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Ugandan climate activist speaks of faith that sustains her

15 December 2023

Albin Hillert

A group of women sing and cheer at the conclusion of a People’s Plenary for Climate Justice on Monday, one of the fringe events at COP28

A group of women sing and cheer at the conclusion of a People’s Plenary for Climate Justice on Monday, one of the fringe events at COP28

THE Ugandan climate campaigner Vanessa Nakate has spoken of the opposition that Jesus experiences from religious people in the New Testament as a source of strength in the face of criticism from Christians for her activism on climate change.

Speaking at an event about exploring religious resistance to climate action in the Faith Pavilion at COP28, in Dubai, she said: “Jesus Christ saw religious resistance from religious leaders. In his time there was a lot of resistance towards his ministry.

“For me, activism is beyond a passion: it feels like a responsibility from God to speak for those who may not be able to speak for themselves, to be able to heal those who are broken-hearted, to be able heal those who have lost their loved ones as a result of climate change, and be able to bring justice to those who have lost their lives and those who are seeing terrible impacts right now.

“We’ve seen with the resistance that Jesus faced there was a point he was called Beelzebub, the Prince of Demons, when he was literally healing people. But what was Jesus’s response to this resistance? He continued to do what God sent him to do. He continued to heal, love, forgive, he even died for the very people who crucified him, and for the people who resisted his ministry. So, I see our response should be a response of grace, of love, to continue to do the work we are doing.”

She went on to say: “In 1 Peter 4, it says, if you are abused because of Christ, count yourself fortunate. I have personally faced a lot of criticism every time I talk about the role of faith in climate activism. Some has come from the religious side, and some has come from the climate movement itself. But when I receive that resistance, I count myself fortunate. It is the heart of Christ that works in me to do the work I do now.”

Also discussed was the large number of Christians opposed to climate policy in the United States. The co-director of the Christian Climate Observers Program, Brian Webb, said: “Only eight per cent of American Evangelicals say that climate change is a crisis. So, there’s a real problem there. Is it the theology that is the problem? Well, what the research actually points to is that, overwhelmingly, the primary driver in how people form their beliefs on climate change is their political affiliation — more than their religion, income, education, age, or race, or any other socio-demographic variable. That’s extremely true in the US, but also true around the world.

“It’s not so much religion, but, in the US, many people who have religion as an important part of their life associate themselves with conservative politics, and that association with conservative politics has caused them to have more of a resistance to climate action.”

He suggested that solutions included the use of trusted messengers — referring to Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ when speaking to Roman Catholics, for example — besides highlighting solutions consistent with existing values. “In the US, there is the Evangelical Environmental Network. They have a campaign called the Pro-Life Clean Energy Campaign, which takes an existing value for their audience, pro-life, and links that to clean energy.”

Jessica Bwali, a global campaigner for Tearfund, chaired the event. She said: “As faith communities, we share common values and a common vision for humanity. Faith communities make up 80 per cent of the world’s population. So, whether we choose to resist or respond to the climate crisis will change the course of history.

“Church and faith-based organisations globally are already championing the cause of the vulnerable, and stepping in to support people who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. Churches and faith communities are present before, during, and after disasters.”

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