Sunday, June 23, 2024

Faith, and the environment


Here in the UK there will be a General Election on 04 July. Over the five Sundays in June, I intend to look at several key issues relating to how we vote, continuing, today, with the environment. My intention is not to tell you who you should or shouldn’t vote for—though I will touch on policies—but to ask how does Christian faith inform how we cast our vote?

I think that I could make a case for the book of Job being the first treatise on the environment. It starts with God in conversation with an angelic being called the Accuser. God asks whether he has noticed how exemplary a human being Job is? The Accuser responds that this is self-serving on Job’s part, because God has planted a hedge around him, to shelter and protect him. God is not convinced and permits the Accuser to cut down the hedge and see what will happen. What transpires is a heady cocktail of attacks from neighbouring tribes competing for resources, and natural disasters, that between them strip away all Job’s flocks and herds and leave his servants and his children dead. When Job persists in his integrity of character, the Accuser asks to afflict his body with sores, but is prevented from taking his life.

When they hear of Job’s misfortune, his three closest friends come to him, and they do a beautiful thing. They sit with him, in silence, for seven days and seven nights. No trying to offer easy answers where there are none, to ease their own discomfort. And after that, Job speaks. A damn bursts, and words pour out of him. He wishes that he had died in the womb, that there had been no joy at his birth, that the stars had been blotted out by clouds. If you have lost a baby, that might be hard to hear, or understand; but Job is not alone in wishing that he had never been born, not alone in finding himself in such a dark place. He feels utterly hedged-in by God—which does not feel like shelter, but like torment—and his anguish pours out from him like water. God notes everything Job says but, for now, says nothing in return. Instead, Job’s friends speak up, and their advice to him is, to put it in environmental terms, a pile of steaming, well-rotted manure.

Only when they have spent all their words does God speak, answering Job’s complaint from out of the storm (starting with our first reading today, Job 38:1-11). He takes up Job’s death-wish image-for-image with God’s own wish for life. Neither obliterated nor silenced, the morning stars sing for joy. The sea is born, full of vigorous life; and God uses the sea fret to make swaddling bands, to wrap the new-born sea tight—as Mary would wrap Jesus—so that it feels safe and secure. God literally plants a hedge around the sea—a boundary to shelter it—and brings the swell of outpoured waters to peace. In what follows, God reveals a divine fascination with and joy in learning about nature, in discovering how creation will participate in the gift of life. Christians believe that we are made in the image of this God: which is to say, we are made to discover and rejoice in the wider environment.

The divine calming of the swelling waves is taken up in our Gospel passage, Mark 4.35-41. A violent storm comes out of nowhere, threatening to overwhelm the boats in which Jesus and his disciples were caught on the lake. We read that Jesus rebuked the wind, but the Greek means to esteem or place due weight or honour on something. We might say, Jesus, as a frail human, paid due respect to the power of the wind—and that the wind, in return, paid due respect to Jesus. There is something here of human harnessing the wind for human good. There is also something noteworthy in the calm displayed by Jesus before calm is displayed by the waves. He models the contrast between excessive fear and having been persuaded of God’s trustworthiness.

The environment is a major issue, and more so for younger voters. For many younger people, climate change and environmental loss is an existential crisis, which galvanises some to action and paralyses others in despair. The four political parties standing in Sunderland Central—the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and the Greens—agree that environmental policy must be tied to energy production and a commitment to reaching carbon net zero. All four promote significant investment in offshore wind, onshore wind, and solar energy production, including more localised storage and distribution, with both the Conservatives and Labour also supporting new nuclear power, to which the Green party is opposed. All four are aware that this will take strategic investment, targeted support for industries in transition, and various mechanisms for holding businesses to account. Holding water companies to account is prominent in the Conservative and Labour manifestos.

Reform UK is also standing in Sunderland Central. They are a registered business, rather than a political party (thus getting around certain restrictions on political parties, such as the need to be transparent about their funding). They take a very different approach, rejecting net zero ambitions, advocating that we adapt to a warmer climate, and calling for fast-tracking of licenses for North Sea gas and oil, shale gas extraction (fracking), small nuclear reactors, and incentivised mining for lithium and clean coal.

Christians believe that God created the world, and continues to sustain it; that God entrusted humanity with responsibility to guard the flourishing of all life on earth; and that the threat to life on earth for all species is at least in part tied to human abdication of that God-given responsibility, with hope for all living things also tied to God’s initiative—through the divine person of Jesus Christ—to restore humanity to their rightful position as environmental guardians. Indeed, ‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’ is one of the five marks of Anglican mission, across the world (the others being: to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; to teach, baptise and nurture new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation). While Labour, the LibDems and Greens all highlight the importance of international cooperation and targeted development funding, links across the Anglican Communion allow for actual connection and partnership between local communities. Durham diocese has a link with the kingdom of Lesotho, which could benefit from renewal post the hiatus of the global Coronavirus pandemic.

There are things we can do here, too. Some are large, and will require drawing on external funds, such as replacing our heating systems, in the church hall as a matter of priority and in the church as a matter of planning for the future. But there are other things we can do, to take responsibility in this regard. We can shape and adopt an environmental policy, adapting existing templates for churches to our context. These cover energy use, which banks we might use and which charities we might support, how we apply principles of reducing, re-using and recycling waste to the products we buy for church use, the food and dink we consume, the changes we make in our own homes, and the worship and teaching Sunday by Sunday.

Every church, church school and diocese in the Church of England is also encouraged to engage with the Eco Church scheme, which supports churches to become better stewards of God’s creation working progressively through bronze, silver, and gold awards. We are signed-up to this—and it wouldn’t take a lot of work to reach bronze accreditation—but really we need someone with a vision to serve as an Environmental Champion for the church and parish of St Nicholas, to take this on. Perhaps this is something that God might put on your heart—perhaps in response to a sense of discouragement, as God responded to Job and as Jesus responded to his disciples. Perhaps this is where your faith will grow?

And we can make use of resources from the wider Church to help us engage with care for God’s creation, resources such as those produced to support the annual Season of Creation, which runs from 1 September to 4 October each year. This year’s theme is the firstfruits of hope. Blackburn diocese have produced six sessions of material, including prayers, worship, play, activity and actions to take, designed to help primary aged children join in with creation care. They have generously made this resource available more widely.

The environment is one of those issues that cannot be left to ‘someone else’ to address: we all need to play our part, and as Christians, we do so from a faith perspective. It is also one of those issues where we don’t always know what to do—though there is also plenty of consensus over what we ought to do, but don’t want to do. Here, too, our faith engages us, with the promise that Jesus—the one through whom, and for whom, God created all things—is with us, guiding us where we do not know what we ought to do, and strengthening us where we do know the way forward—or at least the next steps—but do not want to follow, for fear of the cost. Where we are overwhelmed, by guilt or shame or anger or denial, he rises and speaks peace into being in our lives.

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