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Review of ‘Time to Act’ edited by Jeremy Williams

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Tim Middleton reviews this book from Christian Climate Action—a combination of thoughts, resources and laments on Extinction Rebellion and climate activism from a religious perspective.

Time to Act was published early in 2020. Its urgent writing sought to draw attention to an impending global catastrophe, encouraging a mixture of solidarity, soul-searching and activism. Yet none of the authors predicted quite how soon our world would be turned upside down as a result of our broken relationships with the natural world.

The volume has a similar feel to both Extinction Rebellion’s This Is Not a Drill and the recent edited collection Words for a Dying World. Personal stories of protest sit alongside academic reflections and practical tips on how to get involved. Poetry, photography, liturgy and illustrations add to the intimacy of the collection.

Several themes recur across the many contributions. The religiously inspired resistance of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King clearly provide motivation for the actions of contemporary Christians faced with climate catastrophe. According to Bonhoeffer, the role of the church, when faced with injustice, is ‘not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself’ (pp. 8-9). Similarly, Jesus’s upending of temple tables is regularly cited as an endorsement of XR’s methods of non-violent civil disobedience (e.g. p. 27).

Reading this book now, through the lens of a global pandemic will undoubtedly alter how it is received. But our new, COVID context also sharpens the pleas and demands that are found within its pages. Particularly prescient in this regard is a quotation from an interview with Anthony Reddie:

‘There are powerful people who can countenance people dying […] if that’s what it takes for everyone else to continue—if only for a period—with some sense of normality.’ (p. 74)

Reddie was talking about the deep injustice of climate change; those who are most responsible are least likely to face the consequences. But the same disturbing logic has been heard on a regular basis in relation to the pandemic: ‘others’ are deemed expendable for the sake of ‘our’ normality. And yet, in both cases, even those who utterly disregard the moral case for caution will find that the reality of our planetary interconnections will disrupt their lives soon enough.

Hannah Malcolm’s hospital metaphor is similarly haunting given our current situation. She asks us to imagine the scene:

‘It is a familiar hospital: it is stretched beyond capacity, with trolleys up and down the corridors, sleep-deprived nurses, and high risk of infection.’ (p. 177)

An alarmingly farsighted vision. But Malcolm’s point is that, when faced with our own grief about ecological devastation, we must find room for compassion as well as despair. A hospital symbolises a place where life is lost, but also a place where life is sometimes recovered and born. Our planet is still worth defending, however dire the situation seems to be. As Martin Luther is (probably incorrectly) rumoured to have said: even if I knew that the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today. And much the same could be said about retaining hope during the pandemic, as we now see pictures of hospitals that are literally overwhelmed.

In another chapter, Stefan Skrimshire sounds a similar note of realism when he asks, is it not already too late? It is common in activist circles, he says, to talk about unbreachable deadlines—we only have until 2030, for example, to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But this culture of deadline-ism ignores two important realities. On the one hand, it is already ‘too late’ to prevent the homes of many Pacific Islanders from being inundated by rising seas. And yet, on the other hand, it is never too late to oppose injustice. As Skrimshire writes of activists, ‘the striving itself embodies the world in which they believe’ (p. 98).

This tension between hope and despair is one of many that pervades the book. Simmering just below the surface are further contrasts between action and contemplation, responsibility and privilege, and success and failure. As such, Time to Act is passionate, eclectic and at times a little rough around the edges. One, specific discomfort is the regular appeal to a ‘Christlike’ model of sacrifice. We are told, for example, that ‘as Christians, we are called to sacrifice, to offer ourselves for others’ (p. 214). And yet Reddie is abundantly clear that the rhetoric of sacrifice is invariably employed by the powerful to continue the subjugation of the powerless (p. 75). Telling others to take up their cross, ignores the ‘monstrous shadow’ of racial and other injustices (p. 73). But such awkwardly sharp edges are an accurate reflection of the difficulties of gathering a diverse group of people together to contribute to a common cause. They are also indicative of the way in which XR itself has been trying to evolve.

Nevertheless, the raw emotions and the persistent provocations in this volume offer a fitting exhortation—especially in these COVID times—to continue the fight for a better world. It is indeed time to act.

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Nobody is perfect: in the West, we are all climate hypocrites now

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As climate breakdown starts to bite, it can be easy to slip into a culture of blame and denial. But, as Tim Middleton argues, a theological perspective can help us to see that, in the West, we are all climate hypocrites now.

This week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the climate crisis has been high on the agenda. From ‘prophets of doom’ to wreckers of the planet, name-calling and finger-pointing has also been rife.

‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’

‘Why should I listen when you don’t practise what you preach?’

‘Do you know how much of a hypocrite you sound?’

The sense of injustice is palpable. And people have a point: if you make no effort whatsoever to live up to the values you profess, then why should anyone take you seriously? It seems ridiculous to campaign passionately for a low carbon lifestyle if you regularly fly around the world. There is a cognitive dissonance that simply does not appear to have registered. From celebrities who hop across the pond to lend their support to environmental rallies, to climate scientists who travel all over the world to lecture people on our impending doom, people are right to be suspicious.

And yet, I find myself deeply frustrated by this line of argument—and for two main reasons.

First, quite simply, we are running out of time. In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said that we have just 12 years left to limit planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. It is now 2020, and nothing has changed. Such moments of extreme urgency are incredibly dangerous politically. Rogues and opportunists can easily manipulate a crisis for their own ends—as Naomi Klein describes in her famous book The Shock Doctrine. Nevertheless, the IPCC report could not be clearer: we need major societal shifts as soon as possible. In such a context, it seems to me, any action that helps to spread awareness about, or mitigate the impacts of, climate breakdown must be a good thing. The hypocrisy of one individual is neither here nor there when the planet is burning.

But the timing is only one of the issues at play. The nub of the matter, I suggest, is to do with how we understand human nature itself. Greta Thunberg must sail across the Atlantic to give a talk because, otherwise, she would be lampooned for hypocrisy by those who do not want her message to be heard. The thinking is clear: Greta should not be allowed to preach about a low carbon lifestyle unless she practises a low carbon lifestyle. The implicit demand, therefore, is that Greta ought to be perfect before she deserves to be heard.

Theologically speaking, human perfection is notoriously hard to find. Indeed, it is interesting to note how vigorously Christian theologians defend Christ’s sinless nature. He too, it seems, must be perfect before he deserves to be heard. Nevertheless, Christian theologians are equally adamant that no human being is without sin. To put the same point in a more contemporary idiom: Christian theology recognises that there is a brokenness at the heart of human nature. Despite the best of intentions, we never quite live up to our ideals. Nobody is perfect.

Climatologically speaking, human perfection is impossible. The only way to guarantee a carbon footprint of zero would be not to exist at all. Every time we exhale, a little more carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere.

But is this a reason to give up altogether? Christian theology says no. Despite the unavoidability of human brokenness, life can still be full of joy. Our calling, in fact, is to endeavour to live life as sin-free, and as carbon-free, as we can. Nobody ever will; but that is no reason not to try. Indeed, it may be the case that our salvation depends upon it.

Christ is also emphatically clear about how we should talk about this. Those who are without sin can throw the first stone. In other words, never. Similarly, those who are carbon neutral can be the first to point out another’s climate hypocrisy. Again, nobody is in a position to be pointing fingers or naming names because nobody is perfect.

This is particularly true when it comes to the poor and disadvantaged. In a society where it is many times cheaper to fly than to take a train, it is a position of privilege to be able to choose the more environmentally friendly option. Market mechanisms are also such that if more people opt for the train over the plane, it will become less and less affordable for those on low incomes. In the same vein, those with loved ones on different continents simply have no choice but to fly if they want to see their family. This is why the recent trend for ‘flight shaming’ has proved so controversial. Even though psychology seems to suggest that shame can be a powerful motivator for change, it is not theologically productive or pastorally sensitive to go about throwing stones.

What is vitally important, therefore, is that we all spend less time judging others and more time examining our own lives. In the Western world we all partake in societies that are absolutely predicated on the burning of fossil fuels. It is virtually impossible to escape this without societal transformation. We are all climate hypocrites now. Yet this does not mean that those who speak up can be dismissed for their hypocrisy. We do not, in general, require clergy or theologians to be sin-free before they start talking about theology. In the same way, someone who has just taken an international flight may yet have a crucial message for us about the state of the planet.

Our climate catastrophe is so urgent that we all need to listen now. But we must do so humbly and graciously—because nobody is perfect.

Images from Climate Visuals: by dsleeter_2000 (CC BY-NC 2.0) and New York City Department of Transportation (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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What matters?

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Communications Officer, Dr Tim Middleton, reflects on the New Materialisms and the work of the William Temple Foundation. What is it that really matters?

Since joining the William Temple Foundation last July, I have been struck by the diversity of its various projects and research: from social enterprise in the north-east to upheavals in our self-understanding as a result of climate change. But at the same time, what has been immediately apparent is the firm commitment to an engaged, hands-dirty sort of approach to public life. Whether it be tangible foodstuffs at a volunteer-led food pantry, physical care for those with dementia, school uniform swaps at a church breakfast, the sheer wastefulness of contemporary fashion, or the very fabric of medieval churches—the material clearly matters.

This idea—that matter matters—is also central to a new branch of philosophies called the New Materialisms. Like all philosophical ideas, they might sound somewhat esoteric but at the heart of their proposal is a simple plea to attend to stuff as we find it. Whether it be our food, our clothes, our bodies or our buildings, we should be alert to the ways in which these things shape who we are, what we think, and what we care about.

A concern for the material has always had a central place in Christian theology. Christianity is an incarnational religion. To put it simply, God in a body. Jesus’ human presence vindicates our fleshly existence. As his ministry began, he announced his mission as, ‘good news to the poor… freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind.’ Jesus took on bodily form and cared for the physical needs of those around him. Think of the feeding of the multitude, his many healings, the feasting, and the provision of more wine at a party. The not-so-subtle implication is that we should be doing the same.

Similarly, Paul’s letter to Timothy exhorts him to affirm materiality: creation is good, food is to be received gratefully, and intimate human relationships are not to be shunned.

In the case of William Temple himself, the establishment of the welfare state was, for him, the epitome of the Gospel’s concern for the material well-being of our neighbours.

But none of this means that the spiritual is left behind. In fact, the problem, says Temple, has been the tendency to separate the material and the spiritual. He writes:

“We so commonly contrast ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ that we easily suppose matter and spirit to be mutually exclusive opposites. For Christians this is certainly not true; indeed, Christianity is the most materialist of all the great religions.”[1]

Temple is clear: Christianity does not promote materiality at the expense of spirituality. Rather, it reminds us to dissolve such false divisions. He continues:

“The spiritual is not to be found by turning our backs upon the material and leaving it to go its own way. But the spiritual is above all to be found by facing the material in fellowship with God and using it to become the expression of the divine character as that reproduces itself in our own souls through the faith in us which it has itself evoked.”[2]

Christian religion has nothing to do with escaping into a spiritual realm.

But there is also a second danger. There can be a temptation to think that matter is simply fixed, inert, passive or static. It is seen as reliable, dependable and realistic. Yet the insight of the New Materialisms is precisely the opposite.

I have recently finished reading Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter, and for Bennett matter is not nearly so straightforward. Instead of ‘objects’, she prefers to refer to ‘things’. And ‘things’ have ‘thing-power’, a kind or iridescent remainder, a striving that exceeds our usual mechanistic understanding of matter. This might seem far-fetched, but she gives examples, including electric power grids, oozing waste heaps and fatty acids. There are distinct advantages, she says, to viewing such heaps of matter as not just passive stuff for us to manipulate but potentially important agents in their own right. Power grids black out; waste heaps release toxins; and fatty acids influence brain processes—matter is not as inert as we might initially assume. In short, matter has its own vibrancy that cannot be contained within our own human schemes and calculations.

Bennett does not share Temple’s Christian faith; in fact, she regularly asserts that her own philosophy is explicitly incompatible with belief in God. Yet she cannot help ending the book with her own ‘Nicene Creed’. The final sentence reads:

“I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the common materiality of all that is, expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests.”[3]

So, matter matters. Not because it is the opposite of the spiritual. Or because it is inert and static. But because of the ‘common materiality of all that is.’ Hence, ‘facing the material in fellowship with God,’ becomes a deeply political, as well as spiritual, agenda because we are all in it together. And as Christ’s example shows us, justice and healing are brought about through and in the material. Rich and poor, human and nonhuman, organic and inorganic—we are certainly not all the same, but we do all matter. Foods, clothes, bodies and buildings—that is what matters.

[1] Temple, Citizen and Churchman, p.41

[2] Temple, The Preacher’s Theme Today, p.44

[3] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p.122

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