Hearing the Cries of the Earth and the Poor

African Ecological Ethics and Spirituality for Cosmic Flourishing
An African Commentary on Laudato Si’

Edited by Stan Chu Ilo
Cascade Books. pp. 190, $24

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By Lucas Briola

As Western Christianity stands mired in ecclesiastical gridlock, hope comes from Africa. This collection of essays, gathered from conversations in the Pan-African Catholic Theology and Pastoral Network, presents African voices on an ecclesial text that has been unevenly received in the Global North: Laudato Si’.

In the words of its editor, Stan Chu Ilo, the volume “offers Africa’s gifts, talents, experience, and practical approaches for understanding the crisis we face, as well as the wisdom of our traditions and practices in conversation with Catholic social teaching on ecology as contained in this impactful encyclical.” Its essays highlight key components of the integral ecology of Laudato Si’ that might otherwise go undetected by our eyes.

The book illustrates how tangibly the cries of the earth and the poor overlap with each other. While economic welfare is often pitted against environmental care, Pope Francis reminds us that the poor bear the disproportionate brunt of environmental degradation (LS, 49).

Perhaps in no area is this observation clearer than in Africa. Almost all the essays in this volume begin by locating the cries of the earth and the poor in a particular African context. Examples include rising water levels in Lake Victoria, toxic waste-dumping in Ivory Coast, the Addis Ababa landfill disaster, Cyclone Idai, abusive mining practices in Congo, and deforestation in Kenya.

The poor and the earth cry out because of a particular vision of progress imposed upon Africa. For this reason, the authors of this volume shine a light on Pope Francis’ incisive critique of Western modernity as excessively anthropocentric, technocratic, and relativistic (LS, 106-23): a vision of colonial legacy in Africa.

In her essay, Evelyn Namakula Birabwa Mayanja details the clash of Western values of consumerism and neoliberalism — often in the form of various technologies — with more traditional and holistic African values. Western values are quickly colonizing those of Africa, the cost of Africa’s reliance on the global economy.

“In Africa,” she laments, “we are trapped by copying Euro-American tech practices and the colonial legacy of considering whatever is African as archaic and useless.” Such observations, which fill many essays in the volume, illustrate what Pope Francis names as the “ironclad logic” of the cultural forces that devastate our common home (LS, 108).

Many of the authors in this volume marshal a resistance by recovering a Christian African alternative. This attempt represents the book’s most significant contribution to broader ecclesial efforts to care for our common home. Pope Francis proposes a sacramental vision of communion as the theological solution to the ecological crisis (LS, 233-40). Many of the essays suggest that the vitalistic worldviews and relational anthropologies characteristic of indigenous African culture complement Pope Francis’ call.

The African philosophy of Ubuntu, sometimes rendered “I am because we are,” receives particular attention. In his essay, Odomaro Mugbangizi identifies this dialogue between Laudato Si’ and African philosophy as “an emerging African integral ecospirituality.” Ubuntu can supply a tried-and-tested praxis to the vision of Laudato Si’, while the encyclical can extend Ubuntu to all creation. How the distinctively Christian can transform and perfect a philosophy like Ubuntu remains a question worth further exploration.

Reading Laudato Si’ through African eyes gives us a fresh perspective on a prophetic text that is too often domesticated. This is the gift of belonging to the universal Church. I found it particularly inspiring to read about various ecclesial practices in Africa aimed at caring for our common home, like Emmanuel Katongole’s Bethany Land Institute in Uganda. We can only hope this text will inspire similarly redemptive work.

Dr. Lucas Briola is assistant professor of theology at Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania.


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