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Creation Is Not For Sale

Climate Change speech in Wittenberg

15 June 2016

Creation Is Not For Sale

Rev Dr Olav Fykse Tveit

General Secretary

World Council of Churches

 

Dear friends and colleagues,

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Fellow pilgrims on the way toward Justice and Peace,

1 Climate Change – a matter of faith

Creation is God’s work, every day, according to Luther. Creation ultimately belongs to God, in the words of Psalm 24. We are accountable to God for what we do as partners in God’s creation, as deacons of God’s creation. Do we bring hope for human beings and the whole of creation? This is the question we in the Christian Church must ask one another. In the light of the cross and the resurrection, we are accountable for the hope that is given to us. This must be our point of view when we look around us in today’s world.

Shanghai, Kolkata, Jakarta, Tokyo, New York City, Hong Kong, Miami and New Orleans – the names of these cities, obviously, do not refer to the geography of the Reformation even though the impulse given 500 years ago here in Wittenberg created waves of change reaching every country on earth.

These are among the thousands of cities around the world [1] that will be hit by rising sea levels as a consequence of climate change. Already, Pacific islands like Tuvalu are affected. But action versus inaction can mean the difference in the displacement of between 145 million people and up to 760 million people living in the world’s coastal cities, and many more along the coastlines. We also see climate change happening with increasing rainfall and thunderstorms or in the opposite consequence of severe droughts. People around Wittenberg and along the river Elbe remember the devastating floods of 2002 and 2013 in Central Europe.

We know that we have to act. And we know that we have to do this as churches together, and wherever possible also with people of other faiths. We have shown how well we cooperate as the WCC together with the LWF, the Roman Catholic Church, ACT Alliance and other partners, as for instance at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris where we presented almost 1.8 million signatures for a just and binding agreement. Climate justice pilgrimages from different regions of Europe converged in Paris, meeting there with representatives of other regions. All this was a very meaningful step in the pilgrimage of justice and peace, inaugrated by the tenth assembly of the WCC to put into action the prayer “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.”

The pilgrimage of justice and peace builds on the conviction that there is no peace and justice on earth if there is not peace and justice with the earth. At the same time, it includes peace and justice in the marketplace as the heart of modern economies. Markets have been part of human communities for millennia and have presented an opportunity to enhance the lives of people through exchange with others. In recent times the economy claims a dominant role in human and social relations. The emphasis on unlimited economic growth has devastating consequences for life on a small and finite planet. Those who have contributed the least to the problems – the poor communities of this world, especially in the Global South – are suffering most of the consequences. Unregulated markets and certain values associated with them – domination, cut-throat competition, greed for gain – have expanded and encroached into domains recognized as economic, social and cultural rights – e.g. health and education – or into areas that are traditionally considered “global ecological commons” such as the atmosphere, the oceans and the forests. Economist Antonio Tricarico (2013) observes: “The revitalized focus on mining and extraction has also been accompanied by an acceleration in the appropriation and grabbing of land for extractive schemes and massive agro-industrial plantations and estates.” This is a reality that many of our churches are facing.

The life-style of affluent societies now requires more than one planet to provide the resources we use. Global production and consumption levels have already exceeded the planet’s capacity and regenerative limits by 50 percent, year after year. This is indisputably unsustainable and will destroy the basis for human life on earth. As a consequence of these realities, climate change is surely an issue of justice between rich and poor, between present and future generations, between human beings and other life forms.

We need to change drastically how we produce goods, organize trade and operate in the financial system. We are currently living in a world driven by the globalized economy and dominated by financial motives – a world where almost everything has a price tag. “Creation is not for sale” is the stop sign telling us not to go deeper down this road, but to turn around and look for the way of justice and peace. “Creation is not for sale” reminds us that the “turn around” required of us is indeed a matter of faith because it depends on the way we look at this world – just as an environment to satisfy human needs and even human greed, or rather as the web of life to which we belong as creatures of the God of life. Creation as God’s gracious gift cannot be reduced to natural resources and commodities. Air, land, water and energy –all that is essential for life - need to be treated responsibly as common goods. Hence, climate change as a matter of justice and peace is indeed a deeply spiritual matter – just as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has so often underlined.

2. Repentance – the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses

Walking as pilgrims on the way of justice and peace requires turning around at the stop sign. The Biblical term for such a turnaround is “metanoia”/”repentance”. This leads us directly to the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses which we consider to be the starting point of the Reformation.

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent’, he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” (Mt 4:17)

Repentance means change, or going in another direction. Why is change necessary? Luther said: Because sin is a reality. Our era gives us no reason to think otherwise. This is not a time to believe that humanity is done with sin. There is no way to get away with it through money, through ignorance, through pious practices or by secular arguments – saying that we do not believe in it. Sin is a destructive reality in our own lives and our life together. We know that sin can take the form of structural sin in our political and economic systems and that exactly this is at the origins of the many threats to life we are facing.

Repentance is an attitude open for change to what is good. It means alertness to the critical voice, understanding the dimension of tragedy, and willingness to name what is wrong. Repentance comes from hearing clearly the voice of God’s forgiveness. We can change to focus on the needs of the other; particularly those who need more attention for the sake of justice and peace – our neighbours in need and the suffering creation.

Greed is such an expression of sin – individually and structurally – that requires repentance. With a study undertaken by the WCC, we have learned that greed does not rest merely at the level of individual behaviour and individual value systems. The problem is more complex and pervasive: greed is both structural and cultural. The prevailing financial and economic models are intrinsically geared towards expanding individual income and consumption, maximizing shareholder value or generating the highest possible corporate returns in the shortest timeframe. An overarching policy goal is the unlimited growth of the gross national product. In pursuit of these financial and economic goals, we have turned a blind eye to the enormous social and ecological debts produced by the financial and economic system.

The prevailing financial and economic arrangements reward, demand and presume the expression of greed on the part of individuals, groups and institutions. According to Konrad Raiser (in Peralta and Mshana, eds. 2016), we can now speak of “structural greed” or “institutionalised greed” that is resulting in the “structural deprivation of the conditions of life in dignity for the majority of people” and for creation as a whole. “Structural greed” works in tandem with a “culture of greed” – values, symbolic representations and norms that lend legitimacy to a structural framework founded on relentless accumulation (Peralta and Mshana, eds. 2016).

Another issue that requires a turnaround is our approach to looking for solutions by going even deeper down the road that led to these difficulties in the first place. While unrestrained markets are a large part of the problem, putting a price on nature and other market-based approaches are now being peddled by some political leaders and global financial institutions as solutions to the ecological and climate crises. There are numerous examples: carbon cap and trade schemes, forest carbon markets, biodiversity banks, even global water markets. Usually, the price for such instruments fails to reflect the real costs for human beings and nature. Marginalized and silenced, they cannot claim their rights. Interestingly, Robert Goodin (2015), a professor in social and political philosophy, compares the selling of permits to pollute to the medieval church’s practice of selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins. Goodin observes that such permits effectively sell environmental indulgences for the forgiveness of future environmental harms.

We cannot deny the temptation to be complicit in the reality of sin in all its forms, old and new. Repentance is required precisely when we get trapped by our own sin and we forget the basic truth that life is the gracious gift of God to be shared freely and enjoyed with each other. Repentance leads back to the God of life, the creator, redeemer and sustainer. There is the promise that those who repent and turn to God will rediscover the power of the cross and resurrection of Christ and the beauty of God’s gracious gift of life in their relationships with each other and with other creatures.

3. Deacons of creation

Such conversion implies significant changes in production and consumption patterns, and in lifestyles. For those of us living in wealthy societies and for the elites in poor countries, we need to move from overconsumption and a culture of waste to a responsible relationship to our neighbours and to creation. In fact God called human beings from the beginning to work and take care of Eden (Genesis 2: 15). This call should be updated to current challenges. Many theologians have pointed to the consequences of an excessive anthropocentrism, which has depleted the creation. They have emphasized that responsible care for the Earth should be the expression of a renewed and deeper understanding of stewardship.

Such an understanding of stewardship must include among its core components a broad view of justice and the consciousness that we are all, as stated in Genesis 2:7, part of the earth and taken from it. Humans did not make or produce the Earth. The Bible reminds us that the Earth is the Lord’s and all it contains (Psalm 24: 1). Indeed, we ourselves are part of it (Genesis 2: 7). Therefore, when we commodify forests and mountains or sell “forest environmental services” and permits to destroy the environment, we are selling something that is not ours to begin with.

It is indeed rewarding to explore these biblical references even further. The call to work (l.ob.de) and to care (l.shamr.e) for the garden reveals deeper meaning when we follow the appearance of the Hebrew root (obd) in the following chapters of the book of Genesis and throughout the Hebrew Bible. The Lebanese Old Testament Scholar Nicolas Abou Mrad has convincingly demonstrated[2] that to work to water the garden is an essential characteristic of the human being in relationship to God and creation. It is not by accident that the temple liturgy was called abodah and prophet Isaiah expressed his messianic hopes in the songs of the servant (obd) of God. This Old Testament tradition has a direct link to Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Diakonia is used here as the expression of Christ’s messianic servanthood that is realized on the cross and leads to the resurrection and reconciliation with God.

This suggests that it is possible to describe the relationship with both the neighbour and creation as diakonia following Christ’s way. We are called by God to be deacons of creation who need to care for the wellbeing and flourishing of it.[3] This is ultimately fulfilled in the vision of the last chapters of the Book of Revelation and the new creation in which the nations are healed and reconciled with each other and with God.

We need change and repentance that can shape a new vision of how we shall live together today. Such vision provides a strong base that calls for humility and mutual care for all who are ready to turn around and embark on the pilgrimage of justice and peace. In this way, we are making the best values of the Reformation a living reality today. Values are of no worth if they are solely about the past. We strengthen our values best by using them today as the basis for serving the lives of other human beings and the future of life on earth.

4. The right to hope

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Being aware of what is happening in our common home – the Earth - we might fall into the temptation of despair and inaction. But we have hope. As Christians we believe God does not abandon creation. If we look around us, we can find signs of hope at the individual, community and global level.

For instance, on the global ecumenical scene, the WCC together with other ecumenical partners such as WCRC and LWF have embarked on an initiative called the New International Financial and Economic Architecture and have developed an action plan, with the help of a panel of economists and theologians. The action plan identifies changes in economic policies and institutions that will account for important social and environmental tasks and aims to embed the market in the economy, economy in society and society in ecology. It calls upon churches, for instance, to demand alternative indicators of the wellbeing of the oikos – indicators other than gross domestic product – that better measure the health of communities and ecosystems.

On a more practical level, both at the community and global spheres, churches have also joined the growing movement to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in sustainable and resilient initiatives. Decisions like those taken by the WCC and LWF not to invest in fossil fuels, as also made by some other churches and church-related seminaries and other institutions, are a sign of this awareness and commitment. In the case of the WCC, it was youth from the Central Committee who advocated for this decision to be made. The new generations remind us of the intergenerational justice dimension of the challenges we are facing and the decisions we are making.

These are just two examples, from the ecumenical movement, of ecumenical responses to the cry that “creation is not for sale” and that give us hope. I am sure there are more. They point to a change in lifestyles, personal and community attitudes and values, and to the urgently needed transformations of economic policies, institutions and paradigms. None can handle on their own the change that is needed. Addressing climate change, for instance, requires collaborative actions of civil society, governments, UN agencies and those in the business community who look for alternatives. I have seen promising moves in this direction at the UN Climate Change conference in Paris, but also in response to the many migrants and refugees arriving in Europe. Churches have played a crucial role in accompanying them on the way, and in receiving them.

In response to the realities described earlier, it is not surprising that many of these issues have been included in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted last year by the United Nations. The SDGs start with “end poverty in all its forms everywhere” (SDG 1), and include, among others, clean water and sanitation for all (SDG 6), affordable, reliable and sustainable energy for all (SDG 7), sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG 12), urgent action to combat climate changes (SDG 13), sustainable use and life in the oceans and seas (SDG 14), protect forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss (SDG 15).

These goals, which summarize an important aspect of the international agenda for the next decade, cannot be achieved if we as individuals and communities do not change our ways of living. We need to turn around. We must reaffirm: Creation is not for sale!

We can make our own list of our home villages and cities, and it will remind us that this is about the future of one humanity that the churches are called to serve in unity as signs and beacons of hope. As I said last year at a High Level Panel about climate change in the UN Human Rights Council, I restate today: We have the right to hope. Not as an illusion ignoring the critical reality we are in, but nurtured by our faith, by examples and seeds of the future we see in many Christian communities around the world. We have the critical task to sow, propagate and grow these seeds so that God’s wondrous creation may continue to flourish and all “the Earth’s beings – microbes, plants and humpback whales; seas, lakes, rivers and skies; the depths of the Earth and the hidden waters, [may] live in the integrity God has made” (Economy of Life, An Invitation to Theological Reflection and Action, WCC 2014).

We believe that God has created us - me and you and all creatures, and continues to do so every day (cf. Luther’s words in the catechisms to the first article of faith).

To God be the glory!

 

[1] The study was presented by Climate Central: www.climatecentral.org

[2] an unpublished paper presented at a WCC/MECC workshop on diakonia and sustainable development goals

[3] The Orthodox theologian Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Zizioulas) speaks of the human being as priest of creation.