It’s a big phrase, isn’t it? A phrase that inspires activism and concern, rage and disdain. Some deny it exists, some deny our complicity in it, some think it’s something that happens to other people. All these different voices scream at each other and it’s easy to want to hide behind the sofa, our ears covered and eyes closed, trying to shut out the future.
Sometimes we spiritualise that. A lot of Christians see the earth as transitory, that our ultimate destiny lies in the recreated new heaven and new earth described in Revelation. And so when climate change is described in apocalyptic terms, it almost feels like a clash of eschatologies, a theological Mexican stand-off. This is fascinating as far as it goes, but it’s an indulgent theological dead end; there are plenty of people experiencing environmental problems now. This isn’t an issue for the future, it’s an issue that’s arrived, kicked over the bins and sat down on our doorstep. Our spiritual ancestors walked out of the waves of floods and through the dust of famines, and they haven’t stopped walking yet.
Just ask the people living in areas impacted by the Dakota Access Pipeline. If you live thee, environmental issues have a daily impact, especially if you’re getting manhandled by security and railroaded by corporations and watching your rivers get poisoned. And it’s not getting a vast amount of airtime, but it’s a lived reality for a lot of people right now. It’s not a hypothetical situation, it’s something that needs an immediate, local, incarnational response. Imagine if you live in Flint, Michigan, with lead-poisoned water. Imagine if you live in Tuvalu, with your very country starting to disappear beneath the waves, a slow Atlantis with genuine human consequences.
Of course, you and I may have been fortunate enough to have dodged this, at least in the immediate sense. That’s great for me, but it’s a major reason to think about how our churches respond to environmental issues. Because acres of the Bible teach us that we should have compassion and concern for the poor, and yet who’s on the front line of climate change and other green issues?
Exactly. The poor.
That immediately places a responsibility on the church. People are suffering as a result of environmental issues, many of those our brothers and sisters in Christ, and as disciples we need to be aware of this. We need to develop a greater appreciation for what’s happening in the wider world, we need to have a greater awareness of how our choices affect people on the other side of the globe, we need to get better at foreseeing all those unforeseen circumstances.
Now, that might be beyond the resources of most churches, but we can keep an eye on our neighbours, we can be better stewards of our resources, we can build more informed relationships with all those countries we support through our mission budgets. And that means asking some very focused questions about our local communities: how does all this affect churches in rural, agricultural areas? What happens if a town or city becomes more prone to flooding? Is your churchyard a Noah’s Ark? Who in our congregations are most at risk from extremes of temperature? Kids? The elderly? How do we look after them? Does everyone have decent drinking water? Is someone about to dump toxic waste into our local river? Are there any decent green spaces in our town? What about outdoor leisure facilities? How many jobs depend on the environment (or on trashing the environment)?
“Environment” is a big word. It encompasses climate, biodiversity, waste management, public spaces, public hygiene, plants and animals, soil and seed. And all of these impact each one of us, and our churches, because it’s another way of serving our communities and demonstrating God’s love to those around us, both right now and in the future. It’s not a matter of scientific or theological debate; it’s a matter of compassion and justice.
There are opportunities here, if we’ll open our eyes to them. Maybe it’s the impetus you need to do something fun and creative with that patch of land at the back of your church. Maybe by saving energy you can save money and reinvest those savings into new and existing projects. Maybe this could transform your next harvest festival. Maybe it could bring you out onto the streets for justice. Maybe it’ll awaken some prophets.
And as the environment is a global issue, there are opportunities for us to act as the worldwide Body of Christ. Congregations in the West could learn something about biodiversity from Ethiopia’s forest churches, for example; maybe this is another reason we should act as a network rather than in silos.
I don’t know what all this looks like in your church community – that’s for you to figure out. But I do know you need to plan for how your congregation interacts with its environment because that’s not something that’ll be dealt with by the eschaton, it’s something that affects all our lives, every minute, every day. And if we’re going to live out the Kingdom of God in our world, the least we can do is make sure the streets are clean, that the baptismal waters are non-toxic, that the least among us are protected. And that the good creation gift of God is honoured and respected.
This blog is an attempt to explore what this looks like in the world around us, and how each of us need to change to respond to the challenges and opportunities that emerge. I hope you’ll join me in this journey.