Different Horizons: Tuvalu

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In 2015, Rev. Tafue Lusama, leader of the Christian Church of Tuvalu, embarked on a speaking tour with Restoring Eden in an effort to explain how climate change isn’t a hypothetical concern for the future, but a real and present danger to communities across the world. Tuvalu, a group of Pacific islands, is one of the smallest countries in the world, lying on average at just 2 metres above sea level. That means, in the event of rising oceans, Tuvalu is going to bear the brunt of a changing climate. Not only will land disappear beneath the waves, but valuable crops will be wiped out and sources of fresh water will be lost.

Tuvalu is small and remote, and doesn’t get much coverage in global media. Yet it’s on the frontline of climate change. A subsistence economy, the church in Tuvalu has a more proactive approach to the current threat, seeing a response to climate change as an intrinsic part of the church’s mission. The land is eroding away, livelihoods are being threatened, and ironically the country is suffering from drought (too much salt water, not enough fresh water). It’s easy to suggest evacuating the islands, but that’s almost a flippant response, requiring the loss of a home, a culture, a community, a language, an identity.

This situation illuminates the difference between rich, secure nations and smaller, low-lying countries. In the US and the UK, people will debate whether climate change is even real; in Tuvalu, climate change is the most social issue, impacting resources, skills, economy, environment and culture. This isn’t a matter for debate, this is something that is bleaching coral and salinizing water right now. That’s why the church in Tuvalu is so involved with the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network.

 The Church needs to take this seriously: Climate change isn’t ideological or hypothetical, it’s pastoral. It’s pastoral for ministers like Rev. Lusama, it’s pastoral for you and me. Lusama makes the point that we need to know which side we’re on – the side of those who are suffering the immediate impacts of climate change, or the side of the systems that would exploit, ignore and belittle those people. As a Church, the answer to that should be easy; unfortunately it too often isn’t.

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Water is Life

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An oil-blooded serpent runs through Dakota. People in Michigan turn on their taps and lead-tainted water flows out. Girls can’t go to school for lack of water. Water is life. Water has always been life.

The history of civilisation is, in some ways, the history of water – streams and rivers, irrigation and wells, sewage systems and canals. Water is essential, for farming, for hygiene, for life itself, and when water becomes polluted, when water dries up, civilisation starts to fade and move on.

There’s a story, buried away in the second biblical Book of Kings, of Elisha healing the waters of Jericho. It’s a strange one, but let’s see it as a healing miracle for a whole community, rather than an individual; a resurrection miracle for the land rather than a person. Jericho is dying, but the prophet walks into town and brings the springs back to life in the power of God. Day to day urban practicalities sit alongside more spiritual concerns, the two not separate but intimately interwoven. There’s a darker side to that – in Joshua 6:26, Jericho is placed under a curse, with death promised to whoever rebuilds it. The weight of history sits heavily upon that community, but Elisha turns the situation round – the healing of the waters is also a healing of that curse, a new start for a community, an act of grace. Water is life.

Nowadays, that healing would be a more controversial subject. Some of the biggest problems relating to the supply of water aren’t related to natural forces but to human greed and a refusal to consider the human cost of corporate ‘progress’. And, as with many issues relating to the environment, the forces of racism also loom large.

So, when the water supply to Flint, Michigan has been polluted by dangerously high levels of lead since 2014, we need to confront how those waters can be healed, but also why – especially as up to 12,000 children could have been exposed to what is effectively a neurotoxin, especially as the situation disproportionately affects black communities.

So, when the Dakota Access Pipeline is diverted away from the water source of the state capital and through the Standing Rock Sioux reservation lands, leading to assaults on protesters and the renewal of activity as the result of an executive order from President Trump, we have to see it in the light of the historic mistreatment of Native American tribes and a tendency for protests to be met with violence.

So when girls across Africa can’t go to school because the lack of facilities means they can’t go to the toilet without putting themselves at risk of rape, we have to look at how we can support moves to address this inequality.

Like the story of Elisha healing the water, these are, on their surface, stories of anomalies, of problems that need to be fixed. But on the deeper level, they’re symptoms of a curse – of the way in which we’ve commodified resources as precious as water, of the way in which indigenous and black and poor communities are often the first to suffer the ill effects of the way in which we manipulate our environment and disrupt our climate. And that’s a curse that needs lifting, healing.

And so maybe, in these stories in which the corruption of water brings death, we can ask for the grace of healing, and see our communities resurrected. But that can only be done when the history of those communities is confronted, and present injustices fixed. Only then can the water be healed; only then can our lands start to prosper again.

Different Horizons: Ethiopia

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As I was growing up, Ethiopia was synonymous with one thing: famine. The BBC broadcast heart-breaking footage of children with swollen bellies covered in flies, and Live Aid was born out of those scenes of genuine human catastrophe. Those images stuck with me for years, and even though I grew to appreciate that a country is bigger than the 10 o’clock news and a moment in history, Ethiopia still conjured scenes of dust and despair.

But there are other images of Ethiopia. The Church Forests, mainly concentrated around the source of the Blue Nile, were created as a physical reminder of God’s creation, symbolic Gardens of Eden in areas where much land has been cleared for agriculture. Administered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahido Church, they’re home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and while they’ve always served a spiritual purpose, now the church is working with conservationists to help preserve the country’s flora and fauna. And that has a knock-effect for communities, with plans to engage the children involved with the churches with mini-conservation surveys based around insects, projects that are simple and cheap and therefore sustainable and replicable in the future for more on this, check out the work of Dr. Margaret Lowman, who has been working with local churches to help preserve the forests.

It’s funny how, in that last paragraph, I drew an implicit distinction between the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘physical’. That’s a failing of the Western Church, I think, where concern for the environment is seen as something New Agey and has a negative impact on how we approach issues like climate change. When we adopt an attitude of domination rather than genuine stewardship, the church can be embedded as part of the problem rather than contributing to a solution.

But the Church Forests have been doing this for over 1,500 years. And while they’re now having to build protective walls around their forests, there’s still a challenge here – what if churches from around the world learned from Ethiopia? What if this was one of the models by which the church engaged with environmental issues? What if one of the priests who look after the Church Forests was asked to speak at one of our big conferences? That raises a lot of questions and issues, around perceived authority and colonialism, and the environment is a lens through which we need to confront this. The question at the root of it all, though, is simple:

What if we became better at learning from each other?

Climate Refugees: A Faith Perspective

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One day the rains didn’t come, and the next day, and the next. Then the herds began to thirst and die, crops crumbled into the dry ground, skies still parched and empty and bearing down on a family nearing starvation.

Salvation was at hand; one brother had found their way into Egypt, and through a series of misadventures he had the ear of Pharaoh. Joseph, blessed with insight as to how to distribute the Nile’s bounty during a time of famine, saved his family from the worst a changing climate had to offer.

But in times of crisis, opportunists will arise, and so Joseph became powerful and exploited the vulnerable, in the way that you can when you’ve got something everyone else needs. A couple of hundred years later his descendants found themselves slaves of the Egyptians. When the climate turns against you it can cast a long shadow.

Centuries later, another famine swept through Israel, forcing a particular family to flee to Moab, an ancient land now in modern Jordan. Soil turning to dust underfoot, Elimelek and his family took a look back at the Promised Land and made their way towards a new life. Only one of them would return, accompanied by a widowed daughter-in-law, and yet in the face of starvation and natural disaster, those poverty-scarred survivors would go on to become the line of King David, the ancestors of the Messiah. And throughout the narrative, names conjure images of emptiness and fulfillment, famine and harvest. The dust of a vicious climate coats the whole story.

There are other examples; a famine striking the Romans Empire in Acts 11, prompting the infant Church to pool together resources and distribute aid; the climatic conditions that drive Abraham into conflict with PharaohJoel’s locust swarm that forms the backdrop to his great prophecy of the coming of the Holy Spirit. The environment is Scripture’s silent backdrop that nevertheless shapes events and people and the work of God. We can’t ignore it.

Nor can we ignore the 20 million climate refugees thought to be on the move today. We can’t ignore those whose water supplies are polluted, or whose food sources are dying, whose homes have tides lapping at their door, whose churches are facing a Noah’s Ark scenario of their own. We argue about how and why these things happen, but we forget the people. When it comes to theology we seem to spend more time debating the eschatology of the Anthropocene, its mechanisms and its imagined idolatries, than we do in serving those most affected by a changing climate. Faith and history will both judge us for that.

In his latest book, Rob Bell highlights the danger of reading the Bible as if it’s about the past or the future but not the present. We can’t ignore how the stories we read throughout the Bible intersect with what’s going on in the world around us. That’said why we need public theology. That’said why we need to speak with grace and mercy and love rather than treating vulnerable people as problems to be confronted by our dogmatism

And that’s why your church needs an environmental policy, and see the footprints in the dust and in the mud, and to know they could be our own.

Out of the Waves, Out of the Dust

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Climate Change.

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.