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INTEGRAL ECOLOGY: Jubilee for the Earth?

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CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews / 12 September) — This year’s celebration of the Season of Creation focuses on the theme “Jubilee for the Earth.” Etymologically, jubilee is derived from the Greek yobel, which refers to ram’s horn that people use to announce an event. Its Latin term jubilus means “the joyous cry of the shepherds.” Taken together, jubilee for the Earth invites us to joyfully celebrate this year as a special moment of God’s grace.

Honestly, inviting everyone to reflect on this year’s theme of Season of Creation appears ironic to me. It seems that we have more reasons to be desperate than joyful this year if we turn our gaze to the negative realities around us. As the American analyst Noam Chomsky pessimistically pointed out, we are not only experiencing the attack of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also facing two other immense threats: “one is the ever-growing threat of nuclear war, exacerbated by the tension of the military regimes; and the other, of course, is global warming.”[1] So how can we meaningfully celebrate the jubilee for the Earth in a desperate situation?


Photo courtesy of GCCM-Ph

In one of his talks, the famous Jesuit Filipino Bible scholar Rene “Pops” Repole clearly explained that the concept of jubilee in the Old Testament (see Leviticus 25) includes “the acts associated with … remission of debts, return of property/land, liberation of slaves, etc.” Fr. Pops contended that the New Testament (see Lk 4:18-19) picks this up as Jesus Christ announces his messianic “message of forgiveness, liberation, [and] redemption [which] is embedded in his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of God.” This biblical notion of jubilee needs to be highlighted in order to have a meaningful celebration of the Season of Creation. 

Remission of Debt

Let me highlight the “remission of debt” as an important aspect of celebrating the jubilee. In this Sunday’s (September 13) gospel reading, St. Matthew narrates to us the parable of “a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When [the king] began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. … Moved with compassion the [king] … let him go and forgave him the loan” (Matt 18:21-35).

This parable reminds us that we are all debtors before God who is willing to cancel our debts out of mercy. Debt is normally used as a biblical image of sin. For instance, Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer says: “forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us…” (Lk 11:4). An accumulated debt, like sin, can grow to a huge amount until the debtor is no longer capable of paying it. When that happens, the debtor’s only hope is to beg the creditor to cancel it.

Economic Debt

It has been reported that the Philippine government’s foreign debt, as of end of June 2020, amounted to 9.05 trillion pesos. Accordingly, if we want to pay this huge amount now, each of the 108.7 million Filipinos must shell out 83,239 pesos. Obviously, it is impossible at this time for the Philippines, either individually or collectively, to pay this huge amount. It is also morally unacceptable to require our destitute country to pay our debt if it could exacerbate poverty.

In exchange of monetary loans, our creditors could easily take advantage of our poverty by voraciously exploiting our human and natural resources. As Pope Francis pointed out, “The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them” (Laudato Si’ [LS] 52). Oftentimes, debtors are at the mercy of their creditors.

Ecological Debt

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis affirms that “a true ‘ecological debt’ exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally” (LS 51).

Moreover, Pope Francis courageously pointed out that “often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable” (LS 51).

Nature Never Cancels Our Debt

“Who will pay this ecological debt?” Pope Francis asked the public in his short video address. The ecological debtors (exploiters), of course, are morally obliged to pay, if they are capable. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis teaches that “The developed countries ought to help pay this debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development” (LS 52). Unfortunately, this demand for ecological justice has not been given.

In the face of climate emergency, the poor countries in the global south unjustly suffer from human-induced calamities, the price of the development enjoyed by rich countries in the global north. For Pope Francis, this “structurally perverse” situation brought about by global capitalism is “outrageous.” The poor and the Earth cry out to God for justice!

Our “Sister, Mother Earth” (LS 1) provides us everything that we need to live. We are enormously indebted to her. In return, we ought to “cultivate and care for [her]” (Gen 2:15). However, we have not done this, and, in that sense, we failed to pay her back. She demands justice for the offenses that we continually inflict on her. Pope Francis reminds us of the Spanish saying: “God always forgives, we forgive but, sometimes, nature never forgives.”[2]

Like other people, I am also tempted to call the emergence of many current zoonotic diseases and human-induced ecological tragedies as the revenge of Mother Earth. But I think Leonardo Boff is right when he said they serve only as “great signals that she is ill.”[3] They are motherly pedagogical warnings to give us lessons and to awaken what is human in us.

Sabbath for the Earth—Our Debt

The Earth does not need our wealth to pay back what we owe to her. What she urgently needs is to allow her to enjoy sabbath. It has been claimed that the basic sabbath law for the land serves as the basis for the notion of jubilee, which is “part of God’s ecology.”[4] The Lord said to Moses on Mount Sinai: “let the land, too, keep the sabbath for the Lord. … The land shall have the sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath for the Lord” (Lev 25:1-2).

Allowing the land to rest on the seventh day is also ecologically beneficial for animals and humans, as the law of weekly rest prohibits work on this day, “so that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your maidservant, and the stranger, may be refreshed” (Ex 23:12).

Pope Francis explains that “Sabbath is meant to be a day which heals our relationships with God, with ourselves, with others and with the world. … Rest opens our eyes to the larger picture and gives us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others” (LS 237).

Observing the sabbath is a biblical imperative. If the people would stubbornly ignore the law of sabbath for the land, God will allow their enemies to scatter them among nations and they will be forced to abandon their land. “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths” (Lev 26:34). Shall we wait for God to forcefully implement the law of sabbath for the land?

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Reynaldo D. Raluto is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Malaybalay. He is the Academic Dean of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Cagayan de Oro where he also teaches fundamental/systematic theology and Catholic social teaching. He is the author of Poverty and Ecology at the Crossroads: An Ecological Theology of Liberation in the Philippine Context (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2015). His ecological advocacy includes planting/growing Philippine native trees, mountain climbing, and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples.] 

[1] Cited in Leonardo Boff, “Post-covid-19: what cosmology and ethics to incorporate-II,” June 14, 2020; available online: https://leonardoboff.org/2020/06/14/post-covid-19-what-cosmology-and-ethics-to-incorporate-ii/ (accessed: June 20, 2020.

[2] Quoted in Austen Ivereigh, “Pope Francis says pandemic can be a ‘place of conversion’,” The Tablet, April 8, 2020.

[3] Leonardo Boff, “Coronavirus: Gaia’s reaction and revenge?” May 16, 2020; available online: https://leonardoboff.org/2020/04/16/coronavirus-gaias-reaction-and-revenge-2/#comments (accessed: June 5, 2020).

[4] See Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation (London: SCM Press, 1985), 5-7.

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