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Building “right relations” between people and the earth

Q & A with Latin America expert on theology and ecology

April 27, 2011

BUENOS AIRES

Jim Hodgson is a journalist with extensive experience in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since 2000, Hodgson has worked with the United Church of Canada’s Caribbean and Latin America desk, most recently as program coordinator for South America and the Caribbean.

During the past 25 years he has written for a variety of church-based media and worked for extended periods in the Dominican Republic and in Mexico. He recently spoke at a seminar on Theology and Ecology held in Buenos Aires, Argentina at the end of March 2011. He was interviewed there by Marcelo Schneider.

What are the burning issues you see today when you get closer to awareness-building processes in Latin America?

People in South America are addressing ecological issues on multiple levels: the mining issues that sometimes involve Canadian companies here in Argentina, they address water issues all the time, the questions around the use of land, the use agricultural chemicals, pesticides, all of that is hugely controversial. The emphasis here on export crops like soya, those are huge issues and people deal with them all the time.

Perhaps one of the leading ecological theologians in the world is Leonardo Boff, from Brazil, whose work is well known in Argentina as well. And then there is also the experience of Bolivia, which is close by. I’m not sure how much people know about what president Morales has been proposing with the way that the Bolivian society and its indigenous sectors have been wrestling with the same issues around economic priorities (…) oil, gas, mining. “Pachamama”, the Mother Earth, and all of those concepts are really calling on not just the Bolivians, but the whole world to rethink how we live and how we live in relationship with the earth. All that is going on in South America and we in the North can learn a lot.

One of the risks is that people who ultimately have power tend to be corporate-interested and they seem to have ways of dividing the larger countries of the so called global South, like putting Brazil apart from the rest of Latin America, South Africa from the rest of Africa or India and China from the rest of Asia, so it splits before some spirit of solidarity could exist. People have to watch out for that.

What are the climate change-related issues for the churches today?

I certainly see the issues of climate refugees. This is one of the things that the moderator of the United Church of Canada Mardi Tindal has pointed out saying that by the year 2050 there will be 200 million climate refugees in the world as oceans levels rise. So the challenges are huge and really quite immediate. For us as Canadians, we are in rather a tense relationship with our government over its attitude towards climate change.

The Canadian government together with some other governments around the world these days are taking very short term views, refusing to live up to commitments they made in Kyoto saying that is costs too much to the economy today. And these are the richest countries in the world speaking, of course. And they trust a lot in technology or the idea that eventually there will be technology to deal with these problems. So, what we’ve tried to do is work on a number of different levels, in informing and mobilizing the people of the churches in Canada. We do that to some extent within the denominations but also from an ecumenical space called Kairos, the coalition that the Canadian churches have put together over the past ten years. This is an effort that goes back to 30 or even 40 years, actually.

Through Kairos we also work on helping people in Canadian churches understand the issues. And we also work together as churches with other sectors of civil society trying to influence the policies of the Canadian government. So it’s kind of a high level talking to the government, addressing the leaders, but that is all reinforced by a large education program that tries to get other voices involved, so more people would be speaking to the government.

Is there an ideal way to connect high level leadership negotiations and the daily lives of the churches?

One of my hopes is that people would see the value of strategies of multiple levels. It is great that some people go off and talk to their governments and address the United Nations, but we also need some education work and mobilizing people and helping people to understand these issues. Let’s face it: to wrap your head around climate change is not easy. You have to wrestle with concepts around science and I think people, religious people, have a 200 year history now of a certain distance from science, but I think that the situation of the world today demands that people of faith and scientists get into a new relationship with each other.

Another thing that Tindal says is that science tells us more or less what has been, what is and to some extent what will be, but faith tells us what ought to be, what should happen. So, we have an ethical voice that says we need to manage resources differently, we need to work in ways that at least don’t damage the interest of people who are poor and marginalized, but actually advance their interest, that begin to make things better for people on the edges.

How does that connect to the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation?

I think a lot of conflicts in the past and certainly conflicts to come are fought over resources, be it land, oil and, increasingly in the future, water. So, building peace through the debate on caring for the earth is a strong link.

What came out very strongly in this event here in Argentina is that climate change related issues are to be dealt with not only from an ecological point of view, but also in relation to economy, politics, culture and theology.

Going back to the Canadian churches, we’ve tried to wrestle with these questions together is by talking about relationships. This comes partly out of work on restoring our broken relationships as Christian churches with the indigenous peoples who’ve had an unfortunate history of imperialism and colonialism. So, over the past ten years we’ve all been learning about that and now there is a process of reconciliation that’s begun and we’ll see how all that goes. But one of the expressions that got used a lot is how do we restore ‘right relations’ or ‘just relations’.

Could that process also be considered as an historical legacy of the WCC’s Assembly in Vancouver in 1983?

People certainly very much remember it. There was an opening there to indigenous ways of celebrating and expressions of how indigenous people practice faith. What happens in an Assembly like the Vancouver one is that you make visible what was not visible before in a very public way and people begin to think about some issues differently and about relations differently. So this expression ’right relations’ is understood not just as in the relationships between people, but with our relationship with the earth, relationships between man and woman, relationships between different classes.

In the United Church of Canada we’ve taken the expression ‘right relations’ and we also try to use it when we talk about partnership, in our relationship with the Methodist Church of Argentina, for instance. We also try to practice right relationships there are honest, transparent to the extent possible to be equal and not imperialistic or determining the content of the conversation. So when we come back to the question of peace, there are all kinds of relationships that we have to work on.

What is invisible today that should be made visible?

We still have a long way to go to make visible the violence against women. What do we have to do to transform culture so that men behave in a different way towards women? That would be a huge one. There is also the structural and systemic racism that still goes on. Who can get what kinds of jobs? Who can get what kind of education?

In Canada, we still have very different school systems. For indigenous communities, compared to the school system I went through there is a lot of difference. And people think that it is impossible to address those issues but it is not. All of those things about the lack of fair access and lack of sharing have the risk of leading to deeper conflict and the absence of peace.

The seminar "Christian faith and ecology: towards an eco-ecumenical theology" was held March 28 - 29 at the Protestant theological school Instituto Universitario ISEDET in Buenos Aires. The event was sponsored by ISEDET, the non-governmental Argentina-based Rural Reflection Group and the World Student Christian Federation (WSCF) Latin America and Caribbean region and was supported by the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the United Church of Canada.

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