The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Ki-ree-bas), while an independent state in the South Pacific, is a nation much like our own. It has a population of 119,000 with a land mass of 811 square kilometers (this compares with the Isle of Man which has a population of 85,000 and a land mass of 572 square kilometers). A key difference is that Kiribati is spread over 32 atolls and one coral Island, which are dispersed over 3.5million square kilometers with most land being less than 2 metres above sea level. Climate change for Kiribati means slipping beneath the waves and already it is battered by cyclones and overtopping by the sea. For the Isle of Man climate change is seen as a problem for the future, for the people of Kiribati it is a problem of everyday survival and looking into the face of extinction.
The first words of the Bible demand our attention as we reflect on our world and the challenges of climate change:
‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ (Genesis 1.1)
and … ‘God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.’ (Genesis 1.31)
As Christians we are called to care for the good, created order because in the words of the psalmist:
‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it’ (Psalm 24.1-2)
It is God’s world and we have been given responsibility for its care. Genesis might speak in the English language of having ‘dominion’ over the land, which we have readily translated as domination and conquering, the Hebrew would suggest something more nuanced.
‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, so they may exercise skilled mastery with respect to the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, and among the cattle, and among all the wild animals of the earth, and among every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ (Genesis 1.26)
The Old Testament gives us a picture of human beings intimately linked to the environment where their actions have profound consequences for the land for which they are responsible. The Covenant with Noah holds humanity accountable for the blood of every creature (Genesis 9.4-6), while the laws of Leviticus (e.g. Lev 19.9-10) and Deuteronomy (e.g. Deut 3.6) have deep concern for the land. There is no space for human flourishing outside the flourishing of the natural world.
So one of the five marks of mission, widely used in the Anglican communion, embraces the natural world:
‘to strive to safeguard the integrity of Creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth’.
Pope Francis in his second encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ speaks of the vital importance of caring for the environment. The title of encyclical uses the opening words of Saint Francis of Assisi’s ‘Canticle of the Sun’ that reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a mother who opens her arms to embrace us:
‘This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.’ (Laudato Si, 2015)