Stewardship and the Consistent Life Ethic
by Tom Taylor
Alarming reports about climate change and ecological damage along with John Whitehead’s recent blog post on climate change have led me to thinking about stewardship. The principle of stewardship, it seems to me, is inherent in the Consistent Life Ethic (CLE), has great value as a positive expression of CLE in practice, and affirms the Consistent Life Network’s vision of connecting ways of thinking that promote peace and nonviolence.
Embedded in the idea of stewardship is protection of and reverence for all life. Good stewardship calls for the wise use of resources to counteract forces that lead to war, abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia, racism, poverty, and environmental destruction.
The concept of stewardship most obviously applies to care of the environment, and responsible use of land, water, energy, and all natural resources. But it also means allocating and stewarding sufficient resources to offer viable alternatives to violence and illustrate life-supporting approaches to all of the issues of consistent life concern:
- Resolving conflicts peacefully, and transferring resources currently devoted to war to peace initiatives and efforts that mitigate structural causes of war.
- Supporting women, families, and children through crisis or unplanned pregnancies and infancy, and even beyond, if needed.
- Allocating sufficient resources and services that reduce poverty and provide a strong safety net for low-income and vulnerable community members. Good stewardship in this area also includes offering opportunities for learning additional skills to strengthen economic security, develop full potential, increase a sense of self-sufficiency, and offer fuller possibilities for active participation in community life.
- Instituting programs that promote racial justice, understanding, connection, and reconciliation among diverse racial and ethnic groups. An example might be allocating significant funding for affordable housing capable of attracting a wide diversity of residents throughout neighborhoods in any given community.
- Initiating restorative justice practices and viable rehabilitation services as an alternative to the death penalty and mass incarceration.
- Offering quality palliative care, emotional support, and community connections to terminally ill individuals. This will obviate any tendency toward assisted suicide or euthanasia by reducing physical suffering, loneliness, isolation, and depression, and maintaining a strong sense of connection and value to the very end.
- Protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, reducing waste, and preserving land, soil, watersheds, wildlife, and habitat.
In these ways, consistent life values embody the idea of stewardship by honoring life in all the forms and stages it may have, by honoring the dignity of all persons, and by honoring all the interconnections that support human life along with the life-sustaining processes of earth. As such, stewardship can be seen as a foundational underpinning and affirmation of the consistent life ethic. It connects with all of the positive ways we can support peace and life-fulfilling activities in our daily community and personal lives as well as oppose threats to life. It affords us the opportunity to make life-affirming decisions in our daily choices concerning our habits of consuming, using resources, and supporting business enterprises and community programs.
As humans at top of the chain of life, perhaps our first and greatest responsibility is to be good stewards and caretakers of all that we are given – of life in all its stages, forms, processes, and capacities, whether its essence be human (at any stage), domestic animals and wildlife, or natural resource and habitat. This stance makes “do no harm” the highest human priority, and fully embodies the mantra of “reverence for all life” often cited in ecology writing.
The essays of Wendell Berry, a CLE endorser, inform and articulate this thinking in great depth. He writes:
“The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.” (The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, 1978, p. 14)
Berry gives this responsibility a broad scope that reflects the consistent life ethic when, in speaking of conservation, he defines it “to mean giving care to everything needing care: wilderness, all bodies of water, the air, farms and working forests, all the creatures (living and not-living), neighbors, families and communities, languages, cultures, minds, souls, freedom, democracy, the Constitution.” (The Way of Ignorance, 2005, p. 150)
This vision of consistent life stewardship offers a positive affirmation of the many things the consistent life movement supports in addition to the threats it opposes. Perhaps this vistion of stewardship can be helpful in spreading the consistent life idea by suggesting practical ways to work toward the societal changes that the movement envisions. The stewardship concept additionally establishes a strong connection between the consistent life ethic and current environmental issues, including climate change, that present further threats to life.
Stewardship also offers the opportunity in our individual, personal lives to model and practice life-honoring values in ways such as reducing our consumption, waste, and carbon footprint, and supporting consistent life efforts with contributions of our time or financial donations — in essence, being good stewards of all aspects of our lives and the goods available for our use.
As Berry states: “If we take care of the world of the present, the future will have received full justice from us. A good future is implicit in the soils, forests, grasslands, marshes, deserts, mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans that we have now, and in the good things of human culture that we have now; the only valid “futurology” available to us is to take care of those things. (What Are People For?, 2010, p. 188)
Berry’s writing also recounts how violence results from lack of true stewardship:
“The great moral issue of our time, too much ignored by both sides of our present political division, is violence. From the colonialism that began with long-distance navigation to the present stage of industrialism, we of the so-called West have lived and gathered wealth increasingly by violence. This has been increasingly an age of fire…We run our factories, businesses, and households by means of fires or controlled explosions in furnaces and power plants. We fight our wars by controlled, and sometimes uncontrolled, explosions. Violence, in short, is the norm of our economic life and our national security. The line that connects the bombing of a civilian population to the mountain “removed” by strip mining to the gullied and poisoned field to the clear-cut watershed to the tortured prisoner seems to run pretty straight.” (The Way of Ignorance, pp. 145-146)
The principle of stewardship as part of the consistent life ethic also is supported in the thinking of Gandhi, whose statements and writings on duty and responsibility, trusteeship, village economy, and the Constructive Program all reflect a sense of stewardship that is key to his philosophy of nonviolence and ahimsa (harmlessness). This perhaps is summed up best in Gandhi’s famous statement: “The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not for every man’s greed.”
In the essay, Gandhian Vision of Environment, C.S. Dharmadhikari states: “Gandhi was the first man to introduce the concept of service to nature in order to enrich nature… Gandhi visualized a non-violent economic order based on equality and justice. He advocated a simple life which fulfils basic necessities of life and is in tune with nature… His concept of non-violence was an all-encompassing and a positive one. It is not merely a ‘live and let live’ formula, but it involves a principle of ‘live and help others to live,’ and these others should include human beings, animals and nature.”
In closing this consideration of stewardship, there is perhaps no better summation than some words from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in his writings on the consistent life ethic: “We are stewards, not sole owners, of all of our resources, human and material.” (The Seamless Garment: Writings on the Consistent Ethic of Life, 2008, p. 245)