Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve written some posts around a panel discussion I participated in, organised by the Fermanagh Churches Forum (FCF): The Future of the Organised Church – Any Questions? This is my final post about the discussion, and it addresses questions we received from the floor about what might be called ‘global justice’ issues:
- Are the churches taking the environment seriously?
- Why have so few churches in Northern Ireland taken up fair trade?
The FCF is probably best known in its local area for promoting inter-church contact, anti-sectarianism, and reconciliation. But FCF is one of the case studies for my School’s IRCHSS-funded Visioning 21st Century Ecumenism research project, so I know that climate change and fair trade are issues that it is passionate about.
FCF has organised a number of events around climate change and has an entire section of its website devoted to a Christian response to climate change. It quotes Matthew 25:34-45, where those who did not care for the ‘least’ of God’s creation are told to depart from Him. The FCF website asks:
As glaciers melt, sea levels rise and rains come late, not at all or disastrously heavy, more and more of our brothers and sisters will be hungry, thirsty, naked and strangers at the closed door of the rich world. Is this what we mean by being stewards of God’s creation?
Members of FCF also see climate change and fair trade as issues that people from all religions in the community can cooperate on. Their various educational and activist-orientated events have attempted to draw in people from all churches, as well as secular perspectives, especially the vigil around last year’s Copenhagen talks.
Even so, my response to both questions was that climate change and fair trade are issues that tend to be left to a small, but enthusiastic, minority within church congregations. A woman in the audience shared how it took her, and a few others, a very long time to convince their congregation even just to use fair trade tea and coffee.
I think that in Northern Ireland part of the lack of attention to these issues can be explained by the way the churches turned in on themselves during the Troubles. Understandably, they had a lot to deal with, not the least of which was comforting victims and survivors, burying the dead, and in some notable (although regrettably too few) cases contributing to grassroots peacebuilding.
Further, Presbyterian minister David Cupples noted that some Christian theologies are actually hostile to ‘social justice’ issues. For instance, there is a strand of fundamentalist/evangelical Protestantism that takes the view that we are living in the ‘last days.’ From this perspective, with the ‘rapture’ and God’s return imminent, it doesn’t really make sense to care for creation.
He said that it will take a long-term educational process within the churches before they develop a fuller understanding of the gospel, one that embraces social justice issues.
Sr. Elizabeth Fee shared how at the recent celebration of the Feast of Christ the King, she was struck for the first time by a reading that spoke about creating a kingdom of justice, love and peace. She found it significant that ‘justice’ came first, before love and peace, which for her signalled a fresh prioritising of social justice issues.
I think climate change and fair trade are issues around which Christian churches could be truly counter-cultural. But this would require significant lifestyle changes. For example, it might include something like a weekly, one-day fast from consumerism – what one might call an anti-climate change return to Sabbatarianism. The possibilities could be many but sadly I do not think many are being realised.
Click below to read the rest of the series: