“Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill made low,
and the crooked made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth.”
The prophets Isaiah and Baruch lived two or more centuries apart. Yet they shared a hope that we can also share some two-and-a-half millennia later. Facing apparently insurmountable obstacles and darkening future vistas they had and we have reason to believe that change is not only possible but heralds a joy-filled future, if only we repent and believe.
The image of a road comes mind while reading the Second Sunday of Advent scriptures. Not any road inspired me, though, but a very particular one running through Whitehorse, Yukon. The Alaska Highway or ALCAN stretches from Dawson Creek, B.C., to Delta Junction, Alaska. It was built in 1942, one of the darkest years of the Second World War. A sense of urgency inspired action. It would take less than eight months for well over 10,000 U.S. soldiers and thousands of Canadian civilians and military to hack out the initial pioneer road from the forests and mountains. It would run over 2,700 kilometers through some of the roughest terrain in North America.
War provided the impetus for this effort. Demands of commerce continued the process of change along the route. Once remembered as a tire-chewing, dirt-cloud marathon of a road trip, the whole route is now paved. Continued construction has literally seen mountains levelled and valleys filled to ease the highway journey. With many curves straightened the Alaska Highway now has become some 500 kilometers shorter than the original Second World War route.
This remarkable construction effort exemplifies our collective capacity to overcome enormous problems if we have the will to do so. Pope Francis’ Encyclical Laudato Si’ (“Praise be”) challenges us to act collectively on the mountainous threats facing our global family today. If we don’t face head on the gross and ever widening worldwide gap between rich and poor, climate change, and the staggering loss of biodiversity, the next generations of our common offspring will be confronted with the most fundamental survival challenges ever faced by humanity.
Two months ago, delegates gathered at the United Nations in New York City to agree on Sustainable Development Goals running for the next decade and a half. These will build on the partially met Millennium Development Goals. We truly have a very long road ahead of us. Imagine what an economic and social system based on gospel values would really look like?
We now are in the midst of the COP21 gathering in Paris, France. World governments including world’s biggest polluters and greenhouse gas producers must negotiate a new international agreement on climate change that really has teeth. What will it mean if yet again, only half measures are adopted?
Our political and corporate leaders must know that climate change presents us with “a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods,” which Pope Francis states will hit the poorest hardest. “Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades.”
The trek over the Alaska Highway through the vast forests of British Columbia north of Fort St. John, B.C., has changed dramatically over the passing decades. A vast web work of roads has spread out on both sides of it. Drill sites have sought to tap the natural gas deep within the earth’s folds. Fracking earthquakes, water pollution and sour gas come in train with these developments along with the other larger carbon release impacts on the environment. Can we envision an environmentally sustainable economy to base our society on?
Laudato Si’ puts it plainly before us. “A true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Delegates at the Development and Peace Orientation Assembly in Manitoba last summer heard, as well, that if you want peace, protect the environment.
How do we, in our homes, parishes and country, see “the rough ways made smooth”? First of all, we don’t have to do everything at once. Maybe the response of our parishes and communities will initially be to the Syrian refugee crisis or to our local Christmas hamper drive. It could be setting up a local Interfaith Power and Light calling us to faithful stewardship of Creation by encouraging energy conservation, efficiency, and renewability (http://www.interfaithpowerandlight.org.). Many different steps can be taken along the same path.
Sometimes, though, the macro issues force us to open our eyes to the transformative call of the gospel. Once we clearly see and understand the underlying causes of the crisis, then how can we fail to recognize the same forces at work in domestic troubles, which we have been blinded or deafened to for some reason? Lend a hand, “make the crooked straight.”
Most Junes for the last couple of decades I have found myself on a Greyhound bus heading down the Alaska Highway. My spirit always soars with the magnificent vistas along the route, like those over Muncho Lake or up the McDonald Creek Valley at Stone Mountain.
“The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy” (Ps 126).
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.