bartholomew took note of the growing public debate over climate change just weeks before a major international conference in Kyoto, Japan, to fashion a treaty to reduce emissions of pollutants that contribute to alterations in the climate. "Many are arguing that someone else should address the problem, or that they should not have to take action unless everyone else does," Bartholomew said. "This self-centered behavior is a symptom of our alienation from one another and from the context of our common existence."