e-mail us

Lent 2003

Our Crimes Have Multiplied

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Scripture Readings
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21


The other day I read an article by one of our Brazilian scientists. He started by saying that the Bible tells us that God began creation with the great bodies of water. He created the trees and the plants and then, in his own image and likeness, he created human beings.

The author continues by stating that we have polluted the waters of the world. We are cutting down the rain forests and poisoning the soil. Our next logical step is to destroy humanity!

I belong to a “think tank” at the State University of São Paulo that has united scientists and humanitarian leaders to think about the dilemmas and the challenges we face and to offer solutions. We have studied two important related problems: the Amazon and the question of water and development.

The Meditation Psalm [136] from this Sunday’s liturgy reminds us that God’s love endures forever. He alone does great wonders: He made the heavens; He spread out the earth on the waters; He made the great lights, the sun to govern the day and the moon and the stars to govern the night.

I live in São Paulo, the third largest city in the world. The pollution is so great that often we can no longer see the moon and the stars by night or even the sky by day! Two beautiful rivers surround the city -- but both are so polluted they cause floods every summer in the rainy season. These floods destroy the homes of the poor and make the evening rush hour a punishment for those who have worked all day.

Like God’s people in the Book of Chronicles, the priests and the people have multiplied their crimes and refuse to listen to the prophets. For this reason, their cities will be destroyed, and they will be responsible.

We do not need in-depth studies to conclude that the threats to the quality of our water are overwhelming. The climate patterns are changing drastically because of the greenhouse effect and the diminishing of the ozone layer. An enormous block of ice has been separated from Antarctica and is floating up the Brazilian coast to the amazement of our children who have never even seen snow.

In January 1990, Pope John Paul II proffered a message on “The Ecological Crisis -- A Common Responsibility.” He begins by reflecting that in these days world peace is not only threatened by conflicts and injustice, but by a lack of respect for nature. We plunder our natural resources and create a decline in the quality of life.

The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.

All of us are coming to understand that we cannot continue to use the goods of the earth as we have in the past. While in some cases the damage is irreversible, in many other cases it can still be halted.

The Holy Father calls for joint international action together with the responsibility of each individual state. But, above all, he says, the crisis reveals the urgent moral need for a new solidarity, especially in relations between the developing nations and those that are highly industrialized.

I would like to use the Amazon as an example of our ecological interdependence. Beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, explorers searched the brooding rain forests of the Amazon seeking wealth and illusion.

In her last will and testament, Queen Isabella of Spain wrote: “It is my wish that nothing my Lord the King, my daughter the Princess and my son the Prince may do, or allow to be done, shall bring any harm to the Indians, to either their persons or their property.”

That was wishful thinking. The Western world, even 500 years ago, was based on a culture that worked against nature, in an effort to subdue it. Having takes preference over being. The Indians lived in harmony with nature. Ecology, ever-present, is woven into the very fabric of their lives.

In 1850, the great Amazonian rubber rush began. Wild rubber trees existed only in the Amazon. In the beginning of the 20th century the boom ended. Seeds had been smuggled out of the Amazon and planted in Malaysia, producing latex at a much lower cost.

The Amazon has always been the victim of that which it has in abundance: magic, exuberance and wealth. First, it was explored for rubber, then gold, and then for its precious trees. It is the largest producer of minerals on this planet. However, the inhabitants of the Amazon have not become prosperous with the wealth that has been produced there.

In the 20th century, the myth of the Amazon as the world’s future breadbasket was promulgated. Foreigners and Brazilians alike believed that such an exuberant forest must have a very fertile soil that could become a new biblical paradise, where everything could grow.

Unfortunately, this is not true. The ecosystems of the Amazon are rich and fragile. Its soil, unlike the soil of other forests in the world, is shallow, badly structured, and poor in nutrients.

The Brazilian government has just implanted a vast computer program to control the “stealing” of precious woods from the forests. According to the government, about 60 percent of all the commercialized products of the forests are illegal. However, Greenpeace, a nongovernmental organization, claims that 80 percent of the commercial activity is clandestine. The region is too vast to be closely monitored by the government. With the use of satellites, this situation could be changed and the forest saved for other generations.

I would like to touch on one more important topic, that of the waters of the world. In the 21st century we have to face a few challenges:

  • Precipitation has become irregular, and this degrades the quality of clean water we have to drink in our cities and threatens our agricultural production;
  • Practically, we have not been able to influence human behavior in relation to a rational use of the water available.

It has reached a point where the lack of water has become a motive of conflict among the nations. Our governments and society in general do not take this problem seriously.

In rural areas, pesticides are released on the ground with no comprehension of the fact that the soil will flow with the rains into the rivers. Widespread deforestation contributes to the silting of rivers.

Brazil has been blessed by nature with an abundance of rivers, lakes and waterfalls. But water has to be rationed every winter in our large urban areas. We have the technological conditions to reverse this situation. And there exists enough collective awareness of the need for programs and projects to reverse our current collective irresponsibility.

What discourages us is the slow pace of political decisions in relation to ecology. The faster we can speed up the process to change our environmental behavior, the less dreadful will be the catastrophes that the world will face in the coming years.

Returning to the Word of God in the Bible, we find in the Book of Joel an ecological prophecy. The experience of devastation and crisis is the center of the prophecy of Joel (2:1-11). The prophet speaks of ecological wasting and the destruction of the ecological balance: a problem that is almost universal in today’s world.

Joel questions the devastation of nature: Does humanity have complete domination over nature? Or has it not lived up to its ecological responsibilities?

The heart of Joel’s prophecy is that our God is gracious, compassionate, slow to anger and full of love. Because of this, he promises that from “dis-grace” will come grace.

The prophecy ends with the wondrous acts of God “on that Day.” The drought will be over; wine, milk and water will flow in abundance (3:18).

What we have to remember is that all this happens after the conversion of the people. If we do not accept our responsibility for the destruction and the wasteful use of the world’s resources, then “on that Day,” instead of an abundance of water and wine, our generation will be faced with the destruction of our ecological systems.

The United Nations has convoked the nations of the world to make bold ecological decisions. In 1972, representatives of 70 countries met in Stockholm and declared a moratorium of 10 years on the hunting of whales.

In 1992, 176 countries, 100 heads of state and 10,000 delegates met in Rio de Janeiro. They voted on a Declaration of Principles to save the forests.

In 2002, 189 countries, 100 heads of state and 65,000 delegates met in Johannesburg, South Africa. They reaffirmed the other meetings and declared a War on Poverty.

The president of the United States, the country that uses more of the world’s resources than any other region, did not attend.

Yes, indeed, God does great deeds and his love endures forever. But the time has come for the religions of the world to convoke their members to unite and force governments, industry and individuals to take initiatives and to make difficult decisions to save the world for the coming generations.

Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns is the retired archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2003