Sunday, December 11, 2016

How do we love our neighbours in a warming world?

The following is the text of an address that I gave at the Salvation Army Festival of Mission here in Melbourne. Thanks to sister Brooke Prentis for this action shot.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with Micah 6:8 “And what does the Lord require of you. But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God?” For some, this passage forms a key part of their faith – that God is a God of justice and wants followers who are shaped by this. Justice should be part of the DNA of the church because it lies at the heart of God. Sadly, not all Christians see this as a priority.

I want to tell you a couple of stories, and then draw a common thread.  

I’m a TEAR rep at my church. You might be familiar with the work that they do, partnering with aid and development agencies around the world. One of the things they have done for years is the Really Useful Gifts catalogue, where you purchase a present for someone in the developing world, and give the card as a present to a friend. One of the things you used to be able to buy was a mosquito net. Malaria is a major problem in some parts of the world. There were over 400,000 malarial deaths in 2015, and yet that represents a 60% reduction in mortality since 2000.

Yet people are catching malaria in some places where they have not previously been exposed to it. Take for example the story of Nicholas Hakata. Nicholas is an elder on Han island, part of the Carteret group near PNG. He describes life in the Carterets as a holiday island paradise of fishing, checking on your banana crops, or sitting around and relaxing. However, over the past few years, life has become more difficult. Pools of fetid water left over from inundations of the island have come breeding grounds for mosquitoes. There are many more mosquitos than there used to be. All the children have become sick with malaria. This combined with irregular delivery of food from the mainland producing widespread hunger, has kept them from school.

Malaria is not just a problem in the Pacific. World malaria expert Andrew Githeko grew up in the Kenyan highlands on a coffee plantation. When he was a kid, no one in his village got malaria because there were no mosquitos where he lived. Imagine his surprise when he received a phone call to tell him that his niece had a fever that wouldn’t go away. She had been diagnosed with malaria, which she caught in the very same village that Andrew grew up in.

On a different note, William Wilberforce and the Clapham sect are heroes to some Christians for their opposition to slavery. Sadly there are now more people in slavery around the world than there was at the height of the slave trade to the Americas. In the Indian state of Assam, ethnic tension and natural disasters leads to internal displacement. In recent years, flooding of the Brahmaputra River has washed away crops and villages, caused erosion and covered rice paddies in silt.

Women suffer disproportionately in such situations, women like 16 year old Uma Tudu. After floods destroyed her village, she traveled more than 1600 km to Delhi to find a job and a new life. Instead, she found herself sold as a slave. Girls like her are deliberately targeted by slave traders after violence or floods, and can end up as domestic help, forced labour or even in forced marriages.
The common factor in all of these stories is climate change.

Rising sea levels threaten the Carteret Islanders, as well as people across the Pacific, in Bangladesh, and the Torres Strait, where people have taken to sandbagging graves to prevent them from washing away. Higher sea levels make small islands more vulnerable to erosion or inundation due to storm surge from tropical cyclones. Water left over from inundation due to a tropical cyclone that has provided the breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes. In Kenya, increasing temperatures have led to a spread in the range of malarial mosquitoes. Meanwhile, the flooding of the Brahmaputra has been caused by rising temperatures melting Himalayan glaciers.

All the justice issues that Christians are concerned about, health, education, and slavery, are all made worse by climate change. Even the huge crisis in Syria has been complicated by climate change. A five year long drought contributed to failed crops, economic hardship and internal dislocation. To preach the gospel in the modern world is to proclaim God’s kingdom of peace and justice, and to deal justly in the modern world means dealing with climate change.

The Parable of Good Samaritan is our guide for justice in a warming world. We need to recognise that we live with one atmosphere and a globalised economy. Greenhouse gases know of no national boundaries. In this world, everyone is my neighbour. So how do we love our neighbours in a warming world?

Firstly, the gospel is the ultimate message of restoration. Justice means restoring people to a place of dignity. As Eugene Cho notes, people are not projects. They are individuals made in the image of God. The Good Samaritan goes to great lengths to see that the victim’s wounds are tended so that he could be restored to full health.

In a warming world, there are many ways we can help people maintain their dignity, by assisting them to adapt to climate change. Aid works when people become involved in their own restoration and are enabled to carry on their lives as before. But aid also costs. The Good Samaritan realised that returning the man to full health might cost more than he initially laid out, and promised to return later with more if needed.

It seems that many politicians in the West are not willing to count this cost. Australia’s aid contribution is less than its 0.7% commitment, and just this year our giving was cut by $200 million. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is threatening to withdraw funding for climate change adaptation. Christians need to continue to campaign on aid and debt relief in the same way we have done for decades. There also would be more to give if large corporations weren’t given a free break, so we also need to continue to campaign for tax fairness.

It’s not a good or moral use of money to lock asylum seekers up in detention and deny them any possibility of seeking asylum in our country. The relative trickle that we experience now will become a flood in future years as drought, floods, sea level rise and political instability lead to more people being displaced.

It is a violation of a person’s dignity when they are forced to leave behind their homes and way of life because of violence or climate change related environmental disasters. We must then show refugees hospitality, not as an act of charity but as an act of justice. Our God is a hospitable God, and we cannot share the gospel of divine hospitality without ourselves being hospitable. Our approach to asylum seekers must change.

So far I’ve spoken as if all justice was restorative and we were always the Good Samaritans. But climate change should make us pause to reconsider this. The character who is often ignored in the parable is the bandit. Often we might be tempted to think of bandits as simple thieves, a foil in the story. Yet the back story is far more complicated and far more interesting.

The Roman Empire was supported by heavy taxation and slavery. There was a steady supply of goods flowing into Rome, and out to feed their vast armies which protected the borders and enforced Roman rule. Harsh taxation in an agrarian society could to lead to debt and loss of ancestral lands in Israel, with the Jewish religious elite ready to profit by buy up the land cheaply. People were left with the choice of being tenant farmers, day workers, or bandits. In addition, there was also a temple tax to pay, which benefitted the Levites and Priests. Perhaps their reticence to come to the man’s aid in the parable was less about ritual purity and more about self-preservation?

When it comes to climate change, we are not just engaged in restorative justice, but in repentance. We must recognise that we ourselves are part of a system, an empire of consumption that has produced the conditions under which other people suffer. Western economies have benefited from outsourcing the impacts of our wealth onto others; by dispossession of Indigenous people – remember, always was, always will be Aboriginal land, poor environmental and labour laws, and the impacts of climate change on the developing world and future generations.

So do we stand with empire or against it? Are we to acquiesce to the Babylonian Captivity of the church, or resist its idols? As privileged westerners, we have much power to both preach the justice of the kingdom of God and to work for it. We are near the centre of power, in Pharaoh's court. Our votes can carry power, but so can our protests. Campaigns like divestment from fossil fuels are more than just symbolic, because not only do they declare our desire to change the way in which we obtain our energy as consumers, but it should also be a statement about the whole nature of power itself (pun intended) and our relationship to it.

Our mission as the church is to proclaim the gospel and embody it. Our acts of justice as we face a rapidly changing global climate are not optional. They are both acts of restoration in respect of the dignity of others, but also acts of repentance.

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