Climate Change – Encouragement, Reproof and Challenge to the Christian Community
Dr David Golding CBE
Honorary Chaplain at Newcastle University
And Development Coordinator, North East CALL TO ACTION
Author’s note: This article provides the text of an address given in the Cathedral Church of St Nicholas, Newcastle upon Tyne, courtesy of Very Revd Christopher Dalliston, on Sunday 15th November, which was entitled “Faith, hope and love in an age of climate change”. The service was led by Revd Canon Steven Harvey, the singing by Gareth Davis-Jones. The scripture lesson was Isaiah 58, 1-8, and was read by Veronica Golding.
Readers should note that North East CALL TO ACTION is not a religious grouping, still less a specifically Christian one. However, many of our supporters are practising Christians and this article is an attempt to show them that both their faith and the great heritage of Christian advocacy provide an ample basis for their engagement with the campaign on climate change.
Download Word document here: DWGolding_Encouragement, reproof and challenge
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Zewdie Tamirat’s eyes were swollen shut through malnutrition and her delicate skin was no longer able to mask the skeleton beneath. Brushing away flies from her face with a small twig, the little girl stood quietly as, in 2000, her father explained how three years of crop failure in Ethiopia had left his family facing starvation. Pitiably, she attempted a smile for the cameraman.
Some images remain in the mind and little Zewdie’s was one such and helped keep me going with debt and trade campaigning for the first four years of the new millennium. Four years of frustration, of grief, of anger, – and most of all of slog, without a shred of progress to show for it. You want an easy ministry? Avoid campaigning!
Zewdie’s tragic story leads me to my first heading, which is that, “Christian faith, hope and love stand in striking contrast to the injustice of climate change”.
It came like a bolt from the blue when, after I retired at the end of 2005, I had the chance to read up on climate science. I read that global warming, “largely caused by a rise in greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, may already – note: may already – be responsible for an increase in drought and famine, in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries since 1996” (Lord Robert May, then President of the Royal Society).
In other words, the burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal – by the rich countries is probably already doing terrible damage to the world’s poor. I then went on to discover that this is just one of a multitude of examples. Indeed, Revd Peter Harris, the founder and president of A Rocha, the world’s leading Christian environmental agency, says, “We now recognise that environmental causes, more than any others, are contributing to human suffering.”
Pope Francis, in his game-changing encyclical, puts it this way: “Never have we hurt and mistreated out common home as we have in the past two hundred years”.
We all know the parable of Jesus about the Good Samaritan, and the priest and levite who, seeing the injured man, “walked by on the other side of the road”, are often said to correspond in our day to the leaders and people of the rich world. But Pope Benedict said that rich countries actually correspond to the thieves, who attacked the man and left him close to death. And the former pontiff is correct:
Poor countries lose far more from unfair trade rules than they receive in aid; and the same applies to tax dodges by Western companies, and to inherited debts!
But even that’s is not the worst of it, because climate change is potentially an injustice surpassing all others. Whereas each person in Ethiopia emits on average one tenth of a ton of carbon dioxide each year, each of us in the UK emits over 7 tons – 70 times as much. [World Bank data for 2011.]
So we treat the atmosphere as an open sewer into which we feel at liberty to discharge our pollution, but little Zewdie and her family – and the poor and vulnerable throughout the world – suffer the consequences.
Small wonder the anguish of Veena Khaleque, Director for Practical Action in Bangladesh. She says, “I find it almost impossible to imagine how the poor of Bangladesh will cope”, given that tens of millions of them will be displaced by rising sea levels.
But it is not only ‘the children of the poor’ about whom we should be concerned. ‘Tomorrow’, the catastrophe will certainly engulf our own children and grand-children, and generations yet unborn, unless we change our ways.
“How could I look my grand-children in the eye and say I knew about this and did nothing?”, asks Sir David Attenborough.
“I urge everybody to work together to find sustainable solutions to avert a catastrophe that will exacerbate human suffering to a magnitude that perhaps the world has not yet seen”, said Desmond Tutu.
So there you have it and, as William Wilberforce put it in his first, great speech to Parliament, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know!”
Firstly then, “Christian faith, hope and love stand in striking contrast to climate change”, which is repugnant to the Kingdom values of justice and compassion.
Second, “Christian faith, hope and love have brought immeasurable benefits to humanity”.
I haven’t the time to do justice to this aspect, but I recall that my pastor and teacher in the days of my youth, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, stated that, “The Christian church has been the greatest benefactor in human history”, and, utterly shameful lapses notwithstanding, I agree with him.
Let me remind you of just a few highlights. Faced with the obscenity of the slave trade, the Christian community led the fight for its abolition. And what a fight that was! According to Adam Hochschild,
“If you had stood on a London street corner in 1787 and insisted that slavery was morally wrong and should be stopped, they would have laughed you off as a crackpot… Ending slavery was wildly impractical: the British Empire’s economy would collapse.”
But Hochschild goes on: “Within a few short years, there was an abolition committee in every major city and town. Parliament was flooded with abolition petitions… Public opinion had undergone a sea change.”
William Wilberforce first proposed the abolition of the slave trade in Parliament in 1789. Eighteen long years later, having had his bill rejected on no less than twelve occasions, his bill was carried overwhelmingly. The great majority of the MPs rose to their feet and cheered him, whilst William sat with his face in his hands, tears streaming down his face. It was, said the great historian, G.M. Trevelyan, “one of the turning points in the history of the world”.
Similarly, the Christian community took the lead in support of Lord Shaftesbury, to reform the appalling conditions in our factories and mines in the 19th century; and its backing was key to the success of Josephine Butler, that wonderful woman from our own region, in her battle against legalised child prostitution in the Victorian era.
In the lifetime of many here, churches led peacefully by Martyn Luther King fought back the evil of racism in the US.
Similarly, “the secret of the success of Jubilee 2000 (now Jubilee Debt Campaign) is simple, but unfashionable. It is the Christian churches” – and that’s according to Madeleine Bunting, who does not share our faith, in an article published by the UN.
As a result of this and other campaigns, child mortality (the number of children dying under five each year) has been reduced from 12.7 million in 1990 to 6 million last year, a reduction of more than 50%. And this is only one of many examples. There’s never been such progress in the history of world – although we could have done even better!
It’s so wonderful that North East campaigners have been able to play a significant part in all this, leading Archbishop Desmond Tutu to write to us in 2006 to say,
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for wanting to make poverty history. Well done. Go on to the Jubilee, on to Trade Justice and on to make poverty history!”
And this from Justin Welby, when he was Bishop of Durham: “I want to make clear my strong support for the issues and the remedies promoted by North East CALL TO ACTION.”
So, second, “Christian faith, hope and love have brought immeasurable benefits to humanity”
But third, and less happily, “Christian faith, hope and love have generally (and I stress, “generally”) been less than conspicuous in the fight against climate change”.
Some time ago, I was asked to write a brief summary of my current work for the website of my church, Whitley Bay Baptist Church. When I looked at it again, sometime later, I was quite shocked to find that I’d concluded my statement by saying that,
“My greatest ongoing burden is the widespread, studied indifference within the Christian community to the monstrous threat and injustice of climate change.” Ouch! Did I really write that? Yes, it seems so.
You may well find this message unpalatable, but if so, I direct your attention to Isaiah 30, verse 10:
“They (the people) say to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions!’”
Well, I’ve told you some “pleasant things” – very pleasant things indeed – I’ve done so because they are “right”, because they are true. But if you want “pleasant things” from me on the subject of the Christian community’s stewardship of creation and protection of the poor, you’ve asked the wrong person to occupy the pulpit. You’ll get no such “illusions” – delusions – from me.
And before you shut off and conclude I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about this, listen to what Richard Woodall said last year in a major feature article in ‘Idea’, the magazine of the Evangelical Alliance:
“The words ‘climate change’ are increasingly on the lips of humanitarian and environmental groups, but rarely on the radar of the church. Why?” he asked.
And he quoted, Dr Katherine Hayhoe, a committed Christian and one of America’s leading climate scientists, as saying, “How can we call ourselves Christian if we bury our heads in the sand and ignore the reality that God’s creation is telling us?”
Susan Durber, from Christian Aid, Ben Niblett, from Tearfund, and Ruth Valerio, from A Rocha, all expressed concern, in one way or another, at the lack of Christian interest in the same article. So it’s not just me! Incidentally, the Christian relief and development agencies, Cafod, Christian Aid and Tearfund, have been exemplary in their commitment to this cause!
In a letter published by the Guardian newspaper in March, I said that, “As a regional climate campaigner, I salute The Guardian for its big new push on climate change, the greatest moral challenge of our age! How strange then, the relative lack of engagement by the Christian community.”
I continued, referring to Christian believers, “These are people whose Scriptures command humanity to “care for the earth” (Genesis 2, 15), and warn that the Almighty will “destroy those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11, 18). They are followers of the one who brought “good news to the poor” – whose protection is among their foremost responsibilities and who are already being hit, and who will be hit hardest in the future – by what is surely a crime against humanity surpassing all others.
“National church leaders”, I wrote, “in the UK have generally said the right things, but I doubt if the subject gets so much of a mention in sermons and intercessions in most churches, from one year’s end to another!”
I don’t get the impression, either, that most practising Christians give so much as a passing thought to their responsibilities for creation care or to the damage their lifestyles are doing to the world’ poor.
The leading evangelical theologian, Chris Wright, says this: “Creation care is an urgent issue in today’s world… Only a wilful blindness worse than any proverbial ostrich’s head in the sand can ignore the facts of environmental destruction… To be unconcerned about it is to be either desperately ignorant or irresponsibly callous.”
So how is it with you? Are you guilty of “A wilful blindness worse than any proverbial ostrich’s head in the sand”, or are you “desperately ignorant or irresponsibly callous”?
In the final section of my letter in The Guardian, I queried this lack of interest and engagement, given that very many believers make real sacrifices of their time and money for the good of others. “Could it be”, I asked, “that we’re good at ‘charity’, but lack commitment to ‘justice’? Or, worse, that our attachment to comfort and convenience now amounts to idolatry?”
These are real and pressing issues. Let every man and woman examine themselves, as I will myself.
“Yet all is not lost!”, says Pope Francis, “human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”
And that leads me, finally, to “Faith, hope and love – expressed in dependence on God, responsible living and courageous advocacy.”
First, we are called to faith: to trust God to help us live lives which honour him, as we embark on a journey towards a responsible, non-polluting, non-destructive lifestyle.
Note that I said ‘a journey’! Because none of us can possibly get to where we need to get to today, next week, or even next year – it simply isn’t possible, however committed we are. And that means of course that none of us can point the finger at anyone else who hasn’t got as far as we have, because there are almost certainly many other people who are a long way ahead of us!
But don’t take that as a convenient get-out! What matters is this: have you set out on this journey and are you pressing ahead on it with commitment and determination?
We are also called to have faith, trusting God to bless our efforts as we use every opportunity to press our leaders to take action at a national level.
Living with hope is more problematical! I’m certainly no starry-eyed optimist – along with other campaigners I’ve been disappointed too often and too bitterly by the blinkered folly of world leaders. Some of you will have heard me repeat the biting denunciation of the latter by an outraged young Anjali Appadurai, at the UN Climate Conference in Durban, in December 2011: “You have been negotiating all my life!”, she thundered at the negotiators, to roars of approval from the rest of the youth delegation.
Wishing to help me, my wife, Veronica, bought me the book by Jonathan Moo and Robert White, entitled “Hope in an age of despair” and it really is a wonderful book. It points out that Christian hope is an assured hope that Christ at his coming will make ‘all things new’.
The coming glorious kingdom, in the new creation, will be characterised by shalom – peace, health and justice – in the relationships between God and humanity, between human beings, and between humanity and the rest of creation.
But the kingdom is here right now, albeit in its infancy, since it was inaugurated by the coming of Jesus, and believers are members of it right now – and are part of the new creation right now.
Consequently, imbued with Christian hope, we should personify the values of that coming kingdom, and exemplify the characteristics of that new creation, in all we do right now!
What we do right now will include reforming our polluting and gluttonous lifestyles, and stirring ourselves to raise a clamour of righteous anger against a gathering crime of climate injustice.
And anything we do now in this spirit, to live out the values of the coming kingdom, is of lasting significance! Even if the impacts of reformed lifestyles, restored environments, or climate advocacy, are swamped by contrary developments, such lives are “not in vain in the Lord”. In ways we can barely imagine, lives lived now which reflect the character of the coming kingdom, in the renewed creation that is to come, have enduring value and their echoes will sound on into eternity!
Finally, we are called to love. “And now these three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Love for God’s good creation; love for the world’s suffering poor; and love for generations yet unborn. Love expressed in lives characterised by frugality, generosity, bold public advocacy, and joyful service – note “and joyful service” – I’m not talking about some self-denying, miserable-as-sin existence!
Tearfund’s new ‘Ordinary Heroes’ campaign combines commitment to lifestyle change and sending a message to the Prime Minister – so you’re able to say, “Please do this, Mr Cameron – and please note that I’m trying to do my bit!”
In one of its mailings, it showed a picture of a young mother, Philippa Strickett, and her son, and provided a ‘testimony’ of how she and her family have responded to God’s call:
“Four years ago being Christians changed our eating habits! [Exclamation mark!] We gave up meat during Lent as part of our worship, wanting to reduce the impact our lives were having on God’s creation and therefore also on those living in poverty. Since then, our family of five has eaten a lot less meat as this helps reduce our carbon footprint. We considered what else we could do [you see, they gave it some thought!] and now drive less, have written to our MP, turned our thermostat down and switched to a 100 % renewable energy provider.”
But the ‘icing on the cake’ were her final words: “We certainly fail sometimes, but step by step, with a spirit of generosity and grace, we’re trying to follow Jesus with our whole lives.” Does that sound like some self-denying, miserable-as-sin existence? Not to my ears it doesn’t!
“Step by step, with a spirit of generosity and grace, we’re trying to follow Jesus with our whole lives.”
I was going to finish with that, but then I came across these words from Pope Francis’ encyclical: “Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.” Amen to that, brother! So help us God!