The text of the keynote talk given at Operation Noah’s AGM. A variation of the same talk was given at annual conference of Christians on the Left (29/06/19)
70 years ago, observing the ways humans had altered the world around them, naturalist Aldo wrote that ‘one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds… an ecologist must either… make believe that the consequences of science are none of their business, or they must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.’ 70 years on, how might Leopold measure the truth about our wellness?
I am going to start by measuring the truth about us in sausage rolls. Some of you may have followed the odd outrage that followed the launch of the Gregg’s vegan sausage roll – but are we any better in Christian circles? I once had the questionable privilege of being on a committee to help a Christian group become more carbon literate. One proposal was that lunches served should be vegetarian or vegan. People were welcome to bring their own lunch, but provided lunches would not contain meat. This turned out to be quite controversial. I found myself being publically shouted at over the change and was even informed that I was an eco-fascist. On another occasion, a different Christian group I was part of which had a focus on sustainability decided to eat only vegetarian food in lent. At one meal some guests to our group were so outraged that they had not been offered meat that they went out to buy their own food, eating it separately. In both instances it was irrelevant that the food was free in the first place, and that there isn’t a vegan mafia out there coming to get your sausage rolls. (There really isn’t. I have asked them, and they have assured me they don’t exist.)
This isn’t about the rights and wrongs of vegetarian meals. For most of my life I ate meat most days, and I don’t consider individual diets to be the measure of commitment to the environmental movement. I share it because I learnt two things. Firstly, never underestimate the power of emotional attachment to our comforts, to the point where most of us, even in the Church, behave as if our privileges are rights. Secondly, most of us, deep down, still believe ourselves – and the world around us – to be basically well and do not want to be told otherwise, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So how do we speak truth to power in a climate crisis? Is there a specifically Christian way to speak this truth, and does it go beyond a vegan sausage roll or two?
In the introduction to Planetary Solidarity, Grace Ji-Sun Kim writes that ‘theology and doctrine have made the rest of creation external to the story of God with human beings. Climate change brings home that there is no such externality.’
So where do we begin? Let’s start with the truth that God is creator. Truth about the earth and its health, revealed in the work of scientists and indigenous and subsistence communities around the world, is truth about something that belongs to God. If that is our faith, then we must be defenders of that truth. Satan, the father of lies, will work to obscure these truths. As Christians we must always be for the truth, as much as we can be. And there is the truth that we believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. Born and died on this earth, as one of us. The earth he has walked is holy, caught up in the story of redemption that he invites us to join. This is the Jesus who showed us the path to the kingdom in the mustard seed, on the back of a donkey, in the bread and the wine. Flashes, hints, of God’s grace and character in the wild flowers of the field and baby who reaches out with chubby arms for blessing. To walk with Jesus is to walk this earth, to see it – really see it – and all who live on it – and long for the healing of its wounds.
And we can long for its healing because we believe in the forgiveness of sins. ‘Sin’ is not a word I hear often in climate activist circles. In fact, to a certain degree many activist groups have avoided it entirely, seeking inclusivity by adopting a ‘no blame, no shame’ culture in order to emphasize the way that we are all helplessly trapped in a larger system. This is to a certain extent true, and I am not suggesting for a moment that pointing out the sins of individuals should be our primary focus. But let’s take a moment to ask each other – is there no blame? Is there no room for shame in our response? The world’s richest 10% produce half of global carbon emissions. The world’s richest 10% include many of us – if not all – in this room. We are not all equal beneficiaries of the system in which we are trapped. Is our activism really inclusive if we deny the place for any blame or guilt, while working in a movement dominated by people like me – people in that top 10% – when it will be the global south, and specifically women in the global south, who will bear the worst impacts of climate breakdown? We are far more culpable than our sisters and brothers in many other parts of the world, and even in the UK, where wealth and lifestyle disparity is enormous. I am not saying individuals are largely responsible for the problem – just 100 companies produce 71% of global carbon emissions. But this kind of sin is so pervasive that it almost feels mundane, and acknowledging our sinful complicity is essential for change. Our faith requires us to tell the truth about ourselves – really tell the truth – and practice repentance, just as we call corporations and governments to repentance. Power is not only located out there. If we are not willing to address the power in this room, we are not telling the truth at all.
And we need to tell the truth about death, the wages of our sin. The next few decades are going to be a total death immersion for all of us – from our fellow humans to our fellow creatures. What will it do to us, those of us who are mostly going to be onlookers to the spectacle of death rather than directly victims of our rapidly dying world? What will it mean to watch, protected by an accident of birth that places you here, rather than in India, or Mozambique? What about the rise of eco-fascism, the sea and refugee walls going up, barricades designed to try to prevent the ever-growing flow of the dying, turning to us desperate for help? Let’s tell the truth. We are not about to watch a 180-degree turn towards life. Instead, we are about to watch the principalities and powers of this world cling furiously to their wealth, drill more, build more pipelines, and crack down on civil disobedience.
- In February Samir Flores Soberanes, an indigenous environmental activist in Mexico, was murdered 3 days before a referendum on a new gas pipeline that he had organized to oppose.
- Berta Caceres, Honduran indigenous environmental activist, was assassinated in 2016.
- Around 250 environmental, land, and indigenous rights activists were killed in 2018, the highest number on record.
- A new law in Texas makes interfering with oil and gas pipelines punishable by up to a year in prison and $10,000 in fines.
- Canada declared a climate emergency only a short while before approving a $5.5bn dollar pipeline.
- Pia Klemp, an Italian captain of a migrant rescue ship, faces up to 20 years in prison for rescuing people at risk of drowning in the sea.
The marks of death in a community that believes itself well. Or, as Jeremiah might put it, ‘they dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. Peace, peace, they say, when there is no peace’.
And what if our prophetic words and actions are all too little, too late? What if we work for the protection of the oceans for a just and equitable approach to energy, for rewilding – what if we do all this and we still fail? What if climate change is just too far-gone for the overwhelming majority of life on the planet? What if the power stacked against us is just too strong?
My husband and I have been cleaning up the alley behind our house, removing rubbish and creating space to plant flowers. In the face of mass extinction and repeated fly tipping it has been hard to feel that this makes any difference at all. Recently, as he was reflecting on whether there was any point to this in light of imminent climate breakdown, he described what he was doing was a kind of hospice care. Dying things still belong to God. Every time we treat our fellow creatures – and the rest of the living world – with kindness, even in the face of death, every time we relieve the suffering of even a small part of creation – we give dignity to the dying. Every time we fight for divestment, bear public witness, put our bodies in the way of this awful, hateful, pursuit of wealth at the expense of life – we dignify the earth, and we dignify ourselves. Perhaps God is calling His people, now, at this period in history, to a ministry of hospice care as part of our witness to the world.
This will require a shift in our idea of prophetic ministry. At most we might think God is calling us to a specific action or attitude for a few months, or maybe a few years, before we look for something else. We feel that our attitudes to the world, what we say, and how we live, need to move as quickly as the news cycle, feeling uncomfortable if we are stuck with one set of feelings for too long, constantly worrying that our activism is not relevant enough. We pathologise grief and sorrow, giving people 6 months at most before they should have ‘moved on’ in some way. We are frightened – so frightened – of the consequences of acknowledging the depths of the trouble we are in. And yet we are dealing with the God of generations, of ages, of lifetimes, the God of the prophet Ezekiel who lay on his left side, eating lentil bread, for 390 days as a sign to the people of Israel. Anyone fancy doing that outside BP? This is the God of Moses, who led the people of Israel for 40 years of desert wanderings, and never himself saw the Promised Land. This is the God of Jeremiah, who lived out a prophetic ministry of weeping and anger, a lifetime of tears as both condemnation and intercession. Our grief may not only be relevant, but necessary, even beyond the point where it is no longer comfortable or fashionable. Prophecy is, in its essence, sacrificial labour. Unpaid, unwanted, and unpopular. Nobody wants to be the climate ghost at the feast. But perhaps that is what is necessary.
And yet – we believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. In his book Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes that ‘it is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one’.
I am not talking about death because I have no hope. I am talking about death because I want to manage your expectations of what hope feels like and how we can possibly pursue it. Take a moment to seriously consider: how will you be a person of hope even if the slim window of opportunity closes? How will you be hopeful when there are no more reasons to hope? Yes, we might have moments of triumph – moments that lighten our spirits and suggest everything might just be ok. But most of the time – or almost all of the time – we won’t feel hopeful at all. Feelinghopeful has very little to do with being hopeful. We identify ourselves as hopeful people by the choices we make. More specifically, we identify ourselves as hopeful people by the decision to live as though we are bringing in a new creation, whether it feels that way or not.
In Surprised by Hope, NT Wright puts it like this: ‘what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff… you are… accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness… (every deed) that makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world – all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.’
And I choose to believe this, choose to be hopeful, even on the days I do not feel hopeful at all. I choose to believe that what we do on earth matters, whether hospice ministry or prophetic resistance, even if we cannot now reverse the tide of death that we face. This is possible because we are in the business of resurrection – the business of bringing life out of death.
Life After Death by Laura Gilpin
These things I know:
How the living go on living
And how the dead go on living with them
So that in a forest
Even a dead tree casts a shadow
And the leaves fall one by one
And the branches break in the wind
And the bark peels off slowly
And the trunk cracks
And the rain seeps in through the cracks
And the trunk falls to the ground
And the moss covers it
And in the spring the rabbits find it
And build their nest
Inside the dead tree
So that nothing is wasted in nature
Or in love.