Church of Ireland seminar on Climate Change and the Environment
I was one of the speakers and it was great to have a full room in the Council Chamber in Church House in Belfast, beside the beautiful cathedral.
I have reproduced the slides and the text of the talk below.
A Biblical Perspective on the Environment[Slide 1] I have been asked to set the scene and provide a Biblical Perspective on the environment. But to be honest, I do not know why I was asked, for I am not a theologian nor I am not a clergy person.
But I think the reason might be this - several years I was impacted by what the Bible has to say on about creation, how we treat it, and how the church has responded to the crisis unfolding before us.
And we are facing a crisis. Be it climate change, pollution, or loss of biodiversity. As the Secretary General of the UN said in September,
“We face a direct existential threat. We are careening toward the edge of an abyss.”We want to avoid that environmental abyss, and scripture can build a hope and a passion to act.
The passion that was stirred within me was a result of scripture fanning a flame in my spirit. It is that that I would like to share with you today.
On the 8 November 2013 the most powerful storm ever to make landfall devastated parts of the Philippines. It killed more than 6,300 people, made 2 million homeless, and caused $2.8Bn dollars’ worth of damage.
[Slide 2] This is Joshua Cator, an 11 year old boy from the devastated city of Tacloban in the Philippines. Joshua was swept away by the storm surge. At first he clung to his father, but then the current separated them and he was swept away alone. He survived but his mother and sister had been killed. His town was completely devastated.
When I read his story I realised that climate change is not simply an academic argument about the effect of carbon dioxide on global warming, it is about peoples’ lives.
This leads me to the verse that for me is a foundation for thinking about environmental issues,
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
There are millions of destitute people around the world like Joshua here, impacted by natural disasters that are fuelled climate change. The Bible says to speak up for people like him.
This hit me in the guts and I decided it was time to speak up.
Around this time, back in 2014, The Rev Dr Chris Wright [Slide 3] came to speak at our church. Chris Wright is an Anglican clergyman and an Old Testament Scholar and author. He was the principal of All Nations Christian College and now he is the International Ministries Director of Langham Partnership.
What he said that evening is so profoundly simple that it really struck me. It also opened up an entirely new understanding of mission. He said that many evangelicals had been reading the Bible wrong – in fact we have left off important chapters at the beginning and the end, he said,
“The Bible does not begin at Genesis 3 (or end at Revelation 20). You might think so when you listen to some presentations of the Bible’s message and mission. The Bible is not just about the solution to our sin problem and how to survive the day of judgement. It begins with creation and ends with a new creation.”
When someone says something like this, you look to see what these chapters are about. What have I missed?
So I turned again to the first verse in the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” And the story of creation is spelled out of how God created the sky, the earth, waters, plants and animals and mankind. And what does it say seven times? [Slide 4] That is was good, that it was very good.
But the story of creation is so important that it is spelt out again in Genesis chapter 2. Verse 4 says, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” And it briefly spells out how plants, waters and humans were created.
And then God gives human beings their role in relation to creation, [Slide 5] in Genesis chapter 2:15 It says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
Our role is to work it and take care of it – the first command God gave us is to Care for his Creation.
So that’s the first two chapters, what about the last 2 chapters of the Bible in Revelation?
These are about the New Creation.
[Slide 6] Revelation 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”.
This verse echoes Genesis 1 verse 1 doesn’t it? “In the beginning God created the heaves and the earth” and “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”.
In Genesis 3 death and pain enter, Revelation 21:4 “death shall be no more, neither shall there be or mourning, crying or pain.” In Genesis: Death arrives, In Revelation: Death leaves.
There are echoes of Genesis all through this chapter of Revelation. Genesis 2: Streams came up from the earth, Revelation 21 has: “the spring of the water of life”
Then chapter 22 begins with a beautiful picture just like a restored Garden of Eden. There is a river, the tree of life is there, everything is restored, verse 3 says “No longer will there be anything accursed”. And God walks in the recreation of the garden and we will see his face.
The Bible begins with the creation of the earth and the garden, and it ends with a new creation, a recreation of the earth and the Garden of Eden. And the creator is Jesus Christ himself – Revelation 22:6 “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.”
So we can see that the story of the Bible, as Chris Wright states, does not begin at the Fall and end with Christ’s return. It begins with creation and ends with a new creation. God calls creation ‘good’ and commands us to look after it.
Discovering the theology of Care for Creation meant I wanted to dive a little deeper into the Biblical perspective on the environment and this led me to read Bishop Tom Wright.
Tom is wonderful on this, he said, “There is a great theme in the scriptures which gives meaning and purpose to all of our life.” That theme is new creation.
His focus is on the resurrection of Christ and how Jesus still had a human body - it was a bodily resurrection. A new creation but still made of earthly stuff.
[Slide 7] He says, “Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world; God will make new heavens and new earth, and give us new bodies to live and work and take delight in his new creation. [Slide 8] And the ‘good news’ of the Christian gospel is that this new world, this new creation, has already begun: it began when Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead on Easter morning, having faced and beaten the double enemy, sin and death, that has corrupted and defaced God’s lovely creation.”
And Wright draws our attention to Romans chapter 8 - an important chapter that explains the good news of Jesus Christ and life through the Spirit. If the Bible were a landscape, then Romans would be a mountain range of truth. And in chapter 8 the truth is like the tallest peak in the mountain range. If we want to discover what new life in Christ is about, read Romans chapter 8.
And what does it say in Romans 8:18-21?
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
All of creation waits for renewal.
As Tom Wright says,So, by sharing some of the Bible passages and the theologians that have influenced me I hope that you can begin to see that Care for Creation is a thread woven through the tapestry that is the Biblical story.
“The resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit mean that we are called to bring forth real and effective signs of God’s renewed creation even in the midst of the present age.”
Often in journeys of discovery, you find that many people have been to a certain place before you, and this turned out to be true for me too. I discovered that the Anglican Church had formed the 5 Marks of Mission in 1990.
[Slide 9] The Five Marks of Mission are:
• To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
• To teach, baptise and nurture new believers
• To respond to human need by loving service
• To transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and pursue peace and reconciliation
• To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth
I also read Dr John Stott’s book, the Radical Disciple. This book made such an impact on me you could say I was radicalized by John Stott. This was his last book written shortly before his death. He has a chapter on Creation Care and on climate change says this,
“Of all the global threats that face our planet, this [climate change] is the most serious.” “One cannot help but see that our whole planet is in jeopardy. Crisis is not too dramatic a word to use.”Also, we have our very own, home grown, green theologian in the Church of Ireland, yes I am speaking about the Rev Ron Elsdon. I remember Ron coming to Monkstown about 30 years ago to speak about creation and global warming. I was about to start studying Geography at Queen’s University at the time and when Ron started showing pictures of glaciers I was particularly interested. He held my attention with the science and the marvels of creation.
For many years Ron has explained about the importance of the environment. If you want to hear a really excellent talk on the Care for Creation in the Old Testament I suggest you go online and listen to his talk at the Hub this spring. Briefly to summarise, he said that throughout the Old Testament the environment plays a key role. The Children of Israel were brought to a land flowing with milk and honey, they celebrated the first fruits, and they were told by God to let the land rest in the Sabbath year.
The environment underpins the life of the people in the Old Testament and in the New. Many of Jesus’ parables are about soil, weeds, crops, trees, water, storms and fish.
In recent years there has been an awakening in Christian circles to this truth that caring for creation is important.
[Slide 11] It was Pope Francis who led the way when he published his Encyclical ‘Our Common Home’ in 2015. In this he says,
“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”
[Slide 12] Justin Welby wrote in the New York Times last year,
“As people of faith, we don’t just state our beliefs — we live them out. One belief is that we find purpose and joy in loving our neighbours. Another is that we are charged by our creator with taking good care of his creation.”
[Slide 13] Our own Archbishop, Richard Clarke, said, just two weeks ago, at the Armagh Diocesan Synod,
“It will be our children and grandchildren who will pay a terrible price if we do not act as responsible guardians of the health of the earth on which we have been placed.”It was scripture and these theologians that inspired me to act. They led me on a journey discovering that caring for creation was a fundamental part of the Biblical story.
Thinking about taking action, let me take you back to the Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.
The Church of Ireland Bishop’s Appeal asked for disaster relief funds to help people like Joshua. Like many others, I gave a contribution and encouraged others in church to do the same. In total about 200,000 Euro were donated.
But later that year I discovered the Church of Ireland had millions of Euro invested in fossil fuel companies. The church was investing in the industry that causes the pollution that fuels global warming.
It was this connection between Joshua and my own giving that caused me to take action. It was then that I decided to campaign for the Church of Ireland to divest all its fossil fuel investments. And after 4 years, this year, the General Synod voted for the Church of Ireland to remove all its investments from these harmful companies by 2022. This is good news, but it would be even better if it happened sooner.
We need to take action on climate change, on pollution and the loss of biodiversity. We need to act because all of these problems impact the environment and the people who live there.
Jesus said “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
[Slide 14] This is Joshua a year later. That young boy was helped with clothing, food and shelter. There is hope and renewal when we as Christians respond to what God calls us to do through the scriptures. We are to help those who are destitute and we are called to care for creation.
Let me finish with another simple scripture.
Matthew 7:13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.
As a society we are on a road to destruction and we need to turn around.
A survey in 2017 by the World Economic Forum asked young people what they felt were the most important global issues. [Slide 16] For 18-35 year olds across the planet, the biggest global concern is climate change and the destruction of nature. As Christians, as a church, we have an amazing opportunity to speak with relevance to this missing generation.
If we say loud and clear that society needs to change direction because of environmental destruction, then individuals might be more willing to listen to us when say that we all need to change direction because of the personal destruction of sin.
Scripture teaches there is hope, in Christ there hope for individuals and the environment to become new creations. Scripture calls us to act, to call people and society to change direction and to move forward in the mission of the Kingdom of God.