Jewish, Catholic and Muslim speakers found common ground in recognising the call to greater environmental care through their respective faiths, in an interfaith event on “Care of our Earth” held at the Salvation Army Citadel in central Wellington on March 8. 

Hosted by the Abrahamic Council of Wellington, the event featured Catholic educator Catherine Gibbs of The Catholic Institute; Paul Blaschke, a Jewish ecologist and teacher, and Tahir Nawaz, President of the International Muslim Association of New Zealand.

Both Ms Gibbs and Dr Blaschke emphasised the interconnectedness of all creation, while Mr Nawaz said, “Muslims are encouraged to reflect on the relationship between living organisms and their environment and to maintain the ecological balance created by Almighty God”.

Ms Gibbs said the principle of interconnectedness was brought home to her in 2014 when severe floods in the lower North Island washed up Manawatu onions onto her local Wellington beach. It is a key theme of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, on caring for our common home, where he says 11 times that “everything is connected”.

“This is a spiritual and moral assertion and not new,” said Ms Gibbs, “and it is absolutely consistent with and nourished by modern science.”

Ms Gibbs emphasised four key principles in responding in faith to the environmental crisis we face:  contemplation of God’s creation, conversion to an ecological understanding, conversation and dialogue, and care of each other and of the earth.

Dr Blaschke said he trained and worked primarily as an ecologist, and had only recently been connecting his Jewish faith with his environmental knowledge. While he found God’s injunction in Genesis for humanity to “dominate” the things of the earth quite challenging, he said the Jewish concept of “tikkum olam” (love or care for the world) speaks of our responsibility to live within ethical and physical limits; while “Shabbat” as a day of rest, and the sabbatical year, remind us that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that ultimately everything belongs to God.

“The principle of interconnectedness is at the heart of sustainability,” he said, and quoted from a Rabbinic letter on climate change from 2015, which said “We urge those focusing on social justice to address the climate crisis, and those focusing on the climate crisis to address social justice.”

He said the situation was urgent as we stand at the beginning of what has been called the Anthropocene — an era defined by humans’ massive impact on the planet, such that it’s able to be seen in the geological record. “We affect the climate and atmosphere in lasting ways and . . . are currently causing one of the greatest mass extinctions of all God’s other creatures on this earth.”

He no longer thinks science, politics or economics can provide the answers. “Communication or messaging will be the key,” he said. “I think it’s now over to other players in society, whether they be storytellers, actors, media personalities, or — last but not least — people of faith who can tell the stories, give inspiration and ideas.”

Mr Nawaz said God has told us what to do through our various religious texts — what he called our SOPs (standard operating procedures). “And if we don’t do what we’re assigned to do, there are consequences”, referring to floods and famines around the world.

People of belief have a role to play. “They have to keep reminding others of their responsibility. One of the parts they play is they have to keep pushing this message forward. What are the tasks required of us by our SOPs, our religious books?”

During question time, Ms Gibbs expounded on ecological conversion as a realisation “that there is a greater love that holds us together than we can ever hope to understand, and realising how small we are in that . . . , and yet how powerful we are . . . to be able to change where we need to change.”

The four key principles should be seen as ripples around a pond, with the family at the centre of formation and understanding. Around that are school communities and faith communities, then around that the wider world — where we need to advocate and get involved politically, trying to influence every sphere at every level.