The Fires of Amazonia

By: Drew Christiansen

November 15, 2019

Responding to: Religious Responses to the Amazon Rainforest Fires

The Fires of Amazonia

On October 27, 2019, Pope Francis closed the three-week-long Synod for Amazonia. Both within and without the church, the synod has drawn criticism. Pope Francis’ traditionalist opponents, with deep pockets from the United States, mounted a blitz in the conservative media, and they won the attention of the mainstream media who could not resist memes about a heretical pope. 

In Brazil and beyond, the wealthy revanchist group Tradition, Family, Property (TFP) mounted its own assault on pope and synod on behalf of entrenched interests. In the 1960s and 70s, TFP opposed Pope Paul VI’s support for land reform and later the Latin American bishops’ Option for the Poor led by Brazilians bishops including Hélder Câmara of Recifé and Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns of São Paolo.

It is an old story, repeated time and time again since the sixteenth-century European conquest of the Americas. In the sixteenth century, Bartolomé de las Casas struggled to defend the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Mesoamerica from the savagery of the conquistadors and the enslavement and predations of land-grabbing colonists. 

During the Zapatista rebellion of the late 1990s in Mexico, indigenous evangelicals came down from the mountains to defend Samuel Ruiz, the Catholic bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas State, against threats from local ranchers. They came, they said, to protect “their bishop,” who had also defended their rights. 

In 2000 Mario Higueras, a Mennonite leader, told the International Mennonite-Catholic Dialogue that in his country the peace church was not his own Mennonite Church, famed for its pacifism, but the Catholic Church on account of the bishops’ defense of the poor and indigenous. Two years before, shortly after delivering a report on atrocities and rights violations, especially against indigenous peoples, during the 1960–1996 Guatemalan Civil War, Bishop Juan Gerardi had been assassinated. Catholics and evangelicals are both divided and united by defense of indigenous people and their lands.

Much of the division between evangelicals and Catholics is fanned by economic and political divisions. In Guatemala, for example, the late President Efrain Rios Montt converted to evangelicalism and later founded his own church out of political convenience.

During the Synod for Amazonia, one of the most moving expressions of the bishops’ concern came in an unofficial Pact of Bishops of the Catacombs for Our Common Home. As reported in the CNS documentary service Origins, the bishops “promised to defend the Amazon rainforest, to promote an ‘integral ecology’ of care for people and for the Earth . . . to live ‘a happily sober lifestyle, simple and in solidarity with those who have little or nothing.’” 

“They made a renewed commitment,” reports Origins, to help the indigenous people of the Amazon to “‘preserve their lands, cultures, languages, stories, identities and spiritualities.’”

When, in a few weeks, Pope Francis issues his report on the synod, no doubt the well-funded culture wars will break out again. What can be done to overcome incitement and promote interfaith collaboration? 

Common action should begin with opposing politicization of Christian social concern:

  • Both Catholic and evangelicals should resist being drawn into conflict inflamed by political partisanship. 
  • Members of both communities should insist that journalists refrain from shallow reporting on the hot political memes of the moment.
  • They should also pressure media outlets to report on the substantive issues and the positive engagement of church and popular groups, not just the whining of small minorities and the ups and downs of politics.

At the grassroots level, I suggest: 

  • Evangelicals and Catholics join denominational and interdenominational efforts to defend the environment and indigenous peoples.
  • For U.S. Catholics that is the USCCB environmental justice program and the Catholic Climate Covenant.
  • For evangelicals it is the Evangelical Environmental Network and the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.

At the institutional level, church bodies and leaders should explore new initiatives. Here at Georgetown, we can do a number of things:

  • Catholics and Evangelicals for the Common Good, an initiative of the President’s Office, might be reconvened in response to the Synod for Amazonia.
  • The book of the same name might be updated, translated into Spanish, and shared in inter-continental dialogues of evangelicals and Catholics.
  • Campus Ministry might bring together Catholic and evangelical students in educational and work trips during school breaks, studying and working with their counterparts from the nations of Amazonia.

With the Amazon still burning, Pope Francis invoked the fire of the Holy Spirit at the synod’s opening. “God’s fire,” the pope observed, “burns but does not consume (c.f. Exodus 3:2), it is the fire of love that illumines, warms and gives life, not a fire that blazes up and devours. When peoples and cultures are devoured without love and without respect that is not God’s fire, but the world’s.” 

May God hear his prayer, and God’s people too, Catholics and evangelicals together.

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