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  • Writer's pictureChris Daniels

Indigenous Wisdom and Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter on Care For Our Common Home

In June of 2015, Pope Francis issued an Encyclical Letter commenting on the state of the worlds environment and putting out a moral call-to-action to save humanity and the planet from ecological disaster. Because this was shortly after the international conference "Seizing an Alternative: Toward an Ecological Civilization" organized by Dr. John Cobb Jr. and the Center for Process Studies, in which I had hosted the Indigenous Wisdom track, Dr. Cobb honoured me by asking whether I would contribute to an edited book responding to the letter. I enthusiastically agreed and an excerpt from the book is below. Whatever your stance is toward the church and the recent controversies highlighting its historic moral shortcomings, especially, but not only, toward Indigenous peoples, I believe this encyclical is still a must-read for those interested in the future protection of the planet. It shows remarkable depth of knowledge of the issues and understanding of those most effected by them. In spite of my own position on the Church's actions, which this is not a forum for, I stand by my response below.

From For Our Common Home: Process-Relational Responses to Laudato Si',edited by John Cobb Jr. and Ignacio Castuera, Anoka, MN: Process Century Press, 2015.

When I first heard that Pope Francis was issuing an encyclical on the environment and ecology I was hopeful and excited that such an influential person was taking a public stand on arguably one of the most important, and certainly the most critical, issues humanity and the world has ever faced. When content of his letter was leaked just prior to the official release I was even more hopeful, both by the content I was able to access, and the obvious compassion and commitment it portrayed. But it wasn’t until I read the full document that the scope of his knowledge, understanding, and compassion, was revealed. At that point I came to believe that this letter in its entirety is a “must read” for anyone concerned with environmental issues, whether Christian or not. The sheer breadth of his knowledge and understanding of the moral, social, economic, political, religious, and scientific issues enables him to drive home a message on the urgency of action if humanity and the world are going to survive this crisis.

In as much as this encyclical can be read as a comprehensive way of gaining information on the breadth of issues involved, it is ultimately, and rightly, a call to moral action. It is a prescription on the ethical responsibility we, as human beings, have toward all aspects of the environment, and how we have to change our perspective in order to survive. We cannot continue to believe that the mere application of more technology will solve the problems it started in the first place (60).[1] Expecting these problems to disappear by simply expanding the materialistic and mechanistic practices and methodologies that led to the current crisis will not get us out of it. We need to move away from an amoral paradigm of unchecked consumerism and technological advancement based solely on personal and corporate profit that does not take into account the ethical responsibility we have to all worldly creatures, including humans, as well as all of creation, and ultimately the divine.

In this document Pope Francis also acknowledges the values and community awareness that he feels are vital in moving forward toward a solution; those which the world’s Indigenous cultures exemplify to this day in spite of the violence and oppression they have suffered. He recognizes how local individuals and groups, including aboriginal communities, have a “greater sense of responsibility, a strong sense of community, a readiness to protect others, a spirit of creativity and a deep love for the land (179).” They are also, he says, “concerned about what they will eventually leave to their children and grandchildren.” These characteristics are sadly lacking in those that seek to exploit the world’s natural resources for personal and corporate profit, but are “deeply rooted in indigenous peoples.” Pope Francis stresses that aboriginal communities should be the principle dialogue partners when mainstream society’s activities impact the environment:

They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principle dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity, but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. (146)

These words illustrate the Pope’s understanding of indigenous peoples’ deep connection and relationship to land, and how that connection, and the sacred ceremonies that accompany and maintain it, are vital to their identity creation, both personally and communally. They certainly have proven, over tens of thousands of years, that when left to their own devices they care for the land best, and we have much to learn from their wisdom.

So, in spite of Christianity’s past historical record that includes its active participation in the destruction of indigenous cultures, languages, communities, and both personal and communal identity, as well as the unchecked exploitation of the natural world, Pope Francis, through this letter, envisions moving forward in a way that recognizes the many misinterpretations of biblical teachings that in the past have justified destructive hegemonic attitudes of dominion (66-67). He promotes a vision of the world, God, and the best path forward toward an ecological civilization, that I believe parallels the Indigenous worldview and wisdom that the church previously sought to eradicate. As cynical and hypocritical as that might sound, I find it profoundly hopeful and inspirational.

The balance of this short response, which I hope to expand on in the future, will concentrate on a few of these parallels and how adopting such wisdom may help mitigate the severe consequences of our previous actions that we must now deal with. Not being Indigenous or aboriginal myself I do not presume that I can speak for, or speak from an Indigenous perspective, but I can point out what I believe are similarities to what aboriginal scholars, elders, and leaders have identified as their ways of knowing and understanding the world, and the divine. These similarities, explicitly stated by Pope Francis, include: 1) That everything is related and interrelated, and that these relationships constitute reality as an integral whole including ourselves, the natural world, and the divine; 2) The “common good” includes and extends to future generations; 3) If we truly understand and feel these first two truths it will deeply affect our choices and determine our behaviour; 4) We have lost what it means to be “human” in relationship with the natural world and must reconnect with the land to rekindle those relationships; 5) Because everything is related there is reciprocal responsibility to all aspects of creation; 6) Everything in creation has intrinsic value in and of itself, regardless of whatever instrumental value it may or may not have; 7) That an “ecological approach becomes a social approach” thereby requiring adequate responses to instances of social injustice that take into account both “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”; and 8) that the divine mystery (God) is present in all aspects of creation, as all creation is present in it, and is therefore deserving of love, respect and reverence for its own sake.

Pope Francis quotes a number of previous popes and patriarchs when establishing his position that humans, the natural world, and God are intrinsically interwoven, including Pope Benedict who stated that “the world cannot be analyzed by isolating only one of its aspects since the book of nature is one and indivisible (6),” and Patriarch Bartholomew who said “it is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet (9).” Throughout the letter Francis reiterates this fundamental understanding with such comments as “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another (42),” “Creatures exist only in dependence of each other to complete each other, in the service of each other (86),” and “our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God (119).” However, his most passionate and poetic comments are when he is referring to the writings of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, who speaks of the natural world in kinship terms and “would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ and ‘sister’(11),” such as “Brother Sun,” “Sister Moon,” “Brother Wind,” and “Sister Water.” This appears to be how the Pope is suggesting we fundamentally conceive of our relationship with God and the world.

As far as aboriginal scholars and leaders, such as E. Richard Atleo, Shawn Wilson, Black Elk, Vine Deloria Jr., and Cree Elder Pauline (Fishwoman) Johnson are concerned this relational way of understanding the world and the divine is primordially foundational to all other aspects of Indigenous belief and practice. Atleo speaks of tsawalk, or the oneness of all creation (Atleo, Tsawalk); Wilson states that we are the relationships that we hold and are part of (Wilson 80); Lakota Elder Black Elk says “The chief proposition of the universe is relationality (Atleo, Tsawalk 30);” Vine Deloria Jr. says a central tenet of Native worldviews is that: “everything in the natural world has relationships with every other thing and the total set of relationships makes up the natural world as we experience it (Deloria Jr 34)”, and Fishwoman says “We are human beings on this planet and we are the two legged, but everything out there—we acknowledge that they are part of us, part of our life, part of who we are, and we are part of them (Daniels 120).”

From statements such as these I would argue that a relational way of understanding reality forms the basis of most, if not all, Indigenous worldviews; a perspective that permeates beliefs, practices, and identity creation. Therefore, as it was for St. Francis of Assisi, all of creation is thought of in kinship terms because we truly are related. Pope Francis points out throughout his letter that because of such relatedness we have a responsibility to all creation in the same way we do for family and “if we feel intimately united to all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously (11).” This responsibility, as pointed out earlier, also extends into future generations and what is to be left as a legacy. These sentiments go to the heart of what North American First Nations’ mean when they say “We are all Related,” and that no decisions can be made without taking into account “the seven generations that come before and the seven generations that come after.” If we were to truly understand and embody this wisdom it would not only change our decisions, but the whole decision making process. As the pope says “Such a conviction [of relatedness] cannot be written off as naïve romanticism, for it affects the choices which govern our behaviour (11).”

This perspective of interconnectedness and relational responsibility extrapolates to all the other points made earlier. Once the world is understood as constituted by relationships, which includes the divine, it follows that everything in creation has intrinsic moral value, not just the instrumental value that past biblical interpretations came to conclude, which is much of the basis for the exploitation of natural resources with a disregard for any sense of moral responsibility. The pope states “It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves (33).” Because of this universal intrinsic value everything in creation is owed respect and moral consideration. It also becomes obvious that social justice for one must be social justice for all. A truly ecological approach has to include justice for humans as well as the environment. We cannot think in terms of saving one aspect of creation, such as endangered species or environmental habitats, without also considering those humans who have been most oppressed and taken advantage of. Often, because those same people are also those living closest to the land, such considerations are one and the same. Recognition and reconciliation for what has been done in the past, and is still being done today to our most vulnerable communities, particularly our aboriginal peoples, cannot be separated from questions of environmental justice and responsibility in an interconnected world. Francis says:

Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbour, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth. When all these relationships are neglected, when justice no longer dwells in the land, the Bible tells us that life itself is endangered….These ancient stories, full of symbolism, bear witness to a conviction which we today share, that everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice, and faithfulness to others. (70)

In a world constituted by relationships that includes the divine, such as is understood in most, if not all Indigenous cultures, the great mystery is typically understood panentheistically; a view in which God is in the world and the world is in God, thus forming an intrinsic point of interconnection and relatedness that imbues sacredness and value to all things. For me, this vision of God is one of the boldest and most courageous religious positions Pope Francis takes in this document. He clearly states that God can be found as an integral aspect of creation, rather than the ontological separateness of creation and Creator that is so often found in Western religious thought; that “soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God (84).” And more clearly:

The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dew drop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things. (233)

With the divine included in such relational thinking, religious imperatives and moral responsibilities coincide. One’s ethical responsibility to creation, including other human beings, is interlinked with one’s religious obligations to the divine. Actions toward one, constitutes actions toward the other. Sins against one are sins against the other. All decisions and actions, no matter how large or small, affect all others. Francis says “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us (3)” and “Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God (119).”

As I stated earlier and is clearly illustrated by such comments, there is no doubt that this encyclical is a call for moral action. It is a plea to put a sense of ethical responsibility toward all of creation back into our decision making process in all aspects of human social life, whether economic, political, technological, religious, or personal. This recognition of shared responsibility and connectedness can manifest in something as small as taking seriously a personal commitment to recycle and reuse whenever possible and much needed water conservation, or something as large as corporate responsibility toward the environment and its inhabitants, both human and non-human.

With such strong parallels between the position he is taking and the Indigenous perspective, it seems clear to me that Pope Francis, however unknowingly, is calling for what Okanagan scholar Jeannette Armstrong has termed the “re-Indigenization” of humanity and I have elsewhere called “becoming Indigenous.” In this context “indigeneity” is understood as a social rather than racial or political paradigm in that it is a way of living, respecting, and connecting with the land, and through the land, the rest of creation and the divine. It is also an acknowledgement that indigeneity in that sense is something shared by all people’s ancestors and can therefore be rekindled by all of us. It is a way of understanding the world as constituted by relationships that must be respected and maintained in order to remember what it means to be authentically human. It is also a reminder that bringing a sense of moral responsibility toward all aspects of creation, both present and future, into the decision making process may be our only hope of surviving the crisis we have created. What I am suggesting is that any move toward an ecological civilization based on the alternative perspectives and moral actions suggested by the Pope can be considered a step toward becoming more Indigenous.

This is the wisdom our indigenous peoples have been telling us for hundreds of years, and that our own indigenous ancestors knew and lived by. We just haven’t been listening carefully enough or taking it seriously. Hopefully, now, with someone like Pope Francis bringing it to our attention, we may begin to.

[1] I will be using the paragraph numbers for easy reference to the encyclical.

Other Sources

Atleo, E. Richard. Tsawalk. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. Print.

---. Tsawalk. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. Print.

Daniels, Jaki. The Medicine Path: A Return to the Healing Ways of Our Indigenous Ancestors. Calgary: Hearthlight Publishing, 2014. Print.

Deloria Jr, Vine. Spirit and Reason. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1999. Print.

Wilson, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2008. Print.


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