Loving your neighbour in a warming world

Mick Pope reflects on the Parable of the Good Samaritan as he asks what does it means to love our neighbour in a warming world.

In 2013, I had the honour of addressing the climate change rally in Melbourne, organised by GetUp! Speaking in front of more than 40,000 people as a Christian was daunting, but I felt I had something to say. Here’s a small quote:

In a world where I wear clothes made in Bangladesh, watch American movies on a Korean TV, and when I drive my Japanese car I add gases that warm the whole planet, everyone is my neighbour. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus told a story about a man attacked by robbers, to teach us that we are to love our neighbours when they are in need.

When I knew that the Justice Conference theme was Love Thy Neighbour, I knew that I had to jump at the opportunity to write a book that teased a part the parable of the Good Samaritan as a parable of justice, indeed a parable of climate justice.

The parable shows us that at the heart of Torah, the very Torah Jesus came to fulfil, is love. If we claim to love God, then we must love our neighbour. And if we love our neighbour we must show them two kinds of justice, embodying the Hebrew concepts of mishpat and tzadeqah. Mishpat is the idea of restorative justice, giving people their due. Often mishpat is applied to the needy, the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner. As Walter Brueggemann observes, part of the covenant was land, indeed land is central to covenant. Those who were not part of the land, those who had no inheritance, were to be reconnected with land by mishpat.

In the parable, mishpat is shown in the restoration of the man attacked by bandits to health by the deeds of the Good Samaritan. Moved by pity for the plight of others, we are to see the image of God in them and act to restore it, be it their health, opportunities for education, a safe climate, employment, access to clean and safe energy, and so on. Mishpat is not about us, not ‘charity’ in the pejorative sense, but flows out of our love for God and for others. And in a global economy and climate system, everyone is our neighbour.

The Levite and the priest in the story may have been acting out of a desire for ritual purity, or may have been wrapped up in their own importance. But like them, when we worry about justice distracting us from the real gospel, we incorrectly play off orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It’s a temptation to cast orthodoxy over orthopraxy as an Evangelical error and vice versa as a Liberal preoccupation. In reality, orthodoxy points us to love, points us to orthopraxy in the form of right behaviour. Right behaviour can never be limited to ‘personal righteousness’ in an unjust world.

One set of characters often overlooked is the robbers or bandits. These were not mere thieves. In the world of first-century Palestine, the Greek word lestai could either refer to highwaymen who robbed for personal gain, or guerrilla fighters who targeted Roman authorities and their Jewish collaborators. The Jewish historian Josephus uses lestai to refer to Jewish social banditry, a form of primitive rebellion often found under oppressive situations such as Jewish life under Roman rule. These conditions were usually viewed as unjust by the common people as well. We might compare the lestai to Robin Hood.

The point is that when it comes to those who are victims of climate change, whether it’s people displaced in India and placed at greater risk of being enslaved, the people of the Carteret Islands facing having to move to mainland Papua New Guinea, or Torres Strait Islander peoples whose lives are set to be affected by more heat waves, rising seas, and more floods, we are the bandits. Those in the West have made a larger contribution to climate change than most of the world’s peoples (with China having caught up).

If we don’t want to be bandits, what do we do? We embody that under the Hebrew word for justice, tzadeqah. We live righteously such that eventually restorative justice eventually becomes unnecessary. This means understanding that the bible is written by and for oppressed people, and that in many ways compared to the global poor, we are not those people. We are Moses, educated in the court of Pharaoh, able to speak his language and able to plead on behalf of people who can’t speak easily for themselves. Or we can help their voice be made clear. We are Esther in the court of Ahasuerus, put there for a time such as this. Privilege is for a purpose, and that purpose is not self-indulgence.

With COP 23 in Bonn at the moment, the time has come for governments to act on the rapidly closing window on a 2° C world (one paper places this at 5%). Pray now, speak up now, write emails now, march now, change to clean power now, do all you can now. To love God is to love our neighbour. To love our neighbour is to want justice for them. And to do justice is to address climate change.


Dr Mick Pope is a lecturer in meteorology, with a PhD from Monash University. He also has degrees in maths, physics and theology. Mick is Professor of Environmental Mission at Missional University, an Adjunct at Eastern College Melbourne, and a member of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy at the University of Divinity. Mick is an ecotheologian, and has recently written A Climate of Justice: Loving your Neighbour in a Warming World (Morning Star Publishing/Wipf and Stock, 2017). A Sydney book launch will be held on Saturday afternoon the 2nd of December at 5:30pm at Paddington Anglican Church.

Creation & Climate Justice