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The protestations of grief

21 February 2020

How can Christians worship under the threat of societal collapse, wonders Adam Spiers

Mauro Sarno/Alamy

LAST week’s General Synod vote to commit the Church of England to reaching net zero carbon by 2030 was a watershed moment. The original motion had been to bring forward the target to 2045 (from 2050, the same target set last year by the Government), but an amendment advancing it still further squeaked through by 15 votes (News, 14 February). Increasingly, however, there are voices within the ecological movement who take an even more sombre view.

Climatologists have long warned that runaway climate change has the potential to end human life, and, for some years now, even those working in fields outside the natural sciences have argued that we cannot hope to overcome the climate threat if we continue in our current socio-economic arrangements.

The now infamous 2018 paper Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy, by Professor Jem Bendell, of Cumbria University, suggests that “climate-induced societal collapse is now inevitable in the near term.” Bendell argues that, if that is indeed the case, it is best to face up to that fact, “to allow yourself to grieve, and to overcome enough of the typical fears we all have, to find meaning in new ways of being and acting”.

FOR Christians, such a scenario requires grappling with some big questions about God and faith. How do we worship in such a context? How can we worship in such a context? While there is clearly no single correct response to so great a challenge, as a growing number of people — especially young people — begin to express their “climate grief”, there are certainly those willing to criticise what they perceive to be an incorrect response. And yet the instinct to grieve when faced with circumstances far less grave rarely attracts such criticism.

Grief for the planet and for society is a natural emotional response — and, arguably, a sensible one. It is also one that can be understood through the lens of lament. Christianity, as practised in many Western churches, can seem disconnected from forms of worship that include lament, but Christians are not always happy or #blessed, nor does God require them to be.

Nevertheless, Christianity is a religion of hope, and, while lament is a legitimate and important part of any response to ecological breakdown, it is not the final expression of worship in such a context.

This point is well understood by organisations such as the activist group Christian Climate Action (CCA), who combine worship and protest in their response to the climate crisis by, for example, blocking roads by kneeling in prayer.

Christianity has a long history of protest, and many point to Jesus as a model of prayerful protest, perhaps most notably in driving the money-changers from the temple. Protests are often highly charged events; but taking the time to be still, to pray, and to make the protest one of worship, can do much to bring peace to a situation while maintaining the righteous anger and determination that may have triggered one’s participation in the first place.

When, in 1968, a group of Roman Catholic anti-war activists (including Fr Daniel Berrigan) in the United States burned thousands of draft cards with homemade napalm, they did so while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The “Catonsville Nine”, as they became known, recognised the freedom and stillness of heart that comes when you have obediently struggled against injustice, even at great personal cost.

Having faced court cases and prison sentences for their own struggles against injustice, many of the CCA’s members know it, too. Their worshipful protest and non-violent direct action can be seen in the tradition of the Catonsville Nine, because they seek justice in a spirit of prayerful obedience to God, while accepting the potential consequences that come with disobedience to earthly powers.

SOME might understandably question the practical value of protesting in the context of imminent societal collapse, perhaps not realising that climate change is not linear — that is, it progresses through a series of feedback loops and tipping-points rather than gradually getting worse at a steady rate. In short, there are still many possible futures that our actions can bring about.
The same principle can be applied to the work that we do and the way in which we organise our economies. The urgent need to address properly the strain that industrial agriculture puts on ecosystems through monocropping and pesticide use has led to a growing movement of small-scale farmers and community gardeners who recognise the importance of biodiversity in food production.

For Christians, this kind of work has a storied history. The Rule of St Benedict, with its precept ora et labora (“prayer and work”), puts considerable emphasis on the idea that work can be an important form of prayer. Some, such as the RC moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, argue that it was this approach that enabled the Benedictines to sustain communities throughout the Dark Ages.
This relational ethic lies at the heart of all Christian faith and worship, because God, being Trinity, is inherently relational. It is reflected in the liturgical year, set around humanity’s relationship with itself and with the earth. It is reflected in the eucharistic meal, in which peasant and king kneel before God as equals. And it is reflected in the incarnation, wherein God walks alongside us in human flesh.

God’s call is always to bring life from death, to build from out of the ruins — and, in the midst of climate breakdown, it is this relational ethic that will help us to do that. We must always be reaching for this in our worship, and in how we shape our socio-economic future. Our faith and worship will be defined by the actions we take in our communities, whether that be skill-sharing, tool libraries, community energy, community gardening, or community planting for biodiversity and wildlife.

In this time of often unrecognised and yet perhaps unparalleled crisis, communal and relational responses such as these must be woven through our daily lives and our daily worship to God.

Adam Spiers is an educator and freelance journalist.

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