An Eleventh Commandment?

At an interfaith conference on "Waters of Life, Sacred and Profaned" held in April 2007 at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, we were moved by the descriptions of the spiritual relationship to water that each faith tradition presented. Those present recognized that water would be a major source of wars in the coming years since there isn’t enough potable water for billions of people, or enough irrigation water to sustain input-dominated agriculture. Therefore, we agreed, it is imperative for us all to find a spiritual basis for working together to ensure good health for future generations.

During the discussions, a Catholic man shared his theory about why we’re having such difficulty getting people to act swiftly, forcefully, and with conviction to prevent the breakdown of ecological systems that sustain all life. Because of the deep moral implications, why haven’t people of faith been in the forefront on this? He reasoned that in most faith traditions the world is a gift from God, and God will provide what is needed to take care of it. For example, as another conference presenter pointed out, Hindus in India believe that the mother goddess, Ganga, embodied as the Ganges River, takes care of her people. In their understanding, this sacred presence is so powerful that Ganga is simply not affected by foreign materials that enter the river as a result of human activities. Therefore it is impossible to speak of Ganga and pollution in the same sentence.

This man offered further speculation as to why the scriptures of most of the faith traditions don’t explicitly require human intervention, oversight, and caution in their treatment of the Earth. At the time when the canons of these faith traditions were being written down, humans were significantly altering their environments, but only in small increments that generally were not noticeable in one person’s lifetime. It would have been even harder for anyone to imagine that one day humans would be able to change the climate of the planet.

Pastoralists and subsistence farmers can move to new locations when they overuse the land. Often, after several years, the land has recovered enough for them to return and go through other cycles of settlement and abandonment. In many regions, the land’s carrying capacity for nomadic humans and nonhuman species has been sustained over thousands of years. But large city-states, such as the Mayans of Central America, could not relocate to give the land rest, and they have tended to collapse as a result of unsustainable ecosystem stress—leaving no sign that they were conscious of what was causing their downfall.

That may be why, when we search Hebrew and Christian scriptures for the answers to how we might live in right relationship with the land, we find hints about good stewardship and scattered passages praising the beauty and glory of Creation but no warning of its vulnerability to human technology driven by greed and ignorance and compounded by rapid population growth. There has been no need for a commandment about being responsible, caring members of the entire family of life—until now. Now humans have become God-like in their aggregate power to change not only the quality of the soils, the water, the air, but even the world’s climate.

Has the time come to speak, therefore, of an "eleventh commandment" that reflects our emerging understanding of God’s will for the continued flourishing of all Creation? For centuries Friends have believed that revelation continues beyond the Light given to previous generations. They believe it is important to spiritually reflect on scripture and then discern new understandings in the new Light of current events and issues. A good example of this is the issue of slavery. Nowhere in the Bible can we find a denouncement of slavery, which has been a common practice throughout most of written history. It was an accepted practice of many early Friends. But Friends and others came to a new understanding of the human-to-human relationship and concluded that the enslavement of others was immoral and not in accord with their faith.

So what would an eleventh commandment about our spiritual relationship with the Earth say? It is being articulated on a small scale in various places and in various faith traditions. In his newest book, Deep Economy, Bill McKibben tells of the people of Shimong, a village in the hills of Himalayan India, whose people, being animists, consider their mountain sacred. The jungle has been "hunted out," and a plan must be put into place to preserve the land for the future. The people are not keen on giving up control over their land, and so creative thinking is taking place. The people must be educated to hunt in a sustainable way. One solution is to write new songs with lyrics about the sacred mountain that will guide people into a new way of thinking. They are rewriting their scriptures in light of the crisis of their land.

Can Friends be part of this exciting new way? Can we be witnesses to a new testimony for care of Creation? Testimonies are a reflection of how we are living out our understanding of the Truth, not a dictum to act in a certain way. If we don’t do this, and very soon, we will lack the moral authority to speak out against the self-destructive course our world is on. Harmful climate change is occurring now, not tomorrow, not next year. The poor will increasingly suffer without adequate and clean water, and without healthy and affordable food. Our quest for the Peaceable Kingdom may be lost in the struggle for mere physical survival.

We believe it is possible to unite as a people of faith to preserve what God originally gave to us and what now we have the power to destroy. Through our work in Quaker Earthcare Witness we have seen many Friends as well as others working for peace, justice, and equality in the context of Earth-awareness, and their actions give us hope.

Ruah Swennerfelt and Louis Cox

Ruah Swennerfelt and Louis Cox are members of Burlington (Vt.) Meeting.