Issues facing the church today: The Environmental Crisis

Article by Peter Hardy

The Anglican Church called for a “radical change of heart” to combat climate change actively, rather than only praying and hoping that God will prevent humanity from suffering from its effects. That was back in 2009 when the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, explained that because God has given us free will and doesn’t generally prevent us from doing immeasurable damage to others, we shouldn’t expect God to prevent us from wreaking tremendous or irreversible damage on our shared home, the planet. Getting into a situation in which we, and the lives of millions of vulnerable people, are dependent upon miracles, would be an absolute failure of our responsibilities.

Of course, Christians believe we have one miracle we can depend on, namely that God can save us from the spiritual consequences of our mistakes, so that we may be welcomed into the heavenly kingdom. But this good news of the Gospel does not excuse us from our responsibilities to the material life that God has gifted us with. Indeed, in the one place in the gospels where Jesus explains in clear and direct language who will be welcomed into the kingdom and why, Matthew 25:31-46, the ones who are welcomed are those who have cared for and helped others. By contrast, those who ignore the plight of their fellow human beings are refused entry. The implication from the chapter as a whole is that by failing in their responsibilities to others they have failed to recognise, and to know Jesus (cf. 1 John 4:8). Christian discipleship therefore requires actions of material aid and service, especially to the poor.

Included in these words of Jesus are: providing food and drink to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and company to the sick and to prisoners. In the early Church, St. Augustine recognised these as the material acts basic to discipleship, then in the 12th century the Church added burying the dead to this list, and in our time, the Catholic Church has added caring for the environment to these acts in its teaching. Pope Francis commented:

“In today’s world, hunger, violence and poverty cannot be understood apart from the changes and degradation affecting the environment.”

Christians have always been called to protect the poor, and today that requires protecting our environment too. (See more on Catholic environmental theology here.)

Although climate change is the most prominent environmental problem, looking after creation is a duty broader even than mitigating the intensity of climate change, and of helping countries adapt to our warmer world. It also involves defending the right to clean air, food, and water, and fighting the potentially apocalyptic ecosystem collapses related to the biodiversity crisis. Another part of creation for us to care for is the animal kingdom, and recent years have also seen a growth in Christian vegetarians and vegans, who regard animal welfare as similar to climate change in that it was not an explicit issue in biblical times, but biblical values can be applied to it in today’s context.

Aside from animal welfare, reducing your meat consumption is also one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint, and has a long precedent in Christian tradition as part of spiritual discipline. Christian spirituality being the other area of discipleship that involves caring for creation. In addition to prayer and cultivating concern, spiritual practices include fasting and living a simpler lifestyle in imitation of Christ. Sacrificing the comforts of the world is a discipline that will need to be practised much more widely if we are to successfully transition to post-climate change societies with sustainable patterns of consumption. Especially if we in more industrialised countries pay for our fair share of the damage that is being disproportionately suffered by those who have done the least to cause it.

To this end, there are countless environmental pressure groups and charities we can support, both secular and stemming from all different Christian denominations. But simply signing up to these does not fulfil our duty to the poor any more than simply attending a church fulfils the requirements of a Christian life. Discipleship requires inner conversion to Christ and ongoing sanctification by the grace of the Holy Spirit. This is where much of the Church today fails to live up to the Gospel. Too many of us participate only in a ‘comfortable Christendom’ comprised of happy, often middle class, successful people. But what humanity really needs for tackling the crises it faces today is not ‘successful’ people, but virtuous people; not ‘happy’ people, but people willing to take up their cross and lead a life of sacrifice for a higher good.

Such people do not despair at the broken nature of the world. They understand that brokenness exists only alongside grace, implying our potential to participate in the fulfilment of God’s dream of justice, which stretches through salvation history. As such, Christianity is an invaluable, long-sighted resource for tackling these crises. Christianity teaches that not even the technological and economic miracles society is praying for would achieve sustainability if human beings do not commit to inner moral improvement and spiritual transformation.

Christians must once again be pioneers, leading the cultural change in what will be recognised as acceptable or normal in the future. To do this we need to consistently practice both aspects of discipleship, spiritual and material, in our daily lives. Ideally, the material action will not just be pushing for change at a government level, but personally getting involved in helping people. Indeed, how many of us have judged churches for their collaboration with polluting industries, or mocked those who deny the proof that climate change is happening? But if we ourselves are not doing anything to help, are we any better? In this we can follow the example of Jesus, who was not involved with government, but was social organiser and activist to say the least. We can likewise take action at a local level by founding or participating in a wide range of green initiatives. (See some ideas here.)

It would be easy to say that Christianity offers a happy alternative message to secular doom-mongering. A message that human life has irreplaceable value, and that ultimately Jesus is victorious and we will live with him forever in a new creation. And that is indeed our hope for after this life. But during this life, a Christian perspective puts the gravity of the global situation into even sharper relief. In those sections of the church that are more comfortable, it is often claimed that activists on these issues are “Social Justice Warriors” and not Biblical Christians. But that is simply biblically illiterate because biblical justice is social justice.

Throughout scripture the responsibility of the rich and powerful towards the poor and weak is the moral concern with the most presence. In the environmental context it is citizens of more industrialised countries who are in the role of the rich, and the global scale of these crises mean there is an enormously grave responsibility upon us to “give justice to the weak and the orphan” (Psalm 82). The sober truth is that those of us who claim to be Christians shall be judged on this to an even higher standard.

About the author:

Peter Hardy is a British philosophy graduate and writer who has recently moved to Copenhagen to get married. You can read more of his articles on Christianity here.

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