Loving your neighbour means living sustainably

Church can be an example of what it looks like to live more simply and sustainably, says justice activist

November 14 2017

What does it mean to love your neighbour in today’s context? The question was answered recently in a joint presentation on climate change called “Loving your neighbour in a warming world”. The presentation was part of the Justice Conference held in October at Melbourne Town Hall. Hosted by TEAR Australia, the vision of the conference was “to educate, inspire and connect a generation to a concern for the vulnerable and oppressed”.

The first of three panel speakers was Mick Pope, a lecturer in meteorology with a special interest in the relationship between science and Christian faith. For Dr Pope, the imperative to love our neighbour is based on the Israelite understanding that the law, or way of living, is summed up in love of neighbour grounded in love of God. Within our globalised commercial context, that means that today our neighbour includes many people, not just those who live near us, but those who make the goods we buy – our televisions, phones, clothes. In addition, the current modern environmental context means that today everyone has become our neighbour because our environmental actions impact others around the world. Dr Pope said that “Carbon is a moral molecule that doesn’t concern itself with national boundaries”. This means that today “We are fundamentally interconnected with people around the planet”.

The second panellist, Viv Benjamin, a justice activist and consultant, is originally from Melbourne but now based in New York. Ms Benjamin is the chair of the global Christian campaign “Renew Our World”, whose vision, she said, goes to the core of who we are and is summed up in the command to love God and neighbour. “Acting with love” she said, “is at the core of the Christian’s law and calling.” There is deep social inequality, Ms Benjamin said, in issues such as climate change, because carbon emissions have the heaviest impact on people who have contributed the least to the problem in the first place. Noting that climate change is more controversial in Australia and the US than in the global south, UK and Europe, Ms Benjamin suggested that although we may be the first generation to be fully aware of the phenomenon of climate change, we may also be the last generation able to do something about it.

Replying to the question “What can the Church do”? Ms Benjamin said that the church is about servant leadership, that the Church can be an example of what it looks like to live more simply and sustainably. “Addressing injustice” she said, “comes down to our love for neighbour.” In a separate keynote speech, Ms Benjamin observed that among the actions that need to be taken is the “transition to clean renewable energy, the endless power provided by God in the sun and wind and waves. God has given us everything we need. We have the solutions, we have the technology; we just need the political will. It is up to us to take action, and build a more just and sustainable world for all our neighbours.”

The third panellist, Andrew Starr, Director of Advancement for International Justice Mission Australia, spoke about slavery. Just as Christians had a pivotal role in the movement for the abolition of slavery, so today, Mr Starr noted, Christians can be primary movers in changing environmental behaviour. Although it took a long time, Mr Starr said that John Newton, the Anglican clergyman and former master of a slave ship, eventually changed his mind about the slave trade and began to speak out against it.

Finally, Mick Pope gave some survey results which indicated a growing environmental conviction in the Australian Church: 6 per cent of churches worked on an environmental activity or project in the past two years; 1 in 6 church goers gave to a group to protect the environment in the past 5 years; 52 per cent of churchgoers reduced energy use, 6 in 10 churchgoers reduced water use, 28 per cent changed their diet, to reduce impact on the environment; 82 per cent compost and/or recycle; more than 1 in 4 installed solar hot water or solar panels; some 6% of local church senior leaders often touch on the topic of the environment/caring for the earth in their preaching and 21 per cent do so sometimes – however, it was disappointing, Dr Pope noted, that 45 per cent of church leaders rarely or never preach on this topic.

Viv Benjamin summarised the panel’s conversation: “Together, with God’s help, we have the power to renew our world.”