How to be a peacemaker in the politics of climate change

By Emma Lawson

Talking about climate change used to be the sole domain of climate scientists. But a young Swedish girl and a zealous army of similarly youthful followers thrust the climate debate into a social media frenzy. Now terms like ‘climate crisis’ and ‘climate emergency’ are part of common media parlance and have been widely adopted by humanitarian aid and international development agencies. Greta Thunberg was valorised as a so-called ‘prophet’ for the environmental movement, a literal posterchild for the #FridaysforFuture marches.

Furious comments frothed and foamed on Facebook; sharp rebuttals were whittled down to 280 characters on the Twittersphere. To be vegan or not to be vegan? Go plastic-free or worry-free, carrying on, business as usual, because isn’t this just fake news? Social media is rife with blistering invectives against those with different opinions.

Where do we turn to for trustworthy, accurate information? How do we filter through the biases of various media platforms to get to the truth?

The first truth we should be seeking as Christians is God’s Word. We need to rise above the noise and get to the heart of the matter ­– God’s heart – and align ourselves with his will and purposes.

1) Find common ground

The first thing to say is that we’re far from Eden. Paul writes in Romans that creation has been ‘groaning’ in the pains of childbirth, waiting for liberation from its ‘bondage to decay’. Both Christians and non-believers can see that the world is in a state of brokenness. While non-believers may interpret ‘bondage to decay’ in different ways – structural, systemic socio-economic or individual morality – the Bible teaches that our first and main problem is sin, which manifests itself in all kinds of failings.

‘… creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time.’ 

Romans 8:21–22

Still, we can all agree that the planet and its inhabitants are threatened in various ways. We have a colossal problem, and the proverbial clock is ticking.

We can point to the extreme flooding washing away a mum of four’s home, crops and livelihood in Malawi and see the pain and terror in her eyes. We can hear the crack of panic in the German man's voice as he talks about the devastating loss he's experienced due to a flood that has ravaged his town, motioning to his ruined house.

Now that so-called ‘developed’ countries are experiencing extreme weather phenomena, we’re finally addressing the climate crisis. It’s hit closer to home, and the urgency is ratcheting up a notch in the media.

Although the source of our hope is fundamentally different – for non-believers, their hope can only be rooted in humanity, whereas for Christians our hope is found in Jesus – we can come together. We can cry out for justice. We can gather the broken pieces and attempt to rebuild. In doing so, who knows what bridges will be built for the gospel?

As Christians, we have the firm ground of scripture to stand on as we honour both people and planet, since the Lord created this world and asked us to look after it (Genesis 2:15).

2) Respectfully listen to those with whom you disagree

However, when it comes to interpreting what the Bible has to say on creation and how we are to care for it, there is an incredibly nuanced range of thinking. We cannot assume homogeneity here.

Photo: Getty Images Pro

While some Christians point to the many verses where God has something to say about creation and how we treat it, starting with the command to steward creation in Genesis, others would say that this is a secondary issue. That we’ve been here before with the push for social justice and ending extreme poverty.

These believers place ultimate emphasis on Christ and him crucified, and anything other than soul-saving evangelism is but an attempt to crowbar in utopia, rather than faithfully awaiting the new creation. How much of this proposition is based on purely biblical principles as opposed to an infiltration of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy is a topic for another blog post.

As with all matters of disagreement, it is in these hard places that we must learn to listen to those with whom we disagree and demonstrate respect and love for our brothers and sisters. Because if we can’t present a united front ­– and not just present it but embody it through our actions ­– non-believers won’t see the love that Jesus said people would know us as his followers by.

3) Strike a balance

This doesn’t mean a sit-on-the-fence-and-stand-for-nothing kind of balance. It means practise your faith with integrity and love. If social media debate is anything to go by, humans are simple creatures – we love to pigeonhole issues into neat definitions and reductive binary prescriptions. That’s why politics has become so polarised. There are certain issues that are deemed on the Left side of the spectrum and others that are on the Right. It’s hard to remove the cultural lens we view things with and have a less blinkered view. But we must try.

The truth is, there are insightful, brilliant people on both ‘sides’ of the spectrum, with whom we may disagree about particular issues, and God has gifted people of different political persuasions with intelligence and compassion.

We might find kernels of insight in the more ‘right-wing’ Christian or non-believer who sees great potential in market-based, private sector solutions to the environmental problems we’re facing. How about if someone disagrees on the extent of climate change, or how far it is ‘man-made’? We might disagree with them in this area, but we could agree that the alarmism so prevalent in media narratives is unhelpful and not conducive to finding solutions.

There are also grains of truth to be found in the analysis of more ‘left-wing’ political and cultural commentors who highlight the systemic injustice of global trade agreements and the marginalisation of voices living in a context of poverty from the global South.

Photo: Getty Images

The trouble with bracketing issues under, for example, right-wing conservatism or leftist ‘woke-ism’ is that it puts an artificial barrier up to those of a different political view, which prevents meaningful dialogue and engagement. As Christians, we must move beyond that and apply a biblical lens. The tribalism of culture wars perpetuates division, an ‘Us versus Them’ mentality.

God’s thoughts are higher than the Left–Right spectrum. He won’t be confined in that way because the Kingdom of God turns our politics and philosophical tropes on their heads, defying worldly wisdom. So, when we consider creation and our response to it as God’s people, we must take care to ensure that it’s not compartmentalised in our minds as a political hot button issue of any one political group or ideology. Creation and everything in it is the Lord’s. This isn’t any one group or political party’s issue – it’s everyone’s. We need to work together, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to engage and find solutions.

4) Embody joy and hope to counter apocalyptic environmentalism

A landmark study has found that an increasing number of young people are experiencing ‘climate anxiety’. This is where a bleak sense of hopelessness and pessimism pervades young people’s mindsets. It’s hardly surprising when they’re constantly fed visions of impending doom by the media, those stalwarts of shock and purveyors of panic, seeking to throw us all into a state of fear.

While there are many sensible elements within the environmental movement, the more radical fringe like Extinction Rebellion are engendering a deep sense of foreboding. In some of their thinking we find fatalistic attitudes towards human beings as parasitic scroungers squandering Mother Nature’s good gifts.

Photo: Getty Images Signature

With the erosion of Christian values in Europe over the past few decades and the ‘death of God’ tropes underwritten by Nietzsche, a yawning void has been left open for all manner of ideas to fill. There has always been something to threaten civilisation, but with God’s judgement apparently dispensed with by the rise of secular humanism, there was plenty of room for other catastophes: fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War; Islamism and the War on Terror in the 1990s and early 2000s; and now environmental apocalypse, its judgement pronounced coldly from Greta Thunberg’s seemingly carbon-neutral throne.

The parallels between fervent, radical environmentalism and religion are hard to ignore. However, as Christians we need not live in fear or panic. God is in control over the entire sweep of history and we can trust in the Lord’s plans as woven throughout the grand story of the Bible. This is our reference point in a cultural malaise rooted in the meaning crisis – the absence of a supreme, unifying story – in North American and European culture.

We care for the environment because we worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who poured themselves out in a self-giving, overflowing love that sparked a magnificent universe for us to live in, a glorious blue orb for us to call home; because God’s splendour is splashed over mountains and rainforests; because his radiance is most powerfully seen in a pollution-free, clear night sky; because his majesty is magnified in glassy oceans filled with abundant coral reefs.

We can serve God and care for his creation with the joy and freedom that Jesus brings. It becomes a pleasure to join in with God’s redemptive plan for creation since we are already saved, in contrast to the ethical mission we see in secular humanism where, even after making atonement through the sacrifice of certain lifestyle choices, it cannot be known whether you will be saved from catastrophe or not. All that is known for certain is that death awaits regardless – both of the individual and of the planet, which will eventually be engulfed by a spluttering star.

We don’t call for sustainable living because on some level we fear death. Jesus sets us free from the fear of death. We can call for sustainable economic growth because we don’t want anyone to go hungry. We get a delicious foretaste of God’s grace, justice and mercy in the Bible:

‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?’

Isaiah 58:6

5) Pray, pray, and pray some more

Perhaps the simplest and most profound response to the climate crisis, the creation catastrophe, environmental matters ­– whatever your preferred terms are – is to fall to our knees and pray. It is when we pray that we can listen to God and discern his heart for us and others – whether that’s the Other across the street or the Other across the world.

God can reveal to us how we might step into in his grand story and help restore a weary world, breathe life into old bones, and comfort the broken-hearted in the power of the Holy Spirit. He can guide us as we meditate on scripture to see his astounding redemptive plan for creation. We just need to make space in our busy schedules to listen.

As you do, see if you can catch whispers of the new world God foreshadows in the Bible, and let that inspire and motivate you in the present. As our world reels in a storm of its own making, picture Jesus calming the storm in the Sea of Galilee, the wind and waves obeying his word before his panic-stricken, fearful followers cried out to him. ‘You of little faith,’ Jesus replied, ‘why are you so afraid?’

All Nations Christian College offers modules in Poverty and Justice in both our undergraduate programme and postgraduate programme. If you're looking for a short, sharp dose of quality teaching and a chance to reflect on your experiences in international development with like-minded practitioners, All Nations also offers Advanced Short Courses.



[Related blog posts: COP26 – our last best chance?]

* The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent the views of All Nations Christian College, only the views of the author.


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