Protecting the Commons
Pentecost 15, Season of Creation: Protecting the Commons
As you know, for the next few weeks we are reflecting on our place in creation and what this means. More correctly then we are realising again where we stand before the creator and Lord of all. What does it mean to be creatures of the most high? Where do we stand – how should we behave in this world where we find ourselves? To lay the groundwork for this series, the topic I have been given for today is “Protecting the Commons”
When I began to reflect on this topic the effects of the COVID lockdowns immediately came to mind. I think we are beginning to become a little stir crazy; desperate for more normal contact with others and with the environment. The real need to get outside and walk around a bit becomes overwhelming sometimes. We get a bit depressed; life takes on shades of grey. It is interesting how a visit from the grandchildren or a friend can perk one up. I suspect we would all agree that, after the past few months, the idea that we are all individuals and that other people and the wider world are fundamentally irrelevant to us is not true. We need them – they are essential.
However we know that the virus is dangerous as it can spread very quickly and overwhelm our medical resources, potentially leading to massive numbers of deaths. In response we are led to our choices to stay in and limit our contacts much as we do not like it. It is the responsible thing to do.
On the other hand we see heartbreaking stories of people trying make a living or keep their businesses afloat who just want things back to be open again. We also see people arguing that being forced into shutdown without their agreement is abrogating their civil rights, especially as they believe they are not likely to suffer more than a dose of flu-like symptoms.
We find in this situation a tension between what seems best for the community as a whole and what is to the immediate advantage of the individual. As we reflect on this we find similar tensions in many other aspects of life: Restrictions to individual freedoms and choices versus risks to the wider community.
This tension has been the central issue in environmental management since at least the 1970’s when an article addressing this issue in conservation was published in the major journal ‘Science’. This article was called: ”The Tragedy of the Commons”.
Basically the article points out that resources or options held in common can be to the longer term nett advantage of the community but to the short term disadvantage of the individual. There the example used was the medieval village common where all the villagers could put their animals to graze. Now if they worked together on this and did not put in too many animals and overgraze it so it deteriorated, they could all use it indefinitely. But if an individual put in lots of stock he would make a bigger profit in the short run but the consequences would be the rest of the village would respond in kind, and in a couple of years the common would be so degraded that nobody could make a living from using it.
I am sure we can all think of examples of this kind of problem. In our own context the obvious examples are the competing claims to the water in the Murray-Darling system, with conflict between farming communities and environmentalists or between upstream States and downstream States. The second obvious example is the issue of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere versus the destruction of the coal and oil industries and the communities dependent on them, or between countries using these resources and those who have no such industries but suffer the consequences of their continued use. Sometimes these situations are tussles between players who are almost equal in power and sometimes they are between players where one side has almost all the power and the other almost none.
These are really just examples of the kind of issues constantly faced at every level by those trying to constructively manage our environments. We should be under no illusion about these matters. There are no easy answers; there are no solutions that mean everyone will get what they want.
What does our Christian faith teach us in these contexts; what does it say that will guide us in our choices?
Firstly, Christianity is a relational faith, not an individualistic faith. We can see that in todays readings: Sirach says: “If one has no mercy towards another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” and Paul says: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.” In the gospel, Jesus’ parable shows us firstly the Master taking pity on the deeply indebted slave, as an individual. The context is just this individual and his situation. But shortly thereafter in response to the outrage of others of his staff, he revises his decision in the light of the wider issue of the slave’s appalling behaviour towards his fellow slave. The balance between the context of just the individual and the context of the wider community is clear. This choice, and all choices we make, are not made in a vacuum, there are both individual and community dimensions and consequences in almost every decision we make. Who we are and how we are to act is relational. As we treat others, so we shall be judged as Paul reminds us.
These examples are really all out-workings of the second great commandment aren’t they?. The moral demand is: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The answer comes back, who is my neighbour?
This has always been a complex question but with the increased size of the human population, our increasing understanding of the issues and the massive power to transform the world that we now have, the question is even more serious, more immediate, more of a moral challenge, than in the past.
So what does our faith have to say in response to the question of who is my neighbour in the common that is our world?
In Genesis we see, in parable form, the insights of a deeply religious and insightful community as they reflected on their world and how they should relate to it.
They recognise that the fundamentally relational basis for human behaviour is summed up beautifully in Genesis 2:15 where we read: “The Lord God took the human creature and placed him in the Garden of Eden to till it and to tend it.” The Hebrew word translated here as ‘till’ and ‘tend’ – what connotations would these words have had to Hebrew readers? ‘Till’ is translated elsewhere as ‘serve” or “protect, ‘Tend’ is translated elsewhere as ‘keep’ or ‘look after’: So in modern terms, the passage could more clearly be translated as: “The Lord God took humankind and placed them in the world to protect and to look after it.’ Our relationship to all of creation is a relational one. Could we see the way we presently treat the earth, its human and non-human creatures, its ecologies and human community structures as constructive relational interactions? As morally sound responses to the demand for us to protect and look after all creation?
This moral imperative is further spelled out in the New Testament where Paul, in Colossians 1:15-20 writes. ‘Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things …’ God’s salvation is not just for humans but is cosmic in scope. All creation needs it and all creation is to be reconciled, not just humanity. As followers of Christ then we are called to follow his example of obedience and sacrifice, using as a basis what we are taught in scripture, by science and through all human understanding. As God’s stewards of the earth, we are to work to reconcile all things; we are to work to cherish and to look after the earth.
Now as individuals and as a community we are faced with many challenges in the way we protect and use the commons of our world. How should the water of the Murray-Darling be used? How should our electricity supply be produced and who should pay for it? How should we care for the business community during this time of COVID shutdowns? And, closer to home: As a parish, how should we distribute our time and money between enhancing the life of our congregations and caring for the surrounding community in which we live?
These are all hard questions but they are not ones we can leave to others – the tragedy of the commons occurs when people do exactly that.
As responsible stewards of our Lord and Creator, we are to cherish creation, one another and ourselves. Paul sums this up for all Christians: “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own Lord that they stand or fall.” Though he does not say it, by implication, it is before our own Lord that the stewardship of each of us will ultimately be judged.