China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2014/Jul

The highest virtue is like water

In March, 2013 over 16,000 dead pigs floated over Huangpu River in Shanghai.

As the source region of the Yellow River gets drier, the weather modification team, under the auspices of the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, has used thousands of anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers, in addition to aircraft, to fire silver-iodide pellets into clouds to try to make rain (Greenpeace 2005 report).

In Hunan province in central China, Dongting Lake, the nation’s second largest freshwater lake, is suffocating.

For years, reckless discharge of industrial, human and animal waste from factories, human habitat and farms has caused excess nutrients that spur algae growth. This cuts down oxygen in the water, killing other aquatic life.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection reports, “underground water in 57 per cent of monitoring sites across Chinese cities has been found polluted or extremely polluted.”

In a story about cancer villages, whose existence has been denied by the Chinese government, the Guardian news reports: “Cancer mortality rates in China have risen 80 per cent over the past 30 years, making it the country’s leading cause of death.

“In cities, toxic air is a primary suspect; in the countryside, it is the water. More than 70 per cent of the country’s rivers and lakes are polluted, according to government reports; almost half may contain water that is unfit for human contact.” (June 4, 2013)

From melting glaciers in the Tibetan plateau to polluted water above and below ground, China faces a problem: how to supply safe drinking water to a population of 1.3 billion? What happens if it does not?

Chinese water records from legendary through to historical times can also be read as a handbook of governance. The emperor, Yu, the founder of the Xia Dynasty who succeeded the sage kings, was allowed to rule because he tamed the floods.

While others sought to block the waters and failed, Yu succeeded by de-silting and channelling the nine rivers.

Through the centuries, people were happy and prosperous when rivers were well tended. When there was neglect resulting in floods, drought and/or famine, all hell broke loose.

This title of this article refers to a line in Dao De Jing, the classic attributed to Lao Tzu (ca. fifth Century, BC).

“The highest virtue is like water. It benefits 10,000 things and does not compete. It occupies a lowly place where most people abhor, therefore it is close to the Dao.”

But if the water in a nation is polluted and people who drink it become sick, what does that say about the virtue of the nation?

China has spent, and is committed to spending up to five trillion yuan ($6.6 trillion) on water infrastructure and rural water projects by 2020. But all the money and all the plans have not made the water clean again.

Like Lao Tzu, a man once sang the praise of water: “Praise be to You my Lord for Sister Water. She is useful, and humble, precious and pure.” (The Canticle of the Creatures)

What is missing in China’s rigorous campaigns is the good news that produced an example of human reconciliation with all creatures in St Francis of Assisi.

“Francis was submissive to all creatures and scanned creation attentively, listening to its mysterious voices… The saint called all creatures his brothers and sisters because they are God’s gifts and signs of his providential and reconciling love” (The Assisi Declarations).

China has accomplished great engineering feats, but at huge social and environmental costs. In order to build the Three Gorges Dam the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, more than 1.2 million people were displaced when 14 cities, 140 towns and more than 1,000 villages were flooded.

The dam has caused more pollution and more frequent landslides along the river. The Yangtze River dolphin has been declared functionally extinct since 2006 and the Yangtze River finless porpoise critically endangered.

The massive south-north water diversion project began in 2012.

The goal is to draw water from rivers in the south to quench northern thirst. There is a concern that this would further endanger Yangtze’s ecosystem.

People downstream and in the south are already worried about having less water to drink, to irrigate and to carry goods.

To lessen the effects of water shortages in the Yangtze River, some have suggested diverting water from the Yarlung (Brahmaputra) and Lancang (Mekong) Rivers that start in China, but are the lifeblood of other countries. That would be a recipe for making bad neighbors.

China needs to develop to lift her people out of poverty. But as Pope Paul VI wrote in his 1967 encyclical, The Progress of Peoples (Populorum Progressio): “A narrow humanism, closed in on itself and not open to the values of the spirit and to God who is their source, could achieve apparent success, for man can set about organizing terrestrial realities without God. But ‘closed off from God, they will end up being directed against man. A humanism closed off from other realities becomes inhuman’” (42).

Authentic development, Pope Paul VI noted, is “the transition from less than human conditions to truly human ones” (20).

The less than human conditions refer to the “material poverty of those who lack the bare necessities of life,” as well as the “moral poverty of those who are crushed under the weight of their own self-love; oppressive political structures resulting from the abuse of ownership or the improper exercise of power…” (21).

Truly human conditions on the other hand begin with acquiring life’s necessities, broadening knowledge and culture.

From there a “growing awareness of other people’s dignity, a taste for the spirit of poverty, an active interest in the common good, and a desire for peace” (21) can be nurtured. Where is China in this scale of values?

The Assisi Declarations

In 1986, representatives of five faiths, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, met in Assisi to deliver the Assisi Declarations: Messages on Humanity and Nature.

Father Lanfranco Serrini, a Franciscan, began the Christian Declaration by giving thanks for the many gifts bestowed by the creator. He spoke of the marvel that various elements of the universe, through their interdependence, should bring to perfection the beauty of the universe.

He said, “Man’s dominion cannot be understood as licence to abuse, spoil, squander or destroy what God has made to manifest his glory.”

His message was clear. “Therefore, in the name of Christ, who will come to judge the living and the dead, Christians repudiate:

.All forms of human activity – wars, discrimination, and destruction of cultures – which do not respect the authentic interests of the human race, in accordance with God’s will and design, and do not enable men as individuals and as members of society to pursue and fulfil their total vocation within the harmony of the universe;

.All ill-considered exploitation of nature which threatens to destroy it and, in turn, to make man the victim of degradation;

In the name of Christ, Christians call upon all men and women to pursue:

.A synthesis between culture and faith;

.Ecumenical dialogue on the goals of scientific research and on the environmental consequences of the use of its findings;

.The priority of moral values over technological advances;

.Truth, justice, and the peaceful coexistence of all peoples.

I thirst

These were among last words of Jesus when he was dying on the cross for all people and for our sins. The Son of God who emptied himself shared in our creaturely poverty. Like all living creatures, he needed water. I thirst can also be understood as God joining humanity and all creation in longing for the world that God has promised.

What kind of world is that?

How can we help bring it about? The scriptures offer some clues:

Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come! (Isaiah 55:1)

Water is a right-to-life issue

Access to clean water is a human right not just for the rich.

For, as the rain and the snow come down from the sky
And do not return before having watered the earth,
fertilizing it and making it germinate
to provide seed for the sower and food to eat,
So it is with the word that goes from my mouth;
It will not return to me unfulfilled
or before having carried out my good pleasure
and having achieved what it was sent to do (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Image of nature

The prophet Isaiah draws on images of bountiful nature not extreme weather. The rain and the snow come down from heaven, and give life to all (fertilise, make germinate, provide seed and food).

Likewise, the word of God is life-giving. God’s word has a purpose, a mission that it will complete before returning to God. \

“John the Baptist heralded the coming of Christ by proclaiming a baptism of repentance.” (Acts 13:24) At the dawn of creation, the Holy Spirit breathed on the waters, making them the wellspring of all holiness (Liturgy of the Easter Vigil).

Polluting the environment is one of seven social sins. To clean the water and to restore virtue, we need to repent (change our heart).

When one is baptised (Greek baptizein, to immerse), the plunge into the water symbolizes a dying with Christ and rising with him as a new person. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1214)

We have a mission to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink.”

“Rivers of living water will flow from within him who believes in me” (John 7:38).

God has promised living water for all who thirst. We can help channel the flow by sharing the good news new life in Christ that is being one with God and all creation that is good.