Religion, Justice, and the Air we Breathe

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by April Thanhauser “Praised be you, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through who you give sustenance to your creatures”—hymn of St. Francis of Assisi

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In the winter of 2014 I was in India for a celebration in honor of the Sufi Master who had founded the spiritual tradition which has shaped much of my adult life. His teachings, which I had received through his son and successor, included many sacred practices with breath. These came from ancient wisdom traditions passed down through long lineages of holy men and women. Here I was in Mother India, home of Yoga and Pranayama, but stepping out my hotel door in Delhi, I felt I could barely breathe. If you have an I-phone, and you check the weather in Delhi, it may actually read “Smoke.” When I lived near LA in the 70’s I’d grown used to calling this kind of air “smog”, which reminded me of the dragon in the Hobbit. Delhi’s air was worse than that dragon breath, rivaling, I heard, the air in Beijing.

It’s not that people in modern India are less holy or value less the preciousness of life-giving air. Rather, what I was experiencing was a symptom of what Pope Francis has recently and powerfully pointed out—the injustice of climate change. Put simply, the populations who suffer most from pollution and global climate change (mostly in the global south), are often those least responsible for creating it. The wealthy (mostly in the Global North) get commodities manufactured Elsewhere, lots of fuel for priviledged life-styles, lots of money—and the poor get pollution.

How this happens internally in the USA is laid out cogently in a recent speech by Robert Kennedy Junior to the WaterKeepers Alliance (read a full report at www.ecowatch.com/2015/09/10robert-kennedy-jr-koch-brothers/)

As reported by Stephanie Spear of Ecowatch, he explained that “'Polluters…assault soft targets first—and that means the poor.’ He recounted how the majority of toxic industrial sites are in lower income communities where residents lack political power.”

Globally, the same principles apply; the disenfranchised and impoverished suffer way disproportionately.

Pope Francis, champion of the poor, has a lot to say on this injustice. In his famous, audacious encyclical, Laudato Si, he speaks extensively on climate change:

The following quotes are from the encyclical as found at: www.cruxnow.comchhurch/2015/06/18/read-the-encyclical-for-yourself-laudato-si

' Climate Change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of he poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves...They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters…water pollution particularly affects the poor who cannot buy bottled water; and rises in the sea level mainly affect impoverished coastal populations who have nowhere else to go. ..'

'The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life.'

'Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming..'

'We take (eco) systems into account not only to determine how best to use them, but also because they have an intrinsic value independent of their usefulness. Each organism, as a creature of God, is good and admirable in itself'.

Catholic religious leaders are not alone in speaking out. Recently, a group of top Islamic Academics drafted an “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change” (www.islamicclimatechangedeclaration.org )

“Our species, though selected to be a caretaker or steward (khalifa) on the earth, has been the cause of such corruption and devastation on it that we are in danger of ending life as we know it on our planet.

This current rate of climate change cannot be sustained,land the earth’s fine equiibrium (mizan) may soon be lost. As we humans are woven into the fabric of the natural world, its gifts are for us to savor. But the same fossil fuels that helped us achieve most of the prosperity we see today are the main cause of climate change. Excessive pollution from fossil fuels threatens to destroy the gifts bestowed on us by God, whom we know as Allah-gifts such as a functioning climate, healthy air to breathe and living oceans. ..

Risks [from climate change] are unevenly distributed, and are generally greater for the poor and disadvantaged…

An urgent and radical reappraisal is called for.

'He raised the heaven and established the balance

So that you would not transgress the balance.

Give just weight—do not skimp in the balance.

He laid out the earth for all living creatures.” Qur’an 55; 7-10'"

As I write, we’re entering the zodiacal sign of Libra, the Air sign whose symbol is the scales—like

Justice card from Rider-Waite Tarot
Justice card from Rider-Waite Tarot

the symbol of Justice. I’m sensing a calling for balance, in all our thoughts and actions, and a need for continual adjustment in our relationships, so that we can help restore a sacred balance that we as a species have seemed so determined to upset. I know a little school that celebrates seasonal festivals which have both Christian and Pre-Christian roots. For Michaelmas festival (September 29) children fly kites (celebrating Air and balance) and enact the story of the Knight and the Dragon. The symbolism points to this: courage to stand for justice in the face of danger and overwhelming odds. September 29 was also Global Women’s Climate Justice “Day of Action” Like many small knights taking up swords made of posters, phone calls, emails, demonstrations, they faced the Dragon of corporate greed, calling not only for Justice, but for the possibility of Life and Breath. On their website www.wecaninternation.org  you can find many inspirations and suggestions for individual and group actions for restoring justice, and for regaining our collective balance in relation to  Air.

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April Thanhauser has graciously donated a number of items to the O.N.E. Annual Fundraiser including a Weekend Nature Retreat at her place in Martha's Vineyard!