“Making Peace with Nature” is the peculiar title of a scientific report recently tabled by the United Nations. That’s an attention-getting title for a peace-church eco-geek. My inquiring mind begs to know: How does the UN conceptualize “peace with nature” and how does its version compare with an Anabaptist understanding?
Rooted in Scripture, Mennonites understand peace (or shalom) as referring to God’s desires for the world. Peace is coming when all have the opportunity to flourish. That flourishing can be impeded by many things, including human lusts and greed, but also by societal structures.
So far so good. That fits the Sustainable Development Goals, a comprehensive and interconnected set of objectives covering all areas of what we would hope would be a good society in which to live.
According to the UN report, we are very far from accomplishing those goals. Human-caused ecological degradation is profound and an increasingly prominent barrier to human flourishing. This evidence is the report’s reasoning that humanity is not “at peace with nature.”
The overall goal of the report’s proposals is “transformative systemic change.” Particularly targeted are economic and financial systems. But this is no revolution. Transformation is to come through “human knowledge, ingenuity, technology and co-operation.”
Religious groups of all types name this as human hubris—founded in the same system that got us into the mess. An Anabaptist inspection of Scripture also sees that peace includes the character of faithful people: those inner characteristics and collective practices that help us be in better relationships with the Creator and with others. Flourishing cannot happen where poverty, degradation, inequity or failure of reconciliation exist.
There is nothing in the UN report with which I disagree. But it is not transformative enough. The report implies, but does not name, acting for the common good; loving one’s neighbour; and extending “neighbour” to all humans on the globe, and even to the entirety of the community of creation. It does not name, as faith groups do, the moral characteristics that allow co-operation to operate more intentionally for the good of all. It does not mention reconciliation or inner peace or ecological conversion.
To be fair, religious theories of social change often overemphasize individual conversion of the spirit. More of a problem is the tendency to see all humanity in the same way. Violence against creation more directly affects “the least of these,” that is, the most vulnerable. Even more importantly, this slow, degrading violence is not perpetrated equally; some have power and economic resources to lead more impactful lives (and “impact” is not meant favourably).
Leaders of numerous Christian development agencies struggle to communicate to their faith constituencies the urgency of global needs for ecologically sustainable development. Although environmental degradation substantially affects international development work, it is still often deemed “too political” for North Americans. Could it be that our lifestyles are at war with our intentions?
Clearly, if we humans have been doing violence to creation, “making peace with nature” will require social transformation. But it will also require reconciliation, restoration and transformative change from within the human spirit.
Randolph Haluza-DeLay spent two decades as a university faculty member focused on environmental justice.