This week, world leaders have flown into Glasgow for the COP26 summit on the environment and combatting climate change. Two Christian responses to the summit raise some questions and challenges,
First of all, a church in Glasgow responded by displaying this banner.
Secondly, Justin Welby gave an interview where he commented that World leaders would either be blessed or cursed into future generations, regardless of whatever else they did or didn’t achieve in life but on how they handled the climate change question at this specific summit. In effect he was echoing the comments of people like Boris Johnson that this was make or break time. He want on to make comparisons between politicians today and 1930s politicians responding to the rise of the Nazis. He has since apologised for the second part of his statement, seen as offensive to Jews but the claim that people would be cursed because of this one event this week has gone pretty much unchallenged.
Both responses further highlight the issue I’ve raised in another post today, the failure of Christians to recognise that we are seen as the baddies. This was demonstrated in some of the social media engagement with Welby and other Christians. Generally speaking you get the impression that people saw his comments as irrelevant until the conversation got to the heart of being cursed. You see, fellow Christians were rightly concerned not just about some crass and thoughtless comparisons with 1930s Europe but with what was being communicated about curse, sin, judgement and grace.
It’s when it was pointed out that suggesting that COP26 would lead to the cursing of world leaders regardless of anything else they do in their lives that opprobrium was drawn. People get very cross at the suggestion that Joe Biden and Boris Johnson might be able to know forgiveness, that there is someone else who has taken the curse on himself. The Gospel is offensive because people hate the idea that those they consider to be the bad guys might be able to get off unpunished.
And there is my first concern with the banner displayed by the church. Surely the people who designed it and put it up were not expecting people to nod sagely as they passed by? You see, the world around us doesn’t think that the preaching of the Gospel is its biggest need and in fact it sees people who prioritise religious philosophizing and proselyting over saving our planet as dangerous and wicked.
This begs the question then about who the target audience of the banner was and exactly what it was trying to communicate to them. It’s not very well worded is it? My own immediate reaction to the statement that climate change is not our greatest need was “I’m not sure anyone is actively pushing for climate change.” So the poster communicates badly because it fails to distinguish between need and danger.
However, I think that as Christians we can with a little bit of thought work out what the author was trying to say. Their point was that our greatest need is the Gospel. That isn’t to say that climate change isn’t a grave danger but that our eternal destination and our relationship with our creator is of greater importance. Now whether the message was meant to be for non-Christians joining in at COP26 to tell them they had a greater need or whether it was aimed specifically at Christians involved in campaigning at CO26 to call them back to their higher priority was left unclear.
So lesson number 1: In a world that is hostile to the Gospel and Christians, clear, thoughtful, winsome communication matters.
However, this leads us to the bigger question that I want to address. Whatever we think about the manner in which the church communicated their message, do we think they were right, that they were onto something or that they had got things utterly wrong.
My attention was first drawn to the poster by other Christians commenting on it arguing that the church had got wrong. Some were happy to suggest that the problem was badly thought out language and an innocent mistake. Others went further with quite aggressive comments on the church and its “narrow understanding of the Gospel.”
It’s not just the world that thinks we are the bad guys. A lot of people who profess to be Christians believe that evangelicals are the baddies too!
Listening to the Archbishop’s commentary, you might get the impression that he thought the church was wrong too. World Leaders, much of the church and many people around the world believe that our greatest need right now is a solution to climate change.
Yet Bible believing Christians should want to recognise that the poster, whether or not it put things in the right way in the right place at the right time, is onto something. The Bible is very clear that our greatest need is the good news that Jesus died on the cross to take away our sin rising again so that we are justified, declared right with God.
2000 years ago, people knew what their greatest need was. They believed that they urgently needed to be set free from the yoke of the Romans. The Cross of Jesus was in effect a banner displayed over Jerusalem saying “This is your greatest need, not political liberation form your oppressors.” And the Cross was as offensive to the people of Judea as that banner was to the people gathering in Glasgow.
One World leader has said that if we don’t get a deal at CO26 then we have in effect signed our own death sentence. Yet the reality is that whatever happens in Gospel this week that death is is a certainty for all of us. This doesn’t mean that Climate change isn’t an urgent issue. It simply means that there is a greater problem still. It may mean that people consider us the baddies, it may mean that they will take offence but:
Lesson 2: We are going to be the bad guys anyway so let’s not try to avoid that by neglecting our primary calling.
Yet here’s the thing. We saw another example of how the poster communicated poorly in the responses of a number of thoroughly sound evangelicals. Their question was “does it have to be either or?” They noted that the church concerned has taken time to speak out on a whole range of other issues. So, does recognising the priority of the Gospel take away from the pressing issue of climate change?
There was a time when the dominant view within Evangelicalism was “it’s all going to burn.” What’s the point of striving to save a planet that’s only a temporary home before we go to heaven? Things have shifted quite a bit on that for three reasons. First of all, there’s been a greater emphasis on those part s of the Bible that point to some continuity between new creation and original creation -the idea that we are in some sense looking forward to the renewal of all things.
Secondly, we have also seen a renewed emphasis on Genesis and the original creation mandate. We were commissioned to fill and to order/subdue/rule over the planet. This filling and subduing is not about dominating and exploiting but rather about stewarding, tending, keeping, caring, guarding. We recognise that creation care still matters.
Thirdly, we have given attention to what the Bible says about our love for one another. Climate change is going to result in harm to our children and their children. It is already causing harm to many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.
When Jesus was about o return to heaven, he commissioned his disciples to baptise and make disciples. This included teaching those disciples to obey Jesus. If care for creation and love for one another are part of what Christ has commanded, then climate change should matter to Christians because we want to obey Jesus. This also means that if we prioritise the Gospel then a consequence of it will be that there should be many more people with a greater concern for their planet.
So, the poster was right. The greatest need right now and at any time is the Gospel. However the consequence of that Gospel should include a concern for our planet and a desire to do something about climate change.
 My view is that the Archbishop’s comments like the poster were clumsy and ill thought out. I’m certain that if asked he would affirm the centrality of the Gospel of Grace.