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Interreligious Dialogue and Collaboration in Promoting Ecological Peace for Indigenous Peoples in Asia



Fr. Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

The Problem

The project of development is hungry for resources of water, minerals, wood, land.  Resources in areas where some development has already taken place and where people have settled down have already been used and, perhaps, destroyed.  Looking for new sources the developers cast their eyes on virgin forests and mountains which happen to be the living spaces of indigenous peoples. So every effort is made to chase them away and take over their lands.  Some of them are tempted to work in the industries that have displaced them.  The indigenous peoples who are so displaced are not properly compensated either.  No serious effort is made to resettle them properly.  Indigenous people are accustomed to the live in harmony with nature, without over exploiting it.  They protect it and guard it.  By their exploitation the developers destroy not only nature, but also the way of life of the indigenous peoples.  When trees are cut down and water sources are polluted the lives of the people are affected with artificial scarity and disease.  This process is not something new. It was happening during the colonial period. But then the earth was still rich enough to accommodate the rapaciousness of the colonialists.  The people were often forced to collaborate with the colonialists.

With increasing consumeristic demand and exploitation of resources, we have now reached a stage where the whole eco-system of the earth itself is in jeopardy. Resources like water and the minerals are getting scarce.  The atmosphere is polluted causing all kinds of diseases.  The earth itself is warming up. The monsoons are irregular, if they don’t fail altogether.  The earth seems to be becoming more and more inhabitable.  This situation of the earth affects, not only the poor and the indigenous people, but everyone.  So everyone is becoming aware of the ecological crisis.  But the rich people who are in power are worried only about the availability of resources for their consumption and their quality of life. They are not bothered about the problems of the poor indigenous people. They try to pass on the miseries of a destroyed creation to the poor indigenous people and seek to live in protected ecological enclaves. The richer groups do not hesitate to go to war in pursuit of a free and assured access to the needed resources.

In this situation we are faced with two sorts of issues.  In general, we have to try to make the earth a better place to live in for all peoples having an equal share in its resources.  Secondly, the culture and way of life and the rights of indigenous people, even if they happen to occupy resource-rich areas of the earth, have to be protected.  We need to take action at various levels. We have to rein in galloping consumerism.  We need to promote sustainable development.  We should protect equality and justice in the distribution of natural resources and manufacture goods.  We should try to protect the life-in-harmony-with-nature of the indigenous people while trying to learn from them their way of living in harmony with nature.  While a multi-pronged approach involving economics, politics, science, culture, etc. is required my own focus in this paper is to explore how religions can help in this process of promoting ecological peace and harmony that will benefit everyone, but particularly the indigenous people.

The Role of Christianity

But before I go on to speak about what religions can do to promote ecological peace, I have to clarify and justify my right as a Christian even to talk about this.  People often accuse Christianity of not only being ecologically insensitive but of encouraging people to exploit the earth.  They give two reasons for this.  In the first story of creation in the Bible, it is reported that “God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.’” (Gen 1:28) The Christians who follow the Bible have taken this blessing ‘to subdue the earth’ as a permission, if not a command, to dominate and exploit the earth rather than live in harmony with it. Secondly, in their theology of creation, Christians imagine God who projects the earth outside Godself.  Creation then becomes an independent, autonomous being, which runs on its own natural laws, like a clock that comes out of the hands of clock maker. This dichotomy between God the creator and creation has led to secularization so that religions have no say regarding what happens to creation. Therefore religions cannot talk about issues like ecology.  We can raise a legitimate question whether such a way of looking at creation has its origin in the biblical world view or comes out of the instrumental rationality and the system of causality of the Greeks to which Scholastic theology succumbed in the Middle ages. This was inherited by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and led to scientism and rationalism one the one hand and to an atheistic humanism on the other. So this accusation against Christianity need not detain our exploration about the role of religions in the promotion and defence of ecological peace.

What Can Religions Do?

My first reaction to such a question is that religions normally deal with ultimate questions like unmerited suffering, death and life after it.  But the way we die depends on the way we live.  Ultimate questions also affect life.  Ecological issues are life issues.  Therefore religions can have an influence on the way we live in so far as they influence the way we look at creation, the others and development, because they speak about worldviews and values. The search for an integral human life, justice and equality may seem like secular values. But they conditioned by the goals we pursue. In a secularized world religions may be replaced by quasi-religious ideologies.

Sometimes, people make a difference between the monotheistic-prophetic West Asian religions, namely Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the more mystic religions of East Asia like Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.  The prophetic religions are said to stress God’s transcendence, projecting the world outside God, while the mystic religions speak of God’s immanence.   But the prophetic religions too have their mystics. Saints like Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola found God in all things.  Francis’ Canticle of Creation is well known.  The Sufi mystics in Islam also have a keen sense of God in creation.  It is true, however that the mystic religions of the East speak more easily about God’s immanence and about the interdependence and harmony between God, the humans and the universe.  What we have is a difference in emphasis.

In such a situation how can inter-religious dialogue help ecological peace? When we speak of interreligious dialogue it is customary to evoke four types of dialogue: of life, of common action, of intellectual exchange and of spiritual experience.  But in practice our dialogue is limited to exchange of ideas.  It is better to give dialogue a more secular orientation.  Especially in the secularized atmosphere of today, there may be many non-religious people who are also interested in protecting creation.  So we have to collaborate with everyone who is interested in protecting creation.  But, while our collaboration remains at a secular, interreligious level, nothing stops us from being inspired by our particular religious perspectives for ecological commitment and also from encouraging religious groups to protect creation and live in harmony with it.  It may not be good to make the promotion of ecological peace into a kind of religious movement.  Some seem to make ecology itself into a sort of religion.  But it is better to use the religions as sources of inspiration in the area of vision and values. Let us now look at how the different religions can help us to promote ecological peace.

The Indian Religions

I consider Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as Indian religions. They are not only born in India, but are also interrelated.  Hinduism discourages creationism.  But it looks at creation in various ways. The a-dual approach refuses neither to separate God from the world not to identify them in some way, divinizing the world.  It speaks of God and the world as non-two – advaita. The Absolute alone is.  The world is totally dependent on the Absolute, so that without the Absolute it is nothing.  Therefore the world is, in some way, in God.  In experiencing the world, we experience God on whom it is dependent.  The world has to be treated with respect and not abused.  Other traditions mark the unity-in-difference between God and the world by considering the world as the body of God. God permeates and animates the universe.  While the world is dependent on God, God is not dependent on it.  Still, touching the world, one touches God. God can manifest Godself in a human or other worldly forms (avatar).  The consequence is that the world is not projected outside God, though it is not identified with God.  But God is in the world and the world is in God. This vision inspires in us a certain respect for creation.  An Indian dancer, for instance, will salute the earth, almost asking its excuse, before trampling on it in dance.  Such a sense of respect can persuade people to relate to creation, even while using it.

But at the same time, since the world is not God, a total attachment to God may lead us to renounce creation.  This is what sannyasis or renouncers do. This vision of a world, ultimately destined to be renounced, discourages an attachment and desire for it. While the world is used as a way to discover and experience the Absolute, mere consumerism is discouraged.  The equality of the humans is not affirmed in Hinduism which legitimates the hierarchical caste system. But the caste system is basically a socio-cultural and political system that is legitimized by religion at the social level, though at the spiritual level all are considered equal, though they may be at various stages of human development.  The indigenous people, being outside the hierarchical caste system, may be looked upon patronizingly as poor and undeveloped people, ignoring, of course, the cultural riches which enables them to live in harmony with nature.

Buddhism preaches universal inter-dependence. It denies the ego, except as a net-work of relations. Attachment to an ego, considered as an autonomous entity is discouraged.  Non-attachment to the ego is also shown in the renunciation of desire and hence consumerism.  Buddha follows the middle path, discouraging both renunciation and consumerism.  One uses the riches of creation is so far as they are necessary.  As a matter of fact, renunciation is not of the world, but of the self and of desire, seen as the source of pain and sorrow.  Since life and the world are impermanent, attachment and self-indulgence are discouraged.  Jainism has great respect for all living beings, which includes most of creation, namely the vegetable, bacterial and animal kingdom. Creation is to be used in so far as it is necessary for life, not to be exploited.

The Chinese Religions

Confucianism and Taoism are the Chinese religious tradition.  Confucianism focuses more on human and social relationships and does not speak much about God or creation. But right relationships between the humans would certainly discourage the unjust and avaricious appropriation of the goods of creation, which are seen as the common property of all.  The rights of others which are respected also include their rights to use of the goods of creation according to their needs.  Taoism affirms the dynamic interdependence of everything in the cosmos.  The way (tao) of creation has to be respected.  Therefore the interference into nature of contemporary science will certainly be discouraged by a Taoist perspective.  The humans are part of this cosmos, not above it, or its masters.  So one has to follow the ‘way’ of the universe and live in harmony with creation. Both Confucianism and Taoism do not speak about a transcendent Absolute. Creation is a sort of harmonious whole, moving according to the interplay of the dynamic, active and passive forces of the yin and the yang.  Living in harmony with the Tao – the way of the universe – is more an art than a science.  Life flows like the river.  So it is a vision of the world and of life totally contrary to the view of science which keeps interfering with and manipulating the world.

Christianity and Islam

In Christianity the Bible often evokes cosmic visions that includes the whole of creation.  For instance, foreseeing the end of the world Paul speak of God gathering all things together, things in heaven and things on the earth and reconciling them with God in Jesus Christ.  (cf. Eph 1:3-10; Col 1:15-20)  In the letter to the Romans he indicates that even creation will share in the freedom of the children of God. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Rom 8:20-21) When Christ has gathered all things and offered them to the Father,  God will be ‘all in all’. (cf. 1 Cor 15:28)  John speaks of a new heaven and a new earth in the book of Revelation. (cf. Rev 21:1)

Such cosmic perspectives is picked up by the Saints.  St. Francis of Assisi sings of brother sun and sister moon in his Canticle of Creatures.  He speaks to and tames animals. St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, finds God manifesting God’s love and working in creation to feed those who love him.  Teilhard de Chardin spoke of the whole universe coming together in Jesus Christ at the Omega point.  Raimon Panikkar foresaw the consummation of history as cosmotheandric communion integrating the cosmos, God and the humans.  So the accusation that Christianity wishes Christians to dominate and exploit the earth is quite baseless.  In and through the body of Christ God reaches out to the earth and integrates it.  We saw one of the Hindu tradition looking on the world as the body of God. That becomes literally true in Jesus Christ.

According to Islam, God is the creator and lord of the universe.  God creates the universe as a gift to all peoples.  The humans are not owners, but only trustees of the earth and its goods.  They are vice-gerents and stewards of creation.  The common belongingness of the universe to every is concretely lived through the zakat, a tax levied on the well to do help the poor, the orphans and the widows.  It is one of the five pillars of Islamic practice.

Conclusion: Interreligious Collaboration

I think that in the contemporary world it is good not to bring religion in the political sphere.  So it will be good if the believers of various religions agree to promote together ecological peace and harmony, especially with reference to the indigenous people, even if they find justification for their action each in his or her own religious tradition.  As we have seen above, all religions would be against consumerism and in favour of equality and justice. All religions also see cosmotheandric communion as the goal of history.  What we need to realize today is that the group which is most vulnerable in the quest for scarce resources are the indigenous people. They are the ones who are bearing the brunt of the exploitative thrust of the votaries of unlimited development. That is why they need to be protected if we wish to promote ecological peace.

<Peace on Asia seoul> : WTI 2015