Ash Wednesday Reflection
For nine years starting in 1996, I lived and worked with people in the city dump of Joao Pessoa, Brazil, on the easternmost point of the Americas. What was then a dump was once a pristine swamp. In the 1950s the city started to throw its trash into the swamp and, after so many years, the garbage had built up into a 40-acre island, over 100 feet deep. Until 2003, when the city opened a new landfill, hundreds of men, women and children lived on top of that island and sorted through the city’s refuse as trucks poured more than 750 tons of garbage into the swamp every day. Whether under the brutally hot sun during the dry season, or slugging through knee-high mud, they worked long hours to earn minimal incomes.
As Maryknoll missioners around the world can attest, scenes like this, true social and ecological nightmares, are repeated in every country of the world. Abject poverty is not a reality for a tiny portion of the human family, but for huge swaths of the population. In every country where Maryknollers work, ecological destruction is also expanding at a rapid pace.
I think the reality of the dump/swamp in Joao Pessoa encapsulates well the two most prominent reasons why we are in need of Ash Wednesday’s call for repentance: As a human family, we have become unaware of, and insensitive to, how our actions and lifestyles contribute to the destruction of both God’s creation and human dignity. We fail to acknowledge how we are active participants in a system that forces hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry and strangles other forms of life with toxins and pollution.
It is crucial that we remember that everything that we buy and use is made of something extracted from Earth and processed by human workers. Our consumption directly implies the destruction and removal of parts of Earth’s bounty.
To help remember the effects of our consumption, it may help to recall scenes of human and environmental damage caused by the production of the things we use every day. When you drive your car, think of scenes from the documentary H2Oil, or of Chevron and Texaco’s destruction of the Ecuadoran Amazon (a devastating five minute video is available here, or watch a video letter to Chevron’s CEO here). Let those images sear into your memory. Have you ever bought gasoline from either of these companies? I know I have.
If you eat chicken, beef or pork, it is more than likely that the meat you are consuming comes from animals raised and killed in what’s known as a “confined animal feeding operation” (CAFO). As you eat, envision scenes from these horrific places. Video: “Truth of Factory Farming.” Remember that this reality — animals, created and loved by God, forced into unimaginable suffering during their short lives — exists in order to provide cheap meat for us.
Our constant search for cheaper products pushes corporate leaders to search for where they can pay the lowest wages and pollute most freely in order to lower costs. We often blame corporate CEOs for their rapacious actions without recognizing that they are responding to our own demands. We are all a fundamental part in this process.
The concept of repentance is not an easy one for many people. We like to focus on the positive, on the promise of Easter’s resurrection, instead of dwelling on Ash Wednesday’s call for repentance or the suffering of Good Friday. But in order to truly resurrect into a new way of living and acting, we need to first acknowledge our failings and the part we play in the human and environmental suffering we see around us.
This Ash Wednesday let’s stay in the uncomfortable space of repentance. Let’s not jump to resurrection, but take advantage of the wisdom of this holy day to reflect on to the role we play in this destruction, and, what changes we can make in our lives to help restore humanity and Earth.
How do I spend my money? Does my money support life or death? Does my investments fund chase the largest profits with the most destructive businesses or does it sustain healthy livelihoods and ecologically responsible business practices? How do I use my time? Do I spend more time contributing to the planet’s human and ecological wounds or to healing them? How can I change my actions and lifestyle to be more in tune with God’s plan for the world?
Dave Kane, Maryknoll lay missioner
Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns