Notes from the sermon by Deirdre Duff on Sunday 19th May 2019
In the last few years many Christians – and people of other faiths – have taken up the fight against climate change as an essential part of living out their faith. I want to reflect on this today, and to tease out how our faith can both motivate us to take action for climate justice and also how it can sustain us – and even bring us deep joy – as we go about protecting God’s creation.
Many of the motivations that Christians have for taking action on climate change are shared with people of other faiths and with people of no faith. There is that basic question of justice. Climate change is predominantly caused by relatively wealthy countries, such as UK in the global North. But it is people in the global South who are already suffering terribly from the impacts of climate change, despite the fact that they have contributed far, far less to causing the problem. The carbon footprint of the average UK citizen is equal to the carbon footprint of 65 Ethiopians. Yet it is in Ethiopia that people are going hungry because climate change is causing their crops to fail. So there is a deep injustice there; an injustice that motivates people of all faiths, and none, to take action.
For Christians, there is also that story in the Gospel we just heard, where Jesus explains that whatever we do to the least of our siblings, we do to him. That story always makes me wonder, are we in the global North now robbing Jesus of the crops he needs to survive – or flooding his island home in the Pacific?
But for now I want to go back to the motivations that many climate activists, regardless of faith, often share.
Some of us, especially if we still are relatively young, may be partly motivated by fear for our future, when climate change will affect us in the global North too. Older people are sometimes motivated by love for their children or grandchildren – by a duty to pass on a liveable world to the next generation.
Others are motivated by the knowledge that so many of the other great challenges that humanity faces – such as reducing inequities, ending extreme poverty, stamping out racism, world peace, gender equality, ensuring universal access to healthcare – will be deeply influenced by – and probably depend on – our ability to address the climate crisis.
All of the reasons for taking climate action that I’ve just mentioned are important to me; I’m also very glad that I can share these motivations for taking climate action with people of all faiths and none – it allows me to feel united and connected with my siblings all over the world, who are different from me in so many ways yet share many of these deep motivations to fight for climate justice.
But my faith has also played an essential role in motivating me to act on this issue – and in sustaining me to keep acting – and to remain hopeful and joyful -odd though that may sound – in the face of the existential crisis that is climate change. So today I’d like to explore what faith can bring to the climate justice table.
A few years ago I underwent an ecological conversion that involved much more than just becoming an activist, it had a deep spiritual dimension. I’ll try to share some of the joy that can accompany such an ecological conversion this morning – and dip into some insights from some of the people and theologians that have influenced and inspired me.
This Easter, the Resurrection has made me think about how the risen Christ is present in all things – in the words of St Paul, “Christ is all and in all”…and “in him all things hold together” What a fantastic image!
Paul also says that Jesus is the “first fruit of all creation”– it’s intriguing stuff…
Long before Jesus physically walked on earth as a person God’s Spirit was somehow present in the earth, an Old Testament writer tried to articulate it in terms of the Spirit “brooding over the waters”
One of Ireland’s leading Christian theologians, Dermot Lane has proposed that it will be much easier to heal our broken world if we can “connect with the gracious Spirit of God given in creation and revealed in Christ.”
He argues that we need to rediscover the “Spirit of God as the source of life, as the dynamism driving the evolution of life, as the power holding everything together and continuously sustaining life on earth.”
Imagine if we really took seriously the notion that all of creation is imbued with God’s Spirit or God’s presence! That the sparkling water of the river Aire in Leeds or the Yorkshire lakes or a bubbling stream were really imbued with the Living Water that the risen Christ has given us? Imagine the excitement of running our hands through that water, of feeling its life giving properties under our toes. Realizing this can be life changing. It can fill you with energy , with joy, and make you feel a deep connection to Christ! At least it does for me. And I think it gives me much less need to consume and buy more and more stuff to make me happy.
I’ve been quite influenced by the writings of the French scientist and priest, Teilhard de Chardin. As a paleontologist and geologist he had some fascinating thoughts on the process of evolution. He argued that without matter, i.e. the physical stuff of the universe, we remain “ignorant both of ourselves and of God”. He proposed that matter is a “divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay moulded and infused with life by the incarnate Word”.
Teillard argued that “All that exists is matter becoming spirit. There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter”
I do think we can learn more about God as we get to know creation better. The book of Wisdom says that “Through the greatness and the beauty of creatures one comes to know by analogy their maker”.
And Jesus reminds us that every one of these creatures is important in the eyes of God; speaking about birds, or swallows, in Luke’s Gospel he says that “not one of them is forgotten by God”
One Christian who cherished creation – and who saw nature as his kin rather than as something that was subordinate to him was St Francis of Assisi. I’ve enjoyed reading about him in Laudato Si’; Laudato Si’ is an encyclical letter – a small book really – that Pope Francis has written addressed to all people – and it’s about caring for Care for Our Common Home, i.e. the Earth. It’s a really extraordinary document, it manages to get down to some of the root causes of the ecological crisis- and how they are interconnected with so many other social justice issues – while also bringing a sense of hope and joy. And it refers to Saint Francis quite a bit.
It describes how Saint Francis would “burst into song” whenever he “would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals…drawing all other creatures into his praise….He would call all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’.”
In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis proposes that, if we can follow the lead of St Francis and “feel intimately united with all the exists then, sobriety and care will well up spontaneously” . I think he could be on to something there; if we can develop a deep connection with Mother Earth than surely we will then start treating her better.
But to go back to St Francis, it’s worth pointing out that his deep and joyful love for, what he called, Mother Earth and Sister Water and Brother Sun, was deeply rooted in his Christian faith – it wasn’t pagan worship – St Francis was deeply devoted to Christ, and in the last years of his life even shared a mystical union with Jesus when the marks of the crucifiction became mysteriously imprinted on his hands and feet. So he was deeply united with both Jesus and the earth; the two came together.
I do think, though that, we can also draw inspiration and wisdom from other faiths and traditions when it comes to caring for creation and becoming more united with it; in particular indigenous peoples can teach us a lot I feel.
A few years ago, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota provided a real example to the world as they peacefully fought to defend their water and sacred lands from the fossil fuel industry trying to build a pipeline through their lands. Their water protection camps were saturated in prayer – and reverence for Mother Earth. And they delayed that pipeline for a very long time; despite having dogs set on them and being brutally repressed by pipeline security and police. Standing Rock is a well known example but all over the world, predominantly in the global South, indigenous people and other people of colour are resisting the fossil fuel industry in similar struggles.
Time and time again the most unpopular and harmful fossil fuel extraction projects and pipelines are inflicted upon the lands of indigenous people and people of colour, instead of on the lands of the white people who profit from these projects.
UK fossil fuel companies – funded by UK banks and UK shareholders are heavily involved in this modern day colonialism. So I would say that not only should we learn from the wisdom of indigenous peoples but we also have a duty to find appropriate ways to stand in solidarity with them as they fight so hard to resist these fossil fuel companies. Getting involved in fossil fuel divestment is one way to do this –but of course there are other ways too. I’m so happy that All Hallows has divested itself of fossil fuels – and we have lots of opportunities to do more work to support further divestment by contributing to the campaign to get the giant West Yorkshire Local Government Pension Fund to also stop investing in fossil fuel companies.
And this Wednesday, there will be a debate in Westminster about the parliamentary pension fund’s investment in fossil fuels – so the next few days will be really important in terms of encouraging as many MPs as we can to show up to that debate and to support the campaign to divest the parliamentary pension fund from fossil fuels. There are sample tweets, phone messages and emails that you can send your MPs in the sheet under your chairs. After worship today we’ll also be doing some guided letter writing to support fossil fuel divestment; so do join in, if you can.
I really think we can achieve a lot if we campaign together to change big systems. Individual action to modify our own lifestyles is certainly important, we should all try to live more simply, to consume less, to try and avoid really carbon intensive activities like flying. But this crisis has got to a point where changing individually one by one, while important, is not enough. I want to recognise too that it can be difficult or expensive for people to be green in some areas of their lives; for example it can be difficult to fuel our lives with renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Not because renewables are not up to the task – but because the Government continues to support fossil fuels over renewable energy.
That’s why campaigning is so important – we need to campaign to change the entire system of how we fuel our countries and our world, so that everyone, whether they are concerned about God’s creation or not, automatically uses renewable energy when they flick on the switches in their homes or cars. We need to make it easier for people to do the right thing by changing the whole system.
I’m going to finish up now with a little poem by Joseph Mary Plunkett. Celtic spirituality can be beautifully sensitive to the presence of God in creation and I think this poem shows this as it recognises Christ throughout the natural world;
I see his blood upon the rose
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice-and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.