By Nathan Brown
In 2016, I was in Canberra—our nation’s capital—for four days of training and political lobbying with Micah Australia, a coalition of Christian justice and development agencies, of which ADRA Australia is a part. Featured guests at the event included about a dozen church and community leaders from Pacific island nations, who were sharing stories of the effects and threats of climate change and rising sea levels in their various nations. I was standing at the back of the room during one of the briefing sessions, when one of the Micah organizers mentioned to me that the two young women from Kiribati were youth leaders in their local Seventh-day Adventist Church, as well as representatives of a community climate action group on their small, low-lying island.
Naturally, this information caught my attention, and, between sessions, I introduced myself to these women and we made a time for me to interview them the following day. As we sat in the warm Canberra sunshine, away from the larger group, I recorded their responses for the story I would write.1 At the end of my questions, I stopped the recording, and thanked them for their time, as well as what they were doing in their home nation and for those few days in Canberra.
Then they stopped me. “Is it OK if we ask you a question now?” one of the young women asked politely. I assured her it was fine and was curious what they would ask. “Do you think what we are doing is right?” she continued quietly. The two women went on to share their misgivings about their political involvement, where extreme weather and rising seas might fit amid the signs of the Second Coming, and
how even the Pope had spoken out about acting in response to climate change. “So,” they pressed, “do you think we should be involved in activism and actions on this issue?”
I was struck by their questions and have reflected on them since. That these two articulate young women, representing their nation to the elected leaders of a powerful neighbor, would feel undermined by their understanding of our Adventist faith troubles me. That our faith was not the primary motivation for their robust response gives me pause.
I assured them that, by sharing their story, I was keen to amplify their voices as widely as possible. I talked with them about how our original calling as human beings was the care of the natural world as stewards of God’s good creation and, while “all creation has been groaning” as it awaits and anticipates our “glorious freedom from death and decay” (Romans 8:22, 21, NLT), there is no point in the Bible’s story at which our stewardship of the earth is revoked.
We talked for a few minutes and our conversation seemed to allay their concerns, even as we acknowledged the complexity of some aspects of these issues. We prayed together before returning to the larger program. The next morning these women stood on the lawn in front of Australia’s Parliament House and told some of their story again, addressing a crowd of supporters that also included elected representatives and parliamentary staff members. Even if they still had uncertainties, I was proud of their stewardship, witness and faithful representation of our Creator.
Faced with climate-change symptoms but also the political polarization around these issues, none of us has to venture far into Adventist conversations, online or elsewhere, to find similar unease—or worse. From my observations, “Adventist” responses tend to fall into three categories of response: climate change might/might not be real but there is little we can do about it, if anything, it’s probably connected with the end-time disaster scenarios we have long predicted; climate change is a hoax, most likely a conspiracy engineered by the Pope, the United Nations, or other shadowy international powers; or the Adventist environmentalists, who rightly see climate change as a call to take up our role as stewards of creation with renewed urgency. But mostly it seems obvious that there is a collective awkwardness in our responses to this issue across our community of faith. There is also a risk that even the best of these responses
comes with a veneer of faith but is derived more from pre- existing political assumptions or allegiances. It does not help that climate change has been thought of as an article of belief or disbelief on both extremes of the cultural and political debates, which muddies the already-warming waters. Using such language almost demands that we believe either in the return of Jesus or stewardship of creation, in defending creationism or engaging in environmental activism. We need to reject these false dichotomies, as we need to resist our pen- chant for conspiracy theories. Neither of these pseudo-faiths are helpful in living faithfully or loving well in our world. Our faith always calls us beyond ourselves and our temptation toward insularity, tribalism and fear.
So, I don’t believe in climate change, as an article of faith— in the same way that I don’t believe in gravity. Rather, both are scientific understandings, explanations and projections of observable and measurable phenomena in our world. But I do believe that we are stewards of creation—charged to “tend and watch over,” literarily “serve and protect” (see Genesis 2:15), our world—that we are called to curb our over- consumption, to reduce pollution and waste, to champion our plant-based diets, to speak up for and act on behalf of the people who are most vulnerable to our changing cli- mate, and to offer greater opportunities for all people to choose healthier lives.
As attested by those young women from Kiribati, climate change is having an impact on the world’s island nations and their populations, including our fellow church members. In Fiji, four villages have already been forced to relocate away from the coastline, with more relocations planned. But this is not only an issue there, it must be an equally urgent issue in developed nations such as Australia and the United States. While climate denialism seems akin to the historical obfuscations around the dangers of tobacco—albeit on a larger scale— perhaps more pernicious is “accepting” and understanding without acting: “Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.”
Of course, this means we need to make better environ- mental choices in our lives and our homes. And, as a church, we also need to reaffirm our biblical mandate as stewards of Creation, and to implement policies and practices that reflect what we say we believe.
We need to change how we do things as a church, as well as using our voice and influence to lobby our governments and our communities to greater action to protect our environment,3 and to helping disadvantaged nations and communities adapt and survive in our changing climate. For believers, this is not a mere political issue, it’s a question of stewardship and justice.
Yes, Jesus will return—but that has never been an excuse for inaction. Instead we act with courage and creativity as faithful stewards in the light of this hope (see Matthew 25). Those of us who respond to the call to “worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and all the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7) must always be concerned for the protection and preservation of the natural world and those who are hurt by its degradation. As evidenced by my conversation with my Kiribatian friends, we need a stronger and deeper theology of creation care—and a greater urgency for living it out.
Nathan Brown, is a writer and editor at Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia. Check out the website for Nathan’s newest book “Of Falafels and Following Jesus” at www.FalafelsandFollowingJesus.com. Email him at: [email protected]
- “Kiribati Adventist Youth Urge Greater Climate Action,” Adventist Review, November 22, 2016,<www.adventistreview.org/church- news/story4571-kiribati-adventist-youth>.
- Jonathan Safran Foer, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, Hamish Hamilton, 2019, page 122.
- Official Statement of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, “The Dangers of Climate Change,” <www.adventist.org/en/information/official-statements/statements/ article/go/-/the-dangers-of-climate-change/>. Voted in 1995, it seems time to update, strengthen and renew this call.