St Francis, Ecologist

Saint Francis of Assisi might well have been in the mind of Flannery O’Conner when she wrote, ““You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.” Saint Francis was a bit of an odd duck.

Francis didn’t start out that way. For his time, Francesco started out pretty typical, even privileged. He was a handsome, wealthy, accomplished young man. But something shifted in Francis. He stopped chasing women. He stopped chasing wealth. He stopped chasing glory. He stopped all that chasing.

He heard a call from God, “rebuild my church.” Francis took the call literally. I forget who said it, but I once heard a theologian remark that there are all these people today that call themselves “biblical literalists.” The theologian said, across history the only “biblical literalist” I can think of is Francis. He took God’s word literally and started caring for the poor. Francis also took his call literally and started physically rebuilding a little chapel.

As much as he was re-building the building, Francis started remaking his perspective. As I mentioned, he stopped all that chasing. Francis spent time in prayer. Francis spent time with lepers and outcasts. Makes you think about what it means to be a Christian literalist. And Francis started talking in some strange ways.

Holy Communion has this St. Francis window in the door to our chapel. I confess, the figure of Francis himself isn’t my favorite style. It looks like a scene right out of that very early 1970s movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” If I had my way, I’d remake the window with a bit more staid looking saint, but I love the window because the sun and the moon and the ladybugs and the spiders and pandas and sea creatures all swirl around Francis. Francis talked about “brother sun” and “sister moon.” He also spoke this way about brother bear, sister wolf. He talked about creation as part of his family.

Long before we had the word for it, Francis was an ecologist. Francis saw that all of life is “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Those words are Dr. King’s, about racial discrimination in Alabama, but they are words Francis might have used to describe his reality in 12th century Italy. We are all bound together. We can’t just think as individuals, about what is best for me. Our collective survival depends on learning to think ecologically.

If you’ll permit me, I want to play with this idea of ecology and faith a bit more. I think part of the problem of the so called “literalist” or “fundamentalist” theology we’ve inherited in recent centuries of Christianity is that it, like so much in our culture, is overly individualistic. In this sort of faith I worry about MY salvation. I worry about my individual sin.

In this case sin seems very small. Sin is down to whether I curse too much or what my sex life looks like. Sin is really about whether I violate certain cultural taboos. When Jesus talked about sin, he usually talked more ecologically. Jesus talked about religious authorities who used their power to oppress. Jesus invited the rich young rulers to give up their wealth and share with the poor. Jesus thinks about sin, usually, more systemically. Jesus thinks about ways we buy in to cultural norms that hurt whole groups of people.

Dr. King spoke this way as well. If we think racism is a personal problem, if it is about the way I speak about people of a different race, if it is primarily an individual issue, then the way to address racism is about teaching folks to be nice. If we think about racism ecologically, we look at the ways whole populations are suffering. We ask why, as Forward through Ferguson reported this week:

there is a roughly $2,000 difference in spending on individual students between majority Black and majority-white school districts; teachers in Black districts make, on average, more than $6,000 less than their counterparts in white districts; property in Black neighborhoods is worth half that of white neighborhoods; and white households report a median income $30,000 greater than Black ones.

Forward Through Ferguson Report. Story here:

Asking about racism in the system is to ask an ecological question, it is to say what are the relationships that aren’t working. What are the relationships between school systems, health systems, employment systems, wealth systems, prison systems.

Growing up where I did, I tended to think of ecology as a branch of science for rich white hippies. Ecology, I thought, is what you spend your time on, if you have the wealth to buy a big piece of land, build a LEED certified house, buy an expensive electric car. But that way of looking an environmentalism leans into the individualistic way of thinking. I think about my personal carbon footprint, and try to make my consumption smaller.

Ecologists tell us, even if we all drove Teslas, we wouldn’t make a huge dent in the carbon emissions. When we were all working from home, it didn’t drastically cut back on the global carbon emissions. There was a dip, sure, but it wasn’t enough to meet our targets to reduce climate change. If we are going to survive, we have to start thinking systemically. We have to look at ways that whole industries, the oil and gas industry, the factory farm industry, have amassed huge profits but haven’t invested enough in new ways of producing energy and food, ways that are less harmful for our planet.

If this virus has done anything positive, and frankly, that if is a big one for me. But if it has done anything positive, perhaps it has helped more of us to think systemically. We thinking about the ways our food system is stressed. We are thinking about the ways our healthcare system is stressed. We are thinking about the ways our behavior affects not only our health, but the health of our neighbors. Could we extend that thinking? Could we ask how our collective decisions are affecting the health of whole ecosystems?

We tend to think of St. Francis as that odd guy whose feast means we get to bring our animals to church for a blessing. But I wonder whether Francis’ call is still valid. Could we re-build the church? Could church be the place where we come to think systemically? Could our faith invite us to see those dogs, cats, fish, and lizards in our homes as a sign of the love God has not just for US but for all creation? Could we lighten the yoke, lighten the burden we are placing on the planet?

God has long depended on the odd. In an individualistic consumeristic culture, asking systemic questions, asking ecological questions, it is odd. But God depends on the odd. This St. Francis Day may God bless us with the burden of being a little odd. May God bless us that we might be a blessing to the world around us, and seek to lighten our collective load on the planet.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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