Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp comments on the Pope’s Encyclical

SoetendorpTaking in the extraordinary message of the Pope word by word I am reminded of two seemingly contradictory commentaries on how the Jewish People received the Ten Commandments. In the first, the wandering tribe of Jews expressed their willingness to receive and implement them out of free choice. In the other commentary, the Jewish people refused to accept them, as had all other peoples, because they were too demanding. G-d brought the Jewish people to Mount Sinai. He then lifted the mountain above their heads and declared, “When you choose to accept the commandments you will live. If you don’t accept them I will drop the mountain on you and this will be your grave.” Pope Francis points to the overwhelming scientific evidence, coupled with our own local and global experiences, that we, by our own wrong and egocentric choices, have lifted the mountain of waste and neglect above our own heads.

Yes, this can become our grave. But, thank G-d, we still have the choice of preserving our Mother Earth, our home with all its sublime beauty. All we have to do is to recognize our inner knowledge that, as the Earth Charter states in the first paragraph of the Preamble, “…we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.”

However, according to Pope Francis, destiny is not only a lofty ideal but a concrete plan of action. In it we should put the poor, the neglected into the center of our concern, the ones who would suffer most when their more affluent brothers and sisters persist in pursuing their isolated self-interests. Part of the solution suggested is that we must value being more over having more.

Everyone and everything is interconnected. This principle of interconnectedness forms the core of the Earth Charter. The Encyclical urges us to heed the wisdom and the warnings of indigenous peoples. I remember well the cri de coeur of our beloved mother of the Maoris, Pauline Tangiora, who stood up during the last session of the Earth Charter consultations in Paris in the year 2,000. She related that all our efforts would be useless if we did not understand the meaning of the tribe, the natural feeling of belonging and responsibility. When we do not relate in peace and compassionate harmony to nature we will not relate in love and responsibility towards each other as humans. And when we don’t relate in love and responsibility towards each other as humans we will not be able to relate with peace and compassionate harmony towards nature.

In a paradoxical way climate change appears to me as a blessing in disguise. The imminent threat to our common existence will bring us together by necessity, and cooperation is the key. My father Jacob, of blessed memory, wrote from his hiding place during the Second World War to a boy hidden in a chicken farm, “Be always aware G-d created the human to perfect creation in the way he wanted it to be, a world filled with cooperation, love, and righteousness.” To me the words of the pope reflect this meaning and point to the hopeful quiet revolution that is taking place. More and more leaders, from different spiritual traditions and including humanism, realize that we desperately need each other to fulfil our common goal.

Thus, Pope Francis is our common brother and teacher. His call to love our Mother Earth and all living beings resonates with all of us. It gives the urgent appeals from other spiritual traditions and interfaith manifestos of recent years higher visibility. Out of the margin into the center. He takes us on a hazardous road full of obstacles from negation and paralyzing fear towards the indomitable energy of hope.

Fifteen years ago we gave expression to our existential notion that we stood at a critical time in Earth history, a time when humanity must choose its future. These were not wasted years. On the contrary an ever stronger alliance of prophetic pioneering global citizens and the growing political will of governments brought about the never-expected success of the Millennium Development Goals. The record shows that humanity has averted moral bankruptcy. Yes, it is only a beginning, and we have to harness much more will and readiness to put ourselves in the position of the other. The Encyclical letter opens our eyes and our hearts to the overwhelming tasks ahead.

The Sustainable Development Goals, which the world community is asked to reach, are aimed at eradicating shameful poverty within fifteen years. This will only be possible when a responsible climate agreement is signed in Paris and implemented in the same fifteen years. The failure of negotiations in Johannesburg and Copenhagen is not the full story. Under the surface the soft powers gained momentum. The hundreds of thousands who marched in unison to achieve change in the streets of New York in September last year were the impressive avant garde of a growing massive protest. And the decision of the court in the Netherlands in favor of Urgenta, opens a new legal avenue to force governments to truly protect their citizens regardless of borders.

The Encyclical letter will have a crucial influence on the negotiations in Paris provided we all, and in particular spiritual traditions, support it fully and massively. It is my personal opinion, corroborated by many spiritual leaders in recent years, that an extra effort is required from each and every one of us. All our spiritual traditions require us to donate a part of our wealth to care for those less fortunate. In this spirit, an extra share of at least 0.1 percent to help alleviate abject poverty and sustain the earth would be in order.

It is moving for us who are part of the Earth Charter community that Pope Francis chose to quote the last paragraph of the Charter. We are each only a small instrument, each offering dedication and purpose beyond self-interest, so we repeat our collective hope and promise to the next generations. “Let ours be remembered a time remembered for the awakening of  a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace and the joyful celebration of life.”

And together with Pope Francis our mentor, I pray to G-d:

…Pour out upon us the power of your love
That we may protect life and beauty
Fill us with peace that we may live
As brothers and sisters harming no one.

Awraham Soetendorp