Monthly Archives: October 2015

Song of the Prophets

IMG_0784This is an edited version of my talk at St Andrews Psalter Lane church this morning, an joint Anglican/Methodist congregation in Sheffield. They are an eco-congregation, so it was great to be able to talk with them about climate change.

At Christian Aid, we believe that tackling climate change and caring for the environment is as integral to our faith as worship and prayer, not merely an interesting add-on, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones. But sometimes it’s good to think about why being green is an act of faith, and what it has to do with Christian Aid, an overseas development charity.

Some theology

Christian Aid has a unique perspective on climate change because it works through its partners with those who are experiencing climate change now. It is really important that we listen to the voices of our sisters and brothers in the Global South, the theologians who live with climate change every day. Christian Aid describes them as modern-day prophets. For more detail , take a look at this report, ‘Song of the Prophets’. As it says (p9) , “climate change is real, [it is happening now,] and its impact is experienced by those who are least responsible and most vulnerable.”

Christians are called to act on climate change not just because we have been tasked with looking after the world, but because it is an issue of justice. “Those who will bear the brunt of predicted changes are the poorest people in the world”(p7). Nazmul Chowdhury, a Christian Aid partner in Bangladesh, put it like this, ‘Forget about making poverty history. Climate change will make poverty permanent.’ (p7) Our reading from Deuteronomy 24:14-22 shows some of the ways God, a God of justice, asked his people to take care of the vulnerable members of society – the alien (or foreigner), the orphan and the widow. Guillermo Kerber, from Uruguay, says that today, ‘victims of climate change are another face of the vulnerable ones’ (p12). If you like, we have a duty of care. To act on climate change is to act to bring justice for the vulnerable. To not act or to fob off the global poor means we are perpetuating injustice.

The reading from Deuteronomy also reveals that our relationship with the land is not one which exploits every last drop from every corner. Owning or farming the land doesn’t give us the right to extract everything – everything the land produces is much more like a generous gift. Dr Sathianathan Clarke, from the Episcopal Church of South India suggests that the poorest communities in the world seem to understand this inter-dependent relationship much better than we do, not surprisingly as the poor “mostly live in close proximity to the ebb and flow of the natural world” (p14). Have we become ‘environmentally illiterate’? Do we ‘understand the importance of nature as God’s gift for all living beings’? (p14) Even more challenging, the report suggests that “One reason why the powerful do not hear is that the very economic systems that keep some in the world rich while others are poor are implicated in causing climate change” (p15).

But all is not lost, because our faith is one of hope. We have a vision of a future where God’s justice prevails. Climate change is a spiritual crisis, bound up with our consumerism, our failure to act for justice, and we need to repent. But as we heard in our second reading (John 1:1-14), it is significant that the word of God became flesh and lived among us. “We are not being lifted out into a spiritual realm to escape the earthiness of creation, but being remade for a renewed earth.” (p20)

Summary

  1. Climate change is a justice issue
  2. The global poor who are experiencing climate change also have perspective on our relationship to the earth that we should learn from
  3. We are not without hope as the incarnate God will renew the earth

Work with partners

So, in the spirit of learning let me tell you about one of Christian Aid’s partners.

Christian Aid’s work to deal with the impact of climate change has many facets – disaster relief in the face of extreme weather, adapting to changing weather patterns and building resilience and self-sufficiency for poor communities, and helping communities speak out for their rights and support to their own governments.

I want to tell you about a project in Mali. Christian Aid partner Mali Folkecenter is helping the community to develop their own solar power. This part of Mali is not connected to any national grid, and to do so would be prohibitively expensive. But they have plenty energy freely available from the sun, they just need to be able to harness it. Mali Folkecenter helps the community to install solar panels and a local grid, and trains the community to be able to maintain it. Electricity means that children are able to do their homework in the evening once it is dark, which means they can keep up with their school work and stay at school, leading to long-term benefits for the individuals, families and the whole community. It also means local businesses can be more productive, and enables new business, benefitting not just from light but from refrigeration too. (you can watch this video which the people in church couldn’t see!)

This is one way that Christian Aid is helping a community to develop without adding to carbon emissions. This solar project means they can leapfrog fossil fuels altogether, just like mobile phone technology has enable communities to get connected but bypassing expensive cable laying for landline telephones.

I really like this project because it encapsulates another key facet of Christian Aid. Christian Aid works through partnerships for change. It doesn’t send so-called experts from the UK to do development to poor people. It works with grass-roots organisations already at work in the local area, who build and deliver projects which best serve the needs of the local community. And partnerships are not a one-way relationship. Dependence, learning and support should go both ways. So we have lessons to learn from the community in Mali. Think about our own energy provision and consumption in this country. In theory we have a free market, with competition to make prices cheaper and give better service to the consumer. But we all recognise that this isn’t really the case, and the big six energy companies have an effective monopoly (or oligopoly, technically). What If our energy was decentralised and produced closer to where it is needed through solar panels on homes and other local projects? Power would genuinely be in the hands of the people, the inefficiencies and lost energy when power goes through the grid would be diminished, the grip of the energy companies would be broken, and we could move on from dirty fossil fuels pumping carbon into the atmosphere. So let’s learn from this community which is breaking free from fossil fuels!

Campaigning

And breaking free from fossil fuels is the final thing I want to talk to you about this morning. I’ve talked about why we care about climate change, and some of the things Christian Aid is doing. So I’m going to finish by sharing something you can do about climate change, in partnership with Christian Aid.

As well as working with poor communities round the world, Christian Aid also campaigns with its supporters in the UK to challenge and change the structures that keep people poor. These are very often the economic structures we live within here in the UK, as I mentioned before. If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions and stopping global temperatures rise by more than 20C then we need to break free from fossil fuels – to make the Big Shift to renewables. I think I’m preaching to the converted here, but I hope that this campaign will give you the tools to talk to other people who are not so sure.

Does anyone here still use floppy discs, or video tapes, or dial-up internet? I still say I’m taping something off the telly, even though there’s no tape involved and it’s all digital. These things are still hanging around, but they are old-fashioned, out of date, and it would be ridiculous1 to invest in them. This is how we should feel about fossil fuels. In fact, this is how business is beginning to think about fossil fuels, and so Christian Aid wants to take this further and build up a momentum for taking finance out of fossil fuels. We are starting with coal, because this is the dirtiest, most polluting fossil fuel. We need coal to go the way of floppy discs. We believe that here in the UK we should stop burning coal to make electricity by 2023. We should stop funding businesses to look for and mine coal in other countries. And we should take our money out of coal and shift it to investment in renewable energy (including in helping those whose work currently depends on coal to be trained to find alternative employment).

There are lots of ways you can get involved in this campaign through social media, by talking to your friends about it, by writing to your MP. Please ask me about it afterwards. But today, I’m just going to ask you to sign the petition I’ve brought, with those three asks – 1. a concrete plan to stop burning coal, 2. stop supporting coal extraction abroad, and 3. shift the money out of coal and into renewables, green jobs and a low-carbon economy.

Now is the time, especially as world leaders are meeting in Paris at the end of November to talk about climate change. Don’t let the enormity of the problem put you off. Climate change is a justice issue, at the heart of our faith. But our God is a God of justice who is committed to renewing the earth and his people. His people are at work in places like Mali, making a difference to the lives of the vulnerable – the alien, the orphan and the widow. His people are at work in the UK, campaigning for the environment. St Andrews is making a difference here with its plans to install solar panels. So please keep on making a difference. Come and sign the Christian Aid petition after the service, and join in the event in Sheffield to mark the Paris talks on Saturday afternoon, November 28th.

The foreigner, the fatherless and the widow

Communion service at Greenbelt 2015
Communion service at Greenbelt 2015

Some 3,000 year old words have been bugging me for a while. I was reminded of them during the Communion service at Greenbelt, so I’ll remind you of them now.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.  Deuteronomy 24:19-22

One of the themes running through Greenbelt this year was our relationship to the environment and our response to climate change. The relationship to the earth described in these words seems striking compared to our modern approach. The land was not exploited for every last drop of goodness it could produce. Those who farmed the land did not have the right to extract everything they could possibly get from their fields, or trees or vines. One step away from the mind-set that “it’s mine so I shall have it”, the earth can be recognised as a resource which we share, and its fruit as a gift freely given, not a right of ownership.

It seems to me that moving away from our exploitative, extractive relationship with the earth, to a more equal, interdependent relationship would be a much more helpful approach as we consider the problem of rising global temperatures causing devastating climate change. The earth holds many valuable resources. But just because they are there, doesn’t mean we have to take them, or even that we have the right to take them. We are not masters of the earth, but dependent on it. Its resources must be shared for the benefit of all, not exploited for the gains of the few.

But if I thought that was all these words had to say to me, I was wrong! Immediately after Greenbelt, the refugee crisis, which had already been going on for months, finally broke through into people’s consciousness. The need and the numbers were finally recognised, and we started to ask what on earth we were going to do.

Blackberry harvest
Blackberry harvest

Again, 3,000 year old words seemed to have something striking to say now. The harvest was not to be gathered in and clung to tightly so that no-one else could get it. This idea is much easier to grasp when the harvest is considered a gift freely given and not a right which is earned. There is plenty, we do not need to keep it all to ourselves. There is enough to share with those in need, with the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, those who cannot provide for themselves, rather like refugees, in fact.

And now it is the time of Harvest Festivals in churches up and down the country, which has reminded me of another old harvest story. This story also involves refugees, though you could call them economic migrants. (Does leaving a place because you don’t have enough money to buy food to eat make you a migrant seeking a better life or a refugee fleeing from starvation?) Naomi was a refugee in Moab because of a famine in Israel. She has made a life in Moab, getting married and having a family. But when her husband and sons die, she hears that the famine in Israel is over. So she decides to return to Israel, bringing Ruth, one of her daughters-in-law from Moab, with her. They have no means of financial support, so foreigner and economic migrant Ruth takes advantage of the law in Deuteronomy and gleans in the fields belonging to Boaz during the barley harvest.

How would we respond to this situation today? Naomi might be allowed to return home, but Ruth could not come to this country, with her lack of skills or earning potential. Even if they were refugees fleeing starvation, would we welcome Ruth to the UK? And if she came here, would she survive? Do we set aside enough of our plenty so that those with nothing can provide for themselves, or do we begrudge every benefit payment that is scrounged from the state?

I’m struck by the mirror this story holds up to the UK at the moment, and the attitudes I see reflected back. What do we really think of those in need travelling across Europe, encamped in Calais, drowning in the Mediterranean? Who will we welcome into the UK? And when they come, will we really care for them, treat them as humans, value and respect them? Do we truly believe that immigrants contribute to our society or not? Because there is one final twist in this tale. Ruth goes on to marry Boaz and have a family of her own. She becomes great-grandmother to David, the great King of Israel, and ancestor of Jesus, the son of God.