When I first started hearing scientists say something was going wrong with the climate (then called global warming), many years ago, it seemed obvious to me that this had a direct link with my Christian faith. My response to the unfolding crisis has always come from what I believe about God. Nonetheless, I still meet Christians today who tell me I’m jumping on a bandwagon.
So, I want to look at how caring for the whole creation goes to the heart of our Christian faith and at how it does so because it is rooted in the community of God in the Trinity. Over three blog posts I will consider different aspects of the three Persons of the Trinity and how we find our motivation in them. I know there is a danger in separating out the Trinity too simplistically – God is so intimately united that the different facets reach across the godhead. Nonetheless, I hope it is helpful to consider things in this way.
So let’s begin by asking a basic question: who is the God we worship?
Psalm 113 says this:
Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord, you his servants;
praise the name of the Lord.
Let the name of the Lord be praised,
both now and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun to the place where it sets,
the name of the Lord is to be praised.
The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He settles the childless woman in her home
as a happy mother of children.
Praise the Lord.
This Psalm tells us something so fundamental about who God is. Our God is the Almighty One, exalted above the nations, whose glory is above the heavens, incredible and huge – and yet, what is the characteristic that this Psalm gets rooted on? It’s the fact that God raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.
The God we worship is a God of Justice who cares for the poor and takes action to change their circumstances.
This Psalm isn’t alone in what it declares – we see this theme of a God of Justice all the way through the Scriptures. In the Old Testament in God’s instructions to the kings, God emphasises righteousness, which is expressed through taking care of the widow, the stranger and the orphan, and practising justice, love and compassion. That’s how God expected the rulers to behave because it reflects who God is. In the prophets too, there is often a strong indictment against the people of Israel because they had walked away from God and were not practising social justice (selling the needy for a pair of sandals, practising dishonest trading standards, etc). We see it in the laws, for example those regarding the Jubilee – that every fifty years people’s debts were to be cancelled, and people set free to return to their homes.
We see it in Jesus’ message in response to the question, “Who is my neighbour?” in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Implicitly, the parable answers the question: our neighbour is the person beyond us, beyond our boundaries. But, as so often with Jesus, he doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead he turns it on its head and says “Who’s the neighbour? You are! So go and be a neighbour – to those close to you and to those beyond your natural boundaries.”
We see the outworking of worshipping a God who cares for people in poverty also in the practice of the early church as they collected money when there was famine and starvation, and we know that they developed such a reputation that even the emperors mentioned it – that they didn’t only care for their own poor, but they cared for the poor from other communities as well!
We are created in God’s image, and that manifests in two things relating to our God of Justice. One is the affirmation that all people are equal. That we are all created in God’s image is of the utmost importance. The other is akin to the neighbour point discussed above, which declares that you are God’s image, I am God’s image. So what does it mean to be and to act in the image of God? We come back again to these words: that God is a God who raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap. So in order to reflect God, we must also demonstrate that active concern for people who are living in poverty.
The environmental crisis is impacting the poorest the most, in the UK and around the world. In 2013, tragically, a 9-year-old girl called Ella died, and just a few months ago the coroner made a landmark ruling for the first time that one of the key reasons for her death was pollution. She grew up in inner-city London in an area of poverty, and was constantly surrounded by choking fumes. Pollution, food deserts, lack of access to green spaces, fuel poverty are just some of a whole range of different issues facing our poorest communities today in the UK.
If COVID-19 hadn’t happened last year, the biggest story of 2020 would undoubtedly have been that of our climate in crisis. 2020 was the joint hottest year on record, and it brought with it climate extremes – high temperatures, wildfires, locust plagues, floods, storms, droughts – all of that on an unprecedented scale. While the first lockdown did actually see global emissions drop by 7% (which coincidentally is also the amount by which we need to cut carbon emissions every year for the next decade), they are once again surging, and 2021 could be another record-breaking year for global temperatures. At Tearfund we’re seeing the impacts across the countries we work in. We hear day after day the consequences the environmental crisis is having on the poorest communities where we’re serving.
So we begin this three-part series by recognising that our faith is rooted in the Scriptures that tell us God is a God of Justice*, who raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, and who calls us to do the same.
*Another whole area of consideration is that of judgement and the (sometimes surprising) good news that judgement will come for those who ravage the earth and destroy people’s lives, and justice will be done. But I have chosen not to explore that more fully here.