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Can politics save us?

Environmental advocacy and concern, like promises made by politicians ahead of elections, seems to amount to nothing: little if any concrete actions result.  Chris Chatteris SJ questions how long governments and their citizens, and especially people of faith who preach the seriousness of the problem, can only pay lip service.

We have to read the signs of the times even when they are as ominous as they are today. René Girard’s dictum that ‘politics can no longer save us’ seems to be coming to pass. Yet another political strongman has made it into office, this time in Brazil and he has the approval of US National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Brazil evokes reflection on BRICS and whether that political structure of which we are part, can save South Africa.

Independent Newspapers seems to think so, giving as it does, ample space for member states China, Russia and India to express their views. Being part of an alternative trading zone is all very well but the present leadership line-up in that bloc would surely make our own president, Cyril Ramaphosa, wince uncomfortably. Imagine being in a group photograph with a latter-day, minority-suppressing emperor, a thug who kills his political enemies with nuclear material and nerve agents, a climate-change denying neo-fascist and a religious strongman. If these are our saviours, then God help us.

Other would-be saviours, from whom we should invoke the protection of the Lord, are the King of Saudi Arabia and the Presidents of Turkey and the Philippines. Meanwhile in Europe the Brexit fiasco trundles on, and the most grown-up, democratic politician, Angela Merkel, is about to step down.

The question mark over politics is spilling onto the streets. In the UK, an organisation called Extinction Rebellion, led by a group of scientists, believes that the failure of politicians to respond adequately to climate change constitutes a breakdown of the social contract between them and the electorate. Rather than do what they are elected to do or even respond to the polls that show that people want rapid and radical action, they do homage to the energy and oil companies that helped them into office. They either do nothing or they slow down the transition to climate-friendly energy to enable their wealthy friends to maximise their profits. Extinction Rebellion argues, therefore, that direct street action and mass civil disobedience are the only possible ways forward. Some have already been arrested. Their strategy is to ensure that more of their members are put behind bars.

Extinction Rebellion has not abandoned politics per se, but the members point to a serious breakdown in the effectiveness of democracy. It’s hard not to agree: if politicians do not take a clear lead immediately, we are in danger of completely trashing our planet and driving ourselves to extinction. All the latest scientific reports are telling us this and yet politicians continue to play politics, fiddling while the world burns.

The traditional counter-argument here, of course, is that we get the governments we deserve. Perhaps. If Girard is right that humanity is in the process of sacrificing on the altar of consumerism, the environment on which it depends for its very survival, the pressing moral question is to what extent we are part of that, as a body and as members of the body.

Pope Francis has written in Laudato Si’ about the need for an ecological conversion. In the context of this discussion this must mean a conversion on the part of our leaders, a call to come to their senses and urgently address this issue of the very survival of humanity along with the ‘infrastructure of life’ which supports us. Whether they are re-elected should be a very secondary consideration.

Our own Church leadership is also under the spotlight here, in my view. It is not all that obvious that we clergy and religious pay much more than lip service to Laudato Si’ and the pope’s lead. Have we even thought about how to mirror the encyclical in real life and give an example to the people of God? Have we, to put it very concretely and specifically, asked ourselves how we can moderate and perhaps eliminate our present carbon-careless lifestyle?

It seems incumbent on the Church, led by its pastors, to undergo this ecological conversion, for that common good about which we speak and write so much. And it is instructive to note that there is a number of prominent secular figures out there who appear to have been converted before us: journalists and activists who, as a matter of principle, are vegetarians, do not have private transport and who rarely or never fly.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France, part of which was at the L’Arche Community of Jean Vanier fame. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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