Should Christians Be Activists?
I’ve been sitting on this blog post for months. But with COP26 opening today and following Nick Gough’s sermon this morning about the discipline of service, in which he discussed wrong motives we sometimes have for what we do, I felt it was timely...
I’ve got to be really careful with this subject, for a number of reasons. I remember Esther talking to me a few years ago in a staff meeting about how she recognised her own “activist” tendencies in me. I’d not seen myself as an “activist” before, but she was right. I want to get stuff done and I like it done my way. My passion for an issue can make me impatient when others don’t have the same sense of urgency, don’t do things carefully, or take a different view of the problem. I also struggle to trust and just leave things (things that I was never meant to carry) to God. So I’m acutely aware that I could dig myself a hole with this blog, on the one hand making it all about what we should be DOING, and on the other laying out my own eco credentials, rather than empowering and inspiring you to action in response to the grace of God!
Ephesians 2:8-10 have long been key verses for me, as a mum, church administrator, and recently as a new worship leader:
8For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Created for good works, but saved by grace! In Nick's words, “our service isn’t redemptive”, however at the same time we are called to follow Jesus’ example in service.
Holier than thou?
People viewing churches from the outside sometimes talk about them being full of “do-gooders”, “holier than thou” people, hypocrites – Pharisees, you might say. And we all know how Jesus, knowing our human nature, used the Pharisees as an example, warning his followers:
"Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 6:1)
Those of us on the inside know that in fact churches boast the full array of sinners - and that’s as it should be. Churches should be full of those of us who recognise we need help and are only made holy only by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus in our place.
But yes, many of us are “do-gooders” too, for at least one of two reasons:
No matter how much we hear about grace, or read Ephesians 2:8, we find it very difficult to accept the free gift of grace and still want to earn favour with God by our hard work.
Motivated by the love we have received from Jesus, and as we are gradually changed by the work of the Holy Spirit, we genuinely want to do good to others (Ephesians 2:10).
What does this have to do with eco church?
Well, we can be very “holier than thou” about our efforts to change the world, whether or not these are under the banner of church. We can spot the speck in our neighbour’s eye before dealing with the plank in our own (Matt. 7:3) – both theologically and culturally. I recognise this in myself and have to keep searching my heart to see why it is that, for instance, I want to share about my zero waste and low carbon lifestyle mission? I want to share ideas and inspire friends to action. But is there even a hint of self-righteousness? And even if not, is there anything in what I’m sharing that smacks of privilege and might dishearten those without means to do the same? I expect I often get it wrong. Social media is particularly dangerous. It’s always healthy to examine my own motives, think carefully about my words, and ask for God to search my heart and root out anything bad. But if it holds me back from taking action that’s no good either. I don’t want to waste an opportunity. And it’s healthy to learn from our mistakes. (Please, call me on it if I say something unhelpful! I’d rather risk that uncomfortable conversation than behave like it’s someone else’s job to speak out for creation.)
There’s an old cliché about “liberal Christians” being busy with social justice, while “evangelicals” are interested in personal salvation. But the Christian should never need to make a choice between the two – the gospel demands emphasis on both! If we are “heavenly minded” we should be motivated to be of great “earthly use” – yet liberated from the anxiety that it all depends on our hard work.
Turning over tables
We are called to imitate Jesus (Eph. 5:1), but it’s amazing how we can focus on particular parts of his life and ministry to legitimise our way of following, and conveniently forget others. It’s especially convenient, I find, to forget that Jesus asked his disciples to deny self, take up their cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24). Or said we will be judged on how we have fed and clothed and welcomed and visited those we might rather avoid (Matt. 25:31-46). We have to hold in tension the call to radical action, from this man who overturned tables in the Temple in righteous anger at the outrage he saw there, and his promise of salvation by grace, not works.
Fifteen years ago I worked for a while for Christian Aid at a time when they were highlighting the need to “do justly, love mercy and walk humbly” by speaking up about climate change. I learned about carbon calculating and offsetting for the first time, and came to understand that without radical change at both political and social levels to tackle the climate emergency, all our sticking plaster attempts to aid and empower the least developed parts of the world will fail.
To give an up to the minute example of this, on 29 Oct 2021, United Mission to Nepal reported heart-breaking losses from floods and landslides last week in Bajhang District. "The unseasonable heavy rain ruined physical infrastructure such as roads, electricity, water supply, suspension bridges, micro hydro etc. in the district. [We] estimated that the development of the district has lost about 10 years’ worth of progress with this event.”
886 displaced people! Imagine Oxfordshire trying to handle a disaster like that! The incredible sacrificial work of local and missionary UMN staff is so valuable yet, as in so many parts of the developing world, is being set back time and time again by “natural disasters” caused by unnatural weather phenomena.
Desmond Tutu has said,
“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
Most of us agree that we know “why they’re falling in” – we know the truths of the climate emergency, and that only really radical sacrificial commitments at COP26, and more importantly actions from governments like our own (as well as individuals) can hope to avert ecological meltdown. But how many of us believe these commitments will be made? I’m really encouraged to read how Christian pilgrims and activists are getting noticed in Glasgow (They would walk 500 miles Guardian article). There are times when “righteous service is content to be hidden” as Nick said, but there are also times when to serve is to shout:
8Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
9Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy. (Proverbs 31)
Activism is costly. Philippians 2 says we are to count others more important than ourselves, following the example of Jesus who despite equality with God gave up his very life to save us. I expect that the Young Christian Climate Network members who walked from Cornwall to Glasgow for COP26 (mentioned in a BBC article here) didn’t find it easy. I imagine there are blisters! They and the other faith walkers may be applauded for it, but they didn’t do it for fun or for self-promotion – they will only be satisfied if they see COP26 achieve what 25 previous COPs have failed to do.
We plan to take the kids up to Oxford to march on Saturday 6 Nov as part of the “Global Day of Action for Climate Justice”. (We've registered to join in with the Wildlife Trusts group).
Will you join us?
Will activism save us?
No. I see a lot of messages from secular environmental organisations saying something like, “we still have time to save the world; if you act now!” But the Christian message should never be “we can fix this, just work harder”; but rather that only God can save us, only the Creator can regenerate creation - yet amazingly he wants us on his team and will work in and through us, achieving more than we can imagine! That it all ultimately rests in His almighty hands should relieve us of the need to carry the weight of guilt and fear, and release us to take meaningful steps forward with hope.
WBC isn’t taking eco action for the approval of those outside the church, but hopefully the community will notice we’re stepping up for the planet – being distinctive and sacrificial in tackling the issue in Jesus’ name. They’ll certainly notice if we don’t seem to care. But hopefully it will also spark conversations with our neighbours about God’s work of repair, renewal and regeneration, his willingness to step into this messy, sin-broken world and get his hands dirty bringing good news of a solution and a future hope.
And he who was seated on the throne said, "Behold, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true." (Revelation 21:5)
Go into your room and shut the door… (Matt 6:6)
I hope some of you will come and march in Oxford. But here are some more private challenges for you this week – some things you can do which could make a big impact but nobody need know you’re doing it, so there’s no risk of feeling superior!
Pray! Over the next fortnight, why not use the prayer points Rachel put together for us, or BMS World Mission's Prayers for those on the edge of emergency, or join in with Green Christian prayers daily 1-12 Nov at 8am on zoom. But remember we must be prepared to be the answer to our prayers (see Isaiah 6)
Sign environmental petitions and share them. How about starting with https://thetimeisnow.uk/declaration or Tearfund’s Reboot declaration
Sign up to receive inspiring emails from any of the following charities: A Rocha, Green Christian, Christian Climate Action (Christians in XR), Operation Noah, Young Christian Climate Network or similar
Subscribe to Ethical Consumer magazine/emails so you can check out the eco credentials of all areas of your lifestyle choices (as well as funding their excellent work keeping companies accountable and transparent in every area)
Check out the excellent BMS World Mission carbon calculator to help you review your emissions, then offset them by funding their eco projects such as solar power to replace a diesel generator in a hospital in Chad.
Switch your energy supplier to a green one: check out bigcleanswitch.org
Switch your bank account to a more ethical one (particularly if you’re with Barclays who were a recent target for Extinction Rebellion campaigning due to their fossil fuel investments). Personal finances can be a blind spot and there will be strict vegans who through their bank are unwittingly investing in the meat industry, and electric car owners whose investments are still funding oil companies!
Challenge your pensions provider about where they’re investing their funds. Check out https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk/21x/ “Cut your carbon 21x more than going veggie, giving up flying and switching energy provider simply by making your pension green.”
Switch your internet search engine. Ecosia is a tree planting organisation funded by internet searches – imagine an ethical version of Google. Every search you make on the internet makes somebody money through advertising. Ecosia is not a perfect system because it uses Bing’s platform and Microsoft have a very poor ethical rating (though Google is apparently worse). But I’m pretty sure you are going to continue to search the internet (and use Google and Microsoft), and so if you can be raising some money for tree planting while you search, then that’s something. Go to ecosia.org and set it as your default search engine/homepage so you land there every time you click on your browser. It's not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction, and perhaps will also help you think about the ethical implications of what you’re searching the internet for too…
If you’re going to shop from Amazon (not ethical, but most of us probably are), at least be sure to use Amazon Smile, which gives a portion of the profits to a good cause of your choice, without costing you any more (smile.amazon.co.uk). You can quickly pick one of their top recommended charities, e.g. the British Red Cross or WWF, or you can search for one – e.g. I have chosen our local Wildlife Trust (though I am trying to kick the Amazon habit...!), or you could go for one of our mission partners like Nasio Trust.