Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment

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This edition of “Loving the Least of These” covers some of the changes since the first edition in 2011 and highlights the need for action now. Our environment, changing in so many ways, requires our attention. This document covers four ideas: a biblical basis for Christian engagement, a look at changing environments around the world, insight into how environmental variability and extremes affect poverty conditions, and thoughts on what Christians should do about our rapidly changing
environment. Each section includes reflection from an expert, and examples from people working with the issues are sprinkled throughout.

Apply now for the Religion & Environment Story Project (RESP) Fellowship

The Religion & Environment Story Project (RESP) trains journalists, editors, and public-facing scholars interested in the intersection of the environment and religion. Our goal is to bridge the divide between the religion and science beats, and promote new thinking and new narratives that will inform and educate the public, especially on the climate crisis. RESP is based at Boston University and funded by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

The Religion & Environment Story Project Fellowship supports journalists, editors, and public-facing academics who are producing – or want to learn how to produce – stories at the intersection of religion and the environment. A cohort of ten fellows will gather twice over the course of six months for practical, on-the-job training designed to develop new ways of thinking about the climate crisis and the role played by religious individuals and institutions in addressing (and ignoring) it. Participants will meet with working journalists and scholars in a collaborative seminar environment that will include wide ranging discussions on religion, spirituality, the environment, climate change, and journalism. We hope this format will inspire and inform the participants while offering peer learning and support from other journalists. It should also provide expert sources and story leads that will help fellows identify and create stories that other journalists are missing. 

RESP will cover travel, food, and lodging for our two workshops. We will also pay for a year’s membership for the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) or the Religion News Association (RNA), plus registration fees for either the SEJ or RNA annual conferences. Fellows will also receive a stipend of $1,000 after completing the program and committing to produce at least one story for a general audience. The application deadline is August 25, 2022, at 11:59 pm, ET.

Learn more about the 2021-2022 Fellows and apply for the fellowship on the RESP website.

Largest Presbyterian church body divesting from fossil fuel companies, citing climate concerns

Read the full story from CBS News.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has opted to pull investments from five energy corporations, joining other faith-based groups in targeting fossil fuel companies over what they say are failures to address climate change.

The denomination’s General Assembly, meeting online, voted overwhelmingly this week for a resolution targeting Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy for divestment.

Is your neighborhood’s air polluted? New website tracks air quality across the St. Louis region

Read the full story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

A new website launched Tuesday enables the public to track air quality in St. Louis neighborhoods, thanks to a network of monitors stationed primarily on churches around the region.

The site, called AirWatch St. Louis, provides up-to-the-hour data about current conditions and specific pollutants. Groups behind the project say it’s information “that researchers, residents and community leaders can use to address health problems that have plagued historically disenfranchised neighborhoods for generations,” according to an announcement Tuesday.

What’s a natural burial? A Christian theologian explains

Some people are drawn to the idea of a natural burial to bring more of the dying ritual into their homes. LPETTET/E+ via Getty Images

by Beth Hoeltke, Concordia Seminary

Death is not a subject people typically have an easy time discussing. But for Christian scholar Beth Hoeltke, it’s one she’s devoted much time to, focusing particularly on the growing interest in natural or green burials.

Here, Hoeltke explains how people can go about having a natural burial and why it’s attracting more interest among Christians and people of other faiths.

What is a natural burial?

Natural burial is actually what we would say is the closest we can come to the way Christ was buried. This idea looks at how we would care for the body from baptism all the way through burial as a Christian. When a person dies, instead of calling a funeral director, their loved ones would call the church or other family members and ask them to come and help to wash and clean the body. And then dress the body, whether it be in clothing or wrapped in a shroud, and then place them in a coffin. A vigil then could take place at home. It would not need to be done at a funeral home. No embalming would take place. And then a loved one could journey with the body to the final resting place. Or all of this could take place in the church. There are lots of different options.

But natural burial is much more environmentally structured. It doesn’t cause damage to the Earth as much as modern burial methods. Modern burial adds wood that doesn’t break down as easily and decomposition takes much longer than natural burial. It also can include other materials, such as metal, that don’t belong in the ground.

How did we go from natural burials to embalming? And what does Christianity have to say about that?

People have allowed the funeral directors to order the funeral homes to take over a task that nobody wanted to do anymore. The embalming process started back in the Civil War time when people needed to get the bodies home. And so at that time, bodies were filled with embalming fluid before being taken home to their loved ones.

The Christian church would say that Christ had a natural burial. When Christ was born, he would have been wrapped in a shroud. Upon his death he was again wrapped in a linen cloth and set in a grave. First-century burials were slightly different, but it was very similar. The body was actually laid on a bench first, probably a rock bench, until the body had decomposed, and then they would gather the bones and put the bones in an ossuary, a container or room in which the bones of dead people are placed.

What kind of people are interested in green burials?

The term “green burial” is what is heard most often by the public. I believe we have to change it to natural burial, because it’s much more natural in the sense of what’s taking place. The term green burial came from the environmental movement. The people who would be interested in a natural burial are people who do not want to be embalmed, don’t want to die in a hospital and want to have the care and love of their loved ones at home.

But people who are really involved in it right now, especially with the green burial movement, are the people who really don’t want to do damage to the Earth. And so that’s where the movement actually started. And what my writing partner Kent Burreson and I are doing is trying to bring that into the Christian church. And hence we’ve changed the language from a green burial to natural burial so that there’s a more of an understanding that this is the way Christ died.

In what circumstances is embalming required?

Embalming is required in a few states if someone is going to take the body across state lines. Let’s say you were in an area where a natural cemetery is not available and you need to take it to the next state. There are embalming fluids that are more natural than traditional chemicals and don’t contaminate as badly, so there are some options becoming available.

Could you talk about home funerals and their value?

In the past, there was something called the parlor in our homes. And the parlor was actually used for engagements, for weddings, for burials, for births, for all kinds of things that would take place within the home. That’s what funeral parlors have taken on, and they’ve tried to make it look homey. So we’re suggesting bringing the parlor back into our homes, by caring for our ill ones at home, and then when they die, caring for them by washing their bodies, washing their hair, dressing their bodies.

Think of the beauty that could be in caring for your husband or your wife or your child when they have died, to be able to be part of that and washing and caring for them. It not only keeps you busy, but it also allows you to mourn in a much more healthy way, because today death has been pushed out of our lives. We have this time period when we just don’t have the ability to mourn anymore because we go from shock to loss. This way, if we’re doing it in our homes and we’re participating in the death, we are able to actually engage in the activity and realize that death has taken place.

Traditional funerals are becoming less common as more Americans look for cheaper, greener options. Alzbeta/Shutterstock.com

What are people’s concerns when it comes to a natural burial?

Most people are a little nervous about the whole idea. Even though it’s something very traditional, it’s very different from people’s understanding right now. Most of the questions that are asked are, “Is this really OK to do? What do I need to do to be trained?” There are guides that can help with the process called death midwives, death doulas, death guides or funeral guides. People are a little nervous about touching a dead body. For the most part, dead bodies can be touched very easily and very lovingly.

The other question that comes out is, “What if I can’t do this? What if I want to do it but I can’t?” What I say is engage your church community. Reach out to them, talk to them, ask if there are members of the congregation who might participate. In the Jewish faith, they actually have a ceremony called the tahara where they come together upon death and care for the body. They wash it and they say prayers over it and they wrap it and they put it in the coffin. So if you are not able to do that yourself, you might ask your church body or your congregation, or you might hire a death midwife. They could guide you along the way on how to do this. So there shouldn’t be much fear in that.

Beth Hoeltke, Director of the Graduate School, Concordia Seminary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Solar for churches

Read the full story at pv magazine.

Churches use energy mostly during the day, which makes them ideal buildings to deploy solar panels. Scientists in the United Kingdom have assessed the financial viability of a rooftop PV project for Bath Abbey and found that it could become profitable after 13 years.

Caring for the environment has a long Catholic lineage – hundreds of years before Pope Francis

Pope Francis has laid emphasis on protecting the environment, but he’s not the only pope to speak about caring for nature. AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

by Joanne M. Pierce (College of the Holy Cross)

Pope Francis led dozens of religious leaders Oct. 4, 2021 in issuing a plea to protect the environment, warning that “Future generations will never forgive us if we miss the opportunity to protect our common home.”

The appeal, which calls for net-zero emissions, was released after months of meetings leading up to the United Nations’ November climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

The pope has voiced support for green policies before, including his 2015 encyclical letter to the entire Catholic Church “On Care for Our Common Home.”

But Francis is not the first Catholic leader to emphasize care for the planet. In fact, every pope for the past half-century – except John Paul I, who died after just one month in office – has addressed environmental issues in their official publications.

As a scholar whose research focuses on the medieval Church, I see many of these concerns deeply rooted in the history of the Catholic tradition.

The early tradition

One of the basic beliefs of Christianity is that the material world was created directly by God, and thus fundamentally connected with God’s goodness.

This is clearly expressed in the creation narrative in the book of Genesis, part of the sacred scripture shared by Christians and Jews. As God completes each element of the world – day, night, land, sea, etc. – he sees that “it was good.” On the sixth day, when God creates human beings in God’s own image, they are given “dominion” or “rule” over everything that lives on the Earth.

Early Christians insisted that the beauty of creation reflected God’s glory. But as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, they had to defend this view of the basic goodness of creation when challenged by another religious viewpoint.

This movement – called Gnosticism, from the Greek word meaning “knowledge” – taught that the physical world was created not directly by God, but by a lesser spiritual being, out of malice or ignorance. At best, the material world was a worthless distraction; at worst, an evil snare for human souls. Gnostic teachers offered to teach their followers how to free their spirits from attachment to their physical bodies and the material world. In this way, after death they could return to the realm of spiritual reality and reunite with the divine.

Many theologians and bishops criticized this interpretation of their faith. Several wrote lengthy, detailed critiques of Gnostic teaching; at stake, they believed, was the salvation of souls.

The most prominent of these was St. Irenaeus of Lyons, who lived in the second century A.D. On Oct. 7, 2021, Francis announced that he would declare Irenaeus a “Doctor of the Church,” a title reserved for saints whose writings have had a profound impact on the life of the Church.

In Irenaeus’ treatise Against the Heresies, a passionate defense of the teaching of the scriptures and apostles, he states that creation itself reveals God and God’s glory; the only higher revelation is Jesus Christ himself.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, however, Western Christianity was left with a lingering suspicion of “worldly things,” despite this early stress on the basic goodness of material creation.

An illumination depicts Hildegard of Bingen experiencing a spiritual vision while dictating to a scribe.
Hildegard of Bingen did it all: music, botany, medicine, drama and theology. Miniatur aus dem Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias/Wikimedia Commons

The Benedictine tradition

By the third century, some Christians began to seek a life more fully focused on God by removing themselves from society to pray and work together in communal groups. This kind of monasticism swept across Western Europe during the medieval period.

The most influential of these monastic orders were the Benedictines, who balanced their lives between daily prayer services and work – which often involved agriculture and care of the surrounding environment. Each monk or nun pledged to remain at the same monastery for life, unless its abbot or abbess – the monk or nun in charge – ordered them to move to another. Because of this, Benedictines became known as “lovers of place.”

Today, one Benedictine saint has become especially connected with environmental concerns: St. Hildegard of Bingen, who died in A.D. 1179. This German abbess was one of the most accomplished women of the Middle Ages. An expert on herbal medicines and botany, she also wrote religious plays, composed liturgical chants and hymns, and authored theological works and poems based on her mystical experiences. She insisted that God loved the Earth as a husband loves a wife, and espoused a kind of “green” theology, called viriditas, condemning the harm that human activity could do to nature.

Hildegard has been acclaimed as an unofficial patron saint of environmentalists. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI declared her a “Doctor of the Church,” like Irenaeus.

A fresco depicts St. Francis preaching to a group of birds under a tree, while another monk looks on.
St. Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology, famously preached to the birds. Giotto di Bondone/Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi/Wikimedia Commons

The Franciscan tradition

St. Francis of Assisi, son of an Italian cloth merchant, has over the centuries become renowned for his love of the natural world. After time as a soldier and prisoner of war, Francis underwent a spiritual conversion. Rejecting his father’s wealth, he chose to live a life of radical poverty and public preaching until his death in A.D. 1226. Early on, male members of his new mendicant movement, the Franciscians, took religious vows but traveled from town to town with no fixed residence, begging for food and lodging.

One of Francis’ few documents is a poem, the Canticle of the Sun, which lyrically expressed his belief in the kinship between human beings and the rest of the natural world. Even the Sun and the Moon are addressed as “brother” and “sister.” And as he lay dying, it is said that he asked to be laid on the bare Earth.

Legends about his preaching and miracles circulated widely, and some involved his concern for animals, treating them with the same dignity as human beings. One story holds that he preached to birds and convinced a vicious wolf to live in peace with nearby townspeople.

In 1979, Pope John Paul II named St. Francis the patron saint of ecology because he “revered nature as a wonderful gift of God.” And in 2015, Pope Francis used the first words of the Canticle of the Sun, Laudatio si’, to open his encyclical on the environment and serve as its official title.

Although often overshadowed by the notion that the material world is only a passing distraction, reverence for a creation deeply loved by God has also been an important part of Catholic tradition. Contemporary teaching on the environment is only its most recent expression.

Joanne M. Pierce, Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, College of the Holy Cross

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Catholic environmental movement adopts new name in push to inspire action

Read the full story from the Catholic News Service.

The Global Catholic Climate Movement is now known as the Laudato Si’ Movement.

Movement leaders explained during a livestreamed program July 29 that the change better reflects the work of the six-year-old worldwide network and its connection to prayerful action on environmental protection and climate change.

For some evangelical Christians, climate action is a God-given mandate

Read the full story at Grist.

Does the Bible say to “subdue” the earth, or to care for creation?

Lack of burial space is changing age-old funeral practices, and in Japan ‘tree burials’ are gaining in popularity

Many of the tombs in Japan are elaborately decorated. Nearby visitors can buy flowers, buckets. brooms and other gardening tools to tidy up the graves. John S Lander/LightRocket via Getty Images

by Natasha Mikles (Texas State University)

As the global population continues to grow, space for putting the dead to rest is at a premium. In the U.S., some of the biggest cities are already short on burial land, and so are many other nations around the world.

At the same time, many nations are transforming funerary rituals, changing the way cemeteries operate and even destroying historic cemeteries to reclaim land for the living. In Singapore, for example, the government has forcibly demolished family tombs in favor of columbariums, structures that can hold the urns of the cremated. Grave spaces in the city-state can be used only for a term of 15 years, after which the remains are cremated and the space is used for another burial.

In Hong Kong, gravesites are among the most expensive real estate per square foot and the government has enlisted pop stars and other celebrities to promote cremation over physical burial.

As a scholar who studies Buddhist funerary rituals and narratives about the afterlife, what interests me are the innovative responses in some Buddhist majority nations and the tensions that result as environmental needs clash with religious beliefs.

Practice of tree burial

As early as the 1970s, public officials in Japan were concerned about a lack of adequate burial space in urban areas. They offered a variety of novel solutions, from cemeteries in distant resort towns where families could organize a vacation around a visit for traditional graveside rituals, to chartered bus trips to rural areas to bury loved ones. Beginning in 1990, the Grave-Free Promotion Society, a volunteer social organization, publicly advocated for the scattering of human ashes.

Since 1999, the Shōunji temple in northern Japan has attempted to offer a more innovative solution to this crisis through Jumokusō, or “tree burials.” In these burials, families place cremated remains in the ground and a tree is planted over the ashes to mark the gravesite.

The Shōunji parent temple opened a smaller temple site known as Chishōin in an area where there was already a small woodland. Here, in a small park, free from the large, stone markers of traditional Japanese grave sites, Buddhist priests perform annual rituals for the deceased. Families are also still able to visit loved ones and perform their own religious rituals at the site – unlike the scattering of cremated remains promoted by the Grave-Free Promotion Society, which leaves the family without the specific ritual space required for traditional Confucian and Buddhist rituals.

While many families electing for tree burials do not explicitly identify as Buddhist or associate with a Buddhist temple, the practice reflects Japanese Buddhism’s larger interest in environmental responsibility. Perhaps influenced by Shinto beliefs about gods living in the natural world, Japanese Buddhism has historically been unique among Buddhist traditions for its focus on the environmental world.

Whereas the earliest Indian Buddhist thought framed plants as nonsentient and, therefore, outside of the cycle of reincarnation, Japanese Buddhism frames flora as a living component of the cycle of reincarnation and, therefore, necessary to protect.

As a result, Japanese Buddhist institutions today often frame the challenge of humanity’s impact on the environment as a specifically religious concern. The head of the Shōunji temple has described tree burials as part of a uniquely Buddhist commitment to preserving the natural environment.

Social transformations

The idea of tree burials has proven so popular in Japan that other temples and public cemeteries have mimicked the model, some providing burial spaces under individual trees and others spaces in a columbarium that surrounds a single tree.

Scholar Sébastian Penmellen Boret writes in his 2016 book that these tree burials reflect larger transformations in Japanese society. After World War II, Buddhism’s influence on Japanese society declined as hundreds of new religious movements flourished. Additionally, an increasing trend toward urbanization undermined the ties that had traditionally existed between families and the local temples, which housed and cared for their ancestral gravesites.

Tree burials also cost significantly less than traditional funerary practices, which is an important consideration for many Japanese people struggling to support multiple generations. The birth rate in Japan is one of the lowest in the world, so children often struggle without siblings to support ailing and deceased parents and grandparents.

A cemetery at the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple in eastern Kyoto, in Japan.
Traditionally, ties existed between families and the local temples, which housed and cared for their ancestral gravesites. Yuri Smityuk\TASS via Getty Image

Concern over traditional ceremonies

This move has not been without controversy. Religious and cultural communities across East Asia maintain that a physical space is necessary to visit the deceased for various afterlife rituals. Confucian traditions maintain that it is the responsibility of the child to care for their deceased parents, grandparents and other ancestors through ritual offerings of food and other items.

During the festival of Obon, typically held in the middle of August, Japanese Buddhists will visit family graves and make food and drink offerings for their ancestors, as they believe the deceased visit the human world during this period. These offerings for ancestors are repeated biannually at the spring and fall equinoxes, called “ohigan.”

Additionally, some Buddhist temples have expressed concern that tree burials are irrevocably undermining their social and economic ties to local communities. Since the institution of the Danka system in the 17th-century, Japanese Buddhist temples have traditionally held a monopoly on ancestral burial sites. They performed a variety of gravesite services for families to ensure their loved one has a good rebirth in return for annual donations.

American funeral traditions

Tree burials still remain a minority practice in Japan, but there is evidence they are quickly growing in popularity. Japanese tree burials, however, mirror trends happening in burial practices in the United States.

Whereas in the past, grave slots were thought of as being in perpetuity, now most cemeteries offer burial leases for a maximum period of 100 years, with shorter leases both common and encouraged. As represented by the pioneering work of mortician Caitlin Doughty and others, consumers are turning an increasingly doubtful eye to the accouterments of the traditional American funeral, including the public viewing of an embalmed body, a casket communicative of social status and a large stone marking one’s grave.

Part of this undoubtedly reflects sociological data indicating the decline of traditional religious institutions and a rise at the same time in alternative spiritualities. However, above all, such efforts toward new forms of burial represent the fundamental versatility of religious rituals and spiritual practices as they transform to address emerging environmental and social factors.

Natasha Mikles, Lecturer in Philosophy, Texas State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.