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In 2020, just as the pandemic hit, the Methodist Church in Britain set up a project spurred on by the COP26 Conference in Glasgow.
The Church funded six young people from Britain, Fiji, Italy, Uruguay and Zambia to create and lead a Climate Justice for All campaign amongst churches in the global Methodist family (which numbers about 70 million people). The campaign has also drawn in volunteers from countries as far apart as India, Russia, the USA, and Argentina. It has been built of the pillars of listening to the experiences of people in other countries, committing to action, and calling on the governments attending the COP26 conference to aim for climate justice.
This project was deliberately not centred around the British experience, but rather was rooted in the transformative power of learning from others.
The campaign has shared stories of climate change and the actions being taken by churches in countries around the world. The climate crisis in the island nations of the Pacific, for example, is urgent and existential. In Fiji, parts of the country’s main island will disappear because of rising sea levels. People living in 45 coastal villages are in line to be relocated as their villages are lost to the sea; some communities have already been moved. The acidification of the sea is affecting the livelihood of those who farm the sea. Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama warned of an “almost constant level of threat from these extreme weather events” after repeated cyclones hit the country earlier this year. Churches in Fiji are providing practical and pastoral support to relocated communities.
Whilst hearing these experiences may give an urgency to act, I wonder whether listening more deeply to their motivations, the way that they frame their beliefs, might be of help to those of us in the Global North to reframe our own understanding.
The Pacific Islands are predominantly Christian, and Fiji primarily is Methodist. I can’t presume to speak for Pacific islanders, but there is strong connection, integration even, of Christian belief and indigenous culture and spirituality.
As someone raised in northern European political and religious traditions, my instinct is often to perceive things in terms of difference; to sort into binary conditions, opposing parties, good and evil, heaven and earth, humans and nature. I don’t believe that this binary approach is one we should accept as biblical, Christian or indeed healthy, but it has been at the root of much division and exploitation over the centuries. There is, therefore, much to learn from the Pacific Island spirituality of relationality, which weaves together ideals and experiences of connectedness, reciprocity and relationships.
To northern European eyes, the sea in a changing climate is a threat to islanders who face rising sea levels, acidification, storm tides. The sea also isolates tiny Pacific communities, who are often represented on the edges of maps, spots in a vast sea of blue. Yet for Pacific communities, oceans speak of connectedness. They see themselves instead as “large island nations”, part of the Liquid Continent. Instead of dividing communities, the sea is the thing that joins them together, that enables trade, travel and exchange. The ocean connects rather than divides.
The sea itself is indivisible from the land. “No sky without the ocean, no land without the sea… no me without you” according to one poet. To ensure the connectedness of the child to their motherland in the local tradition, the child’s umbilical cord is buried with the child’s totem plant to signify that the child’s identity is rooted in the land and that wherever they travel they will always return home. Facing the prospect of having to relocate from villages due to rising sea levels is not just an economic challenge or and emotional upheaval. It is also a spiritual trauma, as people are wrenched away from places where generations of their family have lived for thousands of years.
This connectedness to sea and land is also a connectedness to people. To those who have gone before, those around and those yet to come. Rev James Bhagwan of the Pacific Council of Churches says: “we recognize from our indigenous spirituality, culture and Christian faith that our identity, our value is not based on possession, but on relationship and holistic well–being. In such a community, life is meaningful, valued and celebrated.”
This deep and historic sense of connectedness of creation and community is rooted in and expressed through both biblical texts and indigenous heritage. The Global North could reflect on how we might learn from a reframing of our own theology and politics around this paradigm of connectedness. Yet we need also to recognise the damage that our colonial history has done, and is being done, to countries in the Pacific. Reefs are over–fished and plastic debris is washed up on shores. Bhagwan talks about how colonialism disconnected communities, imposing exploitative hierarchies, and has resulted in disconnected and destructive “throwaway” economics. Disconnection from creation, from communities, and from the Creator.
Can a realisation of disconnectedness lead to a change in behaviours? The Pacific Theological College, the Pacific Conference of Churches, and Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture have proposed a new framework for ecological development – Reweaving the Ecological Mat. This “reweaving” needs to include a moment of realisation, of seeing “where we ought to be”, of repentance. The first step towards a change of heart and practice is confessing our complicity in the sinful structures that have caused the problem. The Churches call for reconnection, but through an approach that may be difficult to those of us from the Global North. Rev. Dr Upolu Vaai says we must “acknowledge that we humans are not at the centre of the Pacific ecological Aiga [family]. And by de–centring ourselves, we may realize that salvation is also about recovery from the addiction to extraction, from the selfish pull of consumerism, and from the digestive rulers and rules of the market–driven empire.”
Climate change can’t be limited to a single country, yet many countries continue to act defensively, emphasising their economic needs. To date only half of the $US100 billion pledged at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 for the Green Climate Fund has been made available. What might it look like if we reframed our conversations about climate change through this lens of connection? If we truly “decentred” ourselves, as humans, from the debate, but saw ourselves as part – a beautiful, essential part, but one part – of an abundant, interconnected creation? What economic models would we seek if we delighted in this plentitude, rather than relying on scarcity?
I find these questions challenging on an individual level. How much more is that the case for countries attending the COP26 conference in November? We must be prompted into action by the experiences of island states in the Pacific for whom climate change is an existential reality. Yet we should also humbly seek inspiration and wisdom from their experience of total connectedness, and as a result reframe the questions that we ask of ourselves and our governments.
With thanks to Iemaima Vaai, Climate Justice 4 All worker, Fiji.
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Image: Mazur Travel/shutterstock.com
Rachel Lampard has worked for many years to enable churches to engage with issues of social justice, particularly through the Methodist Church and the ecumenical Joint Public Issues Team, and served as Vice–President of the Methodist Conference in Britain between 2016–17. She spent over a decade working for the Gambling Commission, seeking to regulate the industry to prevent gambling harm, and now chairs a youth work charity and an east London secondary school.
Posted 6 November 2021
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