“Superficially, apart from a few obvious signs of pollution and deterioration, things do not look that serious, and the planet could continue as it is for some time. Such evasiveness serves as a licence to carrying on with our present lifestyles and models of production and consumption. This is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen.” (59)
I respond to this recent Encyclical as a Christian, with growing convictions regarding the urgency of climate change and the need for church communities to engage with the issue as a matter of love, justice and mission. Having studied commerce (not science!) some of my early and ongoing concerns regarding climate change relate to the increasing power of our imperfect “market”, and the fact that while markets may often efficiently meet the needs and wants of a select few, the majority of human-kind is meanwhile consistently marginalised by the very same market economy. More often than not the world’s poor and creation suffer tremendously, albeit quietly, as a result of our rapacious demands for more and more growth at all costs. The Pope writes of creation that “We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will” (2). It seems, however, that the cries of the poor and of creation, are getting louder, and harder to ignore.
I came to faith at the age of 18, in part driven by a deep despair regarding the state of our planet. My initial passion for evangelism and mission was soon complimented by a growing commitment to seeking justice, though it took a good while longer for me to realise that included caring for creation. Indications of God’s heart for both mission and justice are woven throughout Scripture, and there is no inherent need to pit these against each other. Indeed, the love of God that reaches out for relationship with us and which seeks our welfare and wholeness, integrates both of these. We often struggle to do the same, but in this Encyclical Pope Francis demonstrates no such distinction, and additionally identifies care for creation as a matter of serious and urgent Christian concern. Generally, our evangelical bent toward dualism – choosing to focus our energies on things ‘of heaven’ at the expense of things on earth - has not helped us engage with people who are deeply concerned about issues of this world. How can Christians boldly declare that God made this beautiful world, and yet have so little ongoing concern regarding its welfare? How can wealthy Christians speak of love and justice, and yet be so un-phased about the plight of the rest of humanity? As much as nature has value in its own right, it also sustains us and our communities – a very important point that many of us seem to have overlooked. I am convinced that there is a growing number of Westerners who now see the church as being extremely out-of-touch with everyday realities, and this view has unfortunately acted as a deterrent against faith. This is heart-breaking.
“Believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions. They need to be encouraged to be ever open to God’s grace and to draw constantly from their deepest convictions about love, justice and peace.” (58).
Personally, I found great relief in reading the Encyclical. It seems to be full of wisdom that is profoundly relevant to our current context. The topics raised within it can be incredibly vexing and divisive, but that does not give us excuse to be silent or complacent about such things. Admittedly, for most of us there are many significant challenges in Pope Francis’ words: he presents some very inconvenient truths! However for those of us who are deeply aware that incredible injustices continue - and even multiply - throughout our increasingly globalised world there is good reason to take heart. I found myself feeling profoundly thankful that Pope Francis has brought such strong, firm exhortations about climate change and the need for those of us in wealthier, developed countries to live more simply and to tread more softly on the earth. This is not a new message, but is one we choose to keep ignoring, as our response requires great sacrifice, courage, and love. While reading the document I was very mindful that the Pope must relates to Bishops from all over the world, some of who minister to people facing the most desperate poverty and deprivation. His Encyclical appears to be written from this genuinely global perspective, reminding us that these people are also our neighbours. We are called to love them, which includes preventing harm.
I appreciate the Pope’s willingness to call a spade a spade: to be clear about the devastating climate impacts that are projected if we pursue business as usual, and the need for us to repent in our part in causing it. For those of us who share similar views, this Encyclical offers hope. It gives a strong indication that finally the mood is changing and the ground shifting. It buoys our confidence that others will step up and join the fight. And it reminds us that we must not, and cannot, give up. This work can be lonely, exhausting, and at times downright depressing: hope is vital.
The Pope’s call is also unifying, both across Christian denominational lines, but also between ours and other faiths. Never before has humanity faced such a challenge, and if we continue to fight one another on this issue, we may very well all lose. History certainly demonstrates that humans are inclined to sin and make grave mistakes, but it also provides us with shining examples of love, courage, compassion, sacrifice and ingenuity. And there is the distinct possibility that our attempts to address climate change will assist in solving a broad range of other issues, including those relating to poverty and global health – and even mental health. Pope Francis lists a range of contemporary issues including increased violence and drug use, and suggests, I believe quite rightly, that “these signs are also symptomatic of real social decline, the silent rupture of the bonds of integration and social cohesion” (46).
The Vineyard movement has always had a strong focus on the Kingdom of God, and seeking justice. Our small congregation, Langwarrin Vineyard Church, has responded to climate change in a range of ways. Twice in recent years we have recognised and celebrated Hope for Creation Sunday. Some of us car pool when we can (or even lend/share vehicles), and in good seasons some of us share surplus produce from our veggie gardens on Sunday mornings. I can honestly say that people within our community recognise the dangerous lure of global consumer culture, and that we all strive to live more simply. Given our low financial overheads as a church, it was straightforward to respond generously and quickly to financial appeals for our Pacific neighbours who continue to suffer in the wake of Cyclone Pam. A number from our church family came along when I organised a local event in conjunction with the National Day of Climate Action in 2013. Similarly, as I was busy co-authoring A Climate of Hope with Dr Mick Pope, it was a tremendous blessing to know that I had the support of my church community.
As a household we try to minimise our energy use, and we generate some of our own power using solar panels. The power we do buy from the grid is 100% Government Accredited Green Power. We try to avoid car use when we can, riding bicycles and using public transport, or seeking to car pool. We have arranged our lives so that church, work and school are all local, and we try to take local holidays too. We compost, recycle, and re-use where we can. We resist often, trying to say no to the many things that we just don’t need. We support the growing divestment movement and have closed our account with ANZ choosing instead to support ethical community-owned banks.
“If we acknowledge the value and the fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing and limiting our power.” (78)
Along with another church family, we have just purchased land with the intention of setting up a faith-based, co-housing community in central Frankston. Our hope is that by living in close proximity and sharing more we will be able to shape lives that are characterised by greater love, generosity, justice and sustainability.
“Caring for ecosystems demands far-sightedness” (36): My toddler - if he lives to a ripe old age - will be 88 in the year 2100. It terrifies me to think of what he may witness in his lifetime as climate change impacts ravage our common home. I think often of my children, and their future, as such thinking fuels my believing, my hoping, my praying, and my small everyday actions of creation care.
If you'd like to read the Encyclical yourself - go for it! - look here.
If you'd like to write to your local catholic community to celebrate the Pope's work - we've got everything together to make it easy for you here.