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Interview: Ruth Valerio, environmentalist, theologian

31 March 2017

‘The main thing is not to let the hugeness of the problems either paralyse you or make you apathetic’

We live in a society that forms and shapes us to an incredible degree, and we are hardly aware of it. The question I wanted to look at in Just Living was: how do we live well as followers of Jesus in our consumer society? How can we ensure that we are being formed into his likeness, and not into the likeness of our culture? We can’t follow Jesus today without being actively concerned about poverty and the terrible state of our planet.


The blunt truth? I don’t actually have much hope for the future — not on a global level, in the sense of our immediate, proximate future, even if our ultimate future is secure. That might sound a terrible thing to say, but I’m afraid I have a pretty sober assessment of the human condition. Although our capacity for good can be awe-inspiring, our capacity for bad is also terrifying.


And yet I remain defiantly positive and hopeful, and utterly committed to doing my bit to see God’s Kingdom come and his will be done on this earth now, in the way that it currently is in heaven.


The biblical picture of the future is that Jesus will return to this world and renew it, reuniting heaven and earth. I don’t believe that our future is in heaven for eternity: we’re going to be with Jesus in heaven as a resting place until he returns, and, at that point, everything will be made new. We have to be very careful of our language about heaven. We live in that overlapping of the ages between Jesus’s death and resurrection and his return. We don’t expect to see everything now.


There’s a danger between believing that we can sort everything out now, which can lead to burnout and disillusionment when that doesn’t happen, and believing that it’s a struggle, and there’s no point in doing anything.


My overall hope for Just Living is that people will come away with a renewed vigour for living lives focused on our relationships with God, with each other, with the wider natural world, and internally with ourselves. That’s what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about: bringing reconciliation on all those levels. And that’s what our current culture can so often work against.


A Rocha [an environmental charity] provided me with a home for many years, when I felt really quite misunderstood in the Church, and alone in my dedication to caring for this world. Aldo Leopold said: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one learns to live alone in a world of wounds.” Being part of A Rocha showed me that I wasn’t so alone.


At A Rocha, I was churches and theology director, helping Christians and churches understand where environmental care fits into the Christian faith — the theology — and do something about it — the practice. I developed a scheme called Eco Church, which has been going really well. Nearly 600 churches from a variety of denominations and networks are now involved, and a number of dioceses are engaging, too, through the partner Eco Diocese scheme.


Now, as global advocacy and influencing director at Tearfund, I head up a large team of people doing amazing work, mobilising churches around the world to tackle poverty and injustice by pushing for change at a governmental and institutional level on issues that impact the poorest and most vulnerable. I feel a bit like a conductor, helping each part of the orchestra play brilliantly, and then bringing them all together to make fantastic music.


If I could talk to Donald Trump, as one Christian to another, I’d want to sit down and read the scriptures with him. That would be our one common reference point; so that’s where we’d need to start.


There are all sorts of things that we can do to live justly. Just Living talks about seven practices that take us a good long way along that road, but we live within a system that has a false understanding of flourishing. It focuses on economic development at the expense of everything else; so it can be hard to live in ways that respect and take care of both people and planet when the structures around us are pushing us to conform to other values.


Come and spend a day with me, and you’ll see I’m riddled with compromise. It’s impossible to live an ethically pure life, but I know I live in the “now and the not yet”; so I’m fine with that. The main thing is not to let the hugeness of the problems either paralyse you, or make you apathetic, but always to be looking for ways that we can live more kindly towards both people — those who live near to me, and those who live far away and pick my tea, or make my clothes — and the wider natural world.


Cred Jewellery was the company that my husband, Greg, founded as part of his work on ethical jewellery and Fairtrade gold. He’s been an incredible pioneer, showing that it’s possible to have jewellery that is fully ethical and traceable right back to the people who mined the raw materials. Gold mining is an absolute horror-story, and I would urge everyone to make sure they only buy gold jewellery that is labelled Fairtrade. All you vicars, bear that in mind when you’re doing your marriage prep with parishioners! Greg now runs a separate jewellery business, Valerio Jewellery, but Cred still goes well, and bears the honour of being the first Fairtrade jewellery company.


Lenten tasks — there’s still time: I’d like people to read Rowan Williams’s Being Disciples, which is simply stunning; and I’d like them to give up meat. Giving up meat for Lent as a family was a key part in helping us move now to a diet that is predominantly vegetable and grain-based. That’s something that should be the norm for us all.


I never had a conversion. I just grew up knowing that Jesus and I were friends. But, when I was about 12, my older sister wanted to share with me her new Charismatic experiences: we sat on my bed together, me in my nightie, and she prayed for me to be filled with the Holy Spirit. She had a wonderful picture of me entering into and walking round a garden with brightly coloured flowers and birds and butterflies.


My absolute favourite sound is my two teenage daughters enjoying each other’s company, chatting together while doing homework, laughing at something on YouTube, playing “Sims” together. It’s the happiest thing in the whole world.


Books and music are two of my favourite things. I had a period when life was really tough, and I used Tess Ward’s The Celtic Wheel of the Year prayer book. God used that book to get me through that time.


In general, I’m a pretty easy-going person, and I don’t think I ever get angry; but I got close to it the other day when I went past a piece of woodland with a river, on the outskirts of Chichester, and saw it had all been cut down, presumably for housing. Everything has gone: the trees, the hedgerows — I just can’t believe it.


I’m also incredibly frustrated that for the past few decades we have known enough to make it mandatory to make renewable energy integral to all new builds. It’s much cheaper than retrofitting, and could have made a huge difference to our carbon-dioxide emissions.


So many things make me happy: a flock of goldfinches in the garden; 30 minutes’ reading with a cup of white tea and Divine’s 85-per-cent dark chocolate; a group of people inspired and motivated; wild-garlic pesto; the unexpected flash of a kingfisher. . .


My parents have influenced me hugely. They instilled deep faith and character in me, and I know their prayers for me each night have been foundational over the years. I have been a massive fan of Tom Wright since I studied theology at university. Elaine Storkey and Fran Beckett have also been dear friends and inspirations to me, as I often found myself in leadership contexts in which I was the only woman.


Like many people, my praying has become increasingly contemplative; so often I don’t pray for anything specific; but, at the moment, I’m trying to pray for all the people in my team at Tearfund. There are about 70 of them; so it’s taking me a while.


If I could be locked in a church with anyone, I’d choose a couple who were probably my great-great-aunt and -uncle. She was a German Jew, and her husband was Gentile, and, when it was clear that she would be taken to a concentration camp, he told everyone that she had run away with another man, but actually he hid her in their allotment shed on the outskirts of Berlin for seven years. Each weekend, he would go and work the allotment and bring her a basket of food for the week and a book, and she hid in the shed, only coming out to wash at night. I dearly wish I could talk with them both, and hear more about it.


Ruth Valerio was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Just Living is published by Hodder & Stoughton at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9).


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