By Fr. Bud Grant
A year that began with the last and greatest hope for international cooperation to address the most serious threat to life on the planet ends, tragically, with that hope unraveling. The President-elect sends countless signals of his intentions to disregard and dismantle or otherwise dismiss the Paris Accord, the EPA, and the heritage of natural areas that constitute the crown jewels of our democracy. I realize that this rather breathless paragraph is replete with superlatives but not, sadly, hyperbole.
It is almost inevitable that an environmentalist should be pessimistic. Aldo Leopold said that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Even given the historical sense of threat that has nearly always loomed over the disciplines of ecology and environmentalism (they being born out of the recognition that things in the natural world had begun to go badly awry), this is a particularly dark time.
The mainstreaming of nationalism, xenophobic and racist demagoguery, and unbridled selfish individualism all have consequences on our ability — shoot, our very motives — to come together for the common good. Pope Francis expresses his concerns with passion and poetry: “We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensue are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment” (“Laudato Si,” No. 229).
The phrase that lodges in my head like a burr is that “being good and decent are worth it.” Being decent. That would go far toward regaining our footing on environmental remediation. We do not lack science, data, technology or ethical and religious arguments. We need civil decency, a sense that life is not a game of grabbing as much as one can. Caustic, vulgar, insensitive, deceitful, and harmful attitudes toward women, non-citizens, public servants (not, I stubbornly insist, an oxymoron), and even the commons of our earth, are unacceptable. A society that tolerates “Lock up the B***” T-shirts is not a society that will care for Mother Earth. Decency would bring us together. Decency would be the nursery of hope.
Hope, in the secular order, means the desire to avoid the worst or achieve the best, even against the odds (and, often, with little effort on our part). Christian hope, however, is entirely different. It is the conviction that should the worst thing that could happen actually happen, it will not prevail. Hope is not that death will be avoided, but that there will be resurrection. Christian hope is as intimate as a poor child sleeping in a feed trough while worldly powers are set on tracking him down. Christian hope is the fragile incarnation of Christ in this weary world. Christian hope is also, necessarily, activist. We are God’s hands in and for this world; we are God’s compassion, God’s sacrifice, God’s love.
Christmas is a gift and, of course, it is a responsibility. In a period awash in indecency, Christian hope proves itself in concern for the marginalized, afflicted, persecuted, the victim and creation. Christian hope rejoices even in the darkness because it does not fear, because it is empowered, because it is Emmanuel: God With Us.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)