But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. – Job 12:7-10
Last week, when Pope Francis released his encyclical, “Laudato si,” on care of creation, most of the media attention around the world focused on what he had to say about climate change and how Catholics might react to this message. However, Pope Francis addresses a broad range of issues affecting God’s earth in his teaching document, and his call to care for God’s creation is addressed to “every person living on this planet,” not just to those of the Catholic faith. This encyclical also reflects many of the same concerns and approaches as the ELCA’s “Caring for Creation” social statement.
One issue that is featured prominently in “Laudato si” is the protection of plants and animals from the threat of extinction.From the first chapters of Genesis to the end of the book of Revelation, the Scriptures that lie at the core of the Christian faith celebrate creation and our fellow creatures as a gift from God. God calls us into a relationship with our fellow creatures that is one of stewardship and care. God calls us to name “every living creature” – a responsibility that we are still fulfilling as new species are discovered. When God becomes angry with humanity for its corruption and plans to destroy the earth in a cleansing flood, God picks a righteous man, Noah, and tells him to save two of every living creature – a breeding pair – from the waters of the flood along with his own family. After the flood, God makes a covenant not just with humanity but with all creation to never again destroy the earth. And in the book of Job, God tells Job that his fellow creatures have much to teach him about the power of the creator and the connections between all of life.
The ELCA’s social statement on caring for creation notes that “humans, in service to God, have special roles on behalf of the whole creation. Made in the image of God, we are called to care for the earth as God cares for the earth.” We are to name the animals, uniting us in relationship, and to love the earth as God loves each of us.
In “Laudato si,” Pope Francis argues that concern for our fellow creatures and concern for our fellow humans are deeply related: “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings … . It follows that our indifference or cruelty towards fellow creatures of this world sooner or later affects the treatment we mete out to other human beings.”
Today, Earth is losing mammal species at 20 to 100 times the rate in the past – a rate so rapid it could rival the event that killed the dinosaurs. Since 1900, 69 mammal species are believed to have gone extinct, along with about 400 other types of vertebrates. Pollution, habitat destruction, hunting and poaching and increasingly climate change all cause God’s creatures to vanish from the earth.
Pope Francis also describes this extreme rate of extinction in his encyclical:
Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.
Earlier this spring a number of media outlets shared pictures of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on our planet. Sudan lives in a nature preserve in Kenya surrounded by armed guards tasked with protecting him from poachers who want to kill him for his horn (powdered rhino horn sells for as much as $75,000 a kilo). He is 42 years old – rhinos typically live between 40 and 50 years – and so far, attempts to breed him with one of the four remaining female northern white rhinos have failed.
We are failing in our task of protecting God’s creation and our fellow creatures, and by doing so we are failing ourselves and those who come after us. We have no such right.
In 1973, Congress passed (and President Richard Nixon signed) the federal Endangered Species Act to protect our nation’s native plant and animal species from the threat of extinction. For more than 40 years the act has protected species and their habitats and has dramatically increased populations of iconic species, such as the bald eagle and the grey wolf. Unfortunately, despite its successes, some would like to weaken the protections of the act. This is why we must work to fulfill our call to protect all of God’s creation.