A cry for church action on climate justice and fossil-fuel divestment.
It was 1963. Washington D. C. The young African-American pastor rose to his feet. Faced with the weight of history set against him; faced with the vested interests of the status quo; faced with powerful opposition, including from parts of the Church; faced with the apathy and cynicism of some, and the denial and delusion of others, he uttered these famous words.
He said ‘I have a dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Though he did not live to see it, and though there is still much to do to fulfil it, a part of that dream came true for Martin Luther King on Tuesday the 20th January 2009, when Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated as the first black president of the United States of America.
And though he did not live to confront it, I’m sure Dr King would have been at the forefront of campaigning for action on climate change if he were with us today. In fact, I’m sure he would have pointed out that it is communities and countries of colour that are most afflicted by climate change, despite having done the least to cause it.
I’m sure he would have pointed out that many of the same segments of society opposing action on climate change today are many of the same who opposed desegregation then. And I’m sure he would have urged us all to rise up again and live out the true meaning of our creed, that every person, every place, every generation is created equal.
Climate justice and divestment
While the cast and the stage may have changed from that famous movement half a century ago, the story is still the same today. The story is still the struggle against injustice. The story is still the struggle to build a better world.
And we are the cast of the story now. This is our stage. For if you add to the civil rights movement the interlinked issues of social justice, of environmental justice and of economic justice then you get climate justice, the defining issue of our time. Doing nothing is not an option. The call to action is crystal clear.
So it’s my great pleasure to welcome you tonight to #FOSSILFREEFAITH, our panel discussion on fossil-fuel divestment by the Irish churches.
But at the outset I’d like to stress that tonight is not about Christians on the Left, for we are just convening this meeting of many; tonight is not about a political ideology, for climate change is an issue that must bring together those on the left and on the right, as well as the many of us who are both or neither; tonight is not about denomination-bashing, for different churches are at different stages along the road to divestment; tonight is not even about having yet another meeting, more hot air that will only warm the planet another degree or two.
Instead of yet another meeting, we’re here tonight to start a movement. Instead of denomination-bashing, we’re here tonight to encourage the churches of Ireland to divest from fossil-fuels and reinvest in sustainable alternatives that benefit us all; instead of a political ideology, we’re here tonight to reaffirm our commitment to the challenge of Micah 6, that the LORD requires of us ‘to act justly, to seek mercy and to walk humbly with our God’. Instead of one small organisation, we’re here tonight to join many organisations and many individuals together in our shared desire for a #FOSSILFREEFAITH.
Yet we are faced with the weight of history set against us; we are faced with the vested interests of the status quo; we are faced with powerful opposition, including from parts of the Church; we are faced with the apathy and cynicism of some, and the denial and delusion of others.
We have a dream
In spite of all that, because of all that, we are here tonight to say together in hope: we have a dream.
We have a dream of a world free from poverty and injustice, free from human and animal rights abuses, free from the desecration of God’s creation.
We have a dream of a Church that actively seeks these goals: the righting of all wrongs, the restoration of all relationships.
We have a dream of a Church that recognises that the mission of God, the mission of the Church and the mission of our lives never takes place in a vacuum, but always takes place in a place, and that that place is our home, or someone else’s home, or something else’s home.
We have a dream of a Church that instead of being renowned for how little it cares for creation, is renowned for how much it cares.
We have a dream of a Church that stops watering down its mandate with theological hair-splitting and nit-picking – at times so heavenly-minded that it is of no earthly use – and instead reclaims its calling to change the world.
We have a dream of a Church that precisely because it absorbs and reflects the S-O-N also, literally, absorbs and reflects the S-U-N, with solar panels on every church roof.
We have a dream of a Church that will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that every person, every place, every generation is created equal.
We have a dream of a #FOSSILFREEFAITH.
And we are here tonight to turn these dreams into realities.
A just response
There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. And divestment is an idea whose time has come. The challenge now is to translate the passion and rhetoric of this evening into action.
And how we respond to climate change matters as much as whether we respond to climate change. If, in responding to climate change, we simply reproduce the same inequality that exists both here and around the world, then we are failing the least of these.
If, in responding to climate change, we simply further enrich the billionaire owners of Blackrock, the world’s biggest asset manager, then we are failing the least of these. If, in responding to climate change, unconditional growth, whose benefits are captured by the powerful but whose costs are borne by the poorest and the planet, is held up as the panacea for all of life’s ills, then we are failing the least of these.
But, if, on the other hand, we see responding to climate change as an opportunity to tackle this inequality, then we can empower the least of these. If we see responding to climate change as an opportunity to shift the control of, and benefits from, investments from entrenched elites to the extraordinary everyday, then we can empower the least of these.
And if we see responding to climate change as an opportunity to transform our economy into one that serves instead of rules all people and all places, then we can empower the least of these.
The true meaning of life
Yet as much as we’ve made the economic and financial case for divestment and reinvestment tonight, sometimes doing the right thing costs more or bears a lower return on investment.
But we were not made in the image of the market; we were made for so much more. And life is more than a giant cost-benefit analysis; if that was it, no-one would have kids, and we would be extinct in a hundred years! I’m speaking here as someone with three children under five-and-a-half.
My children remind me that the things that matter most in life can never be counted on a balance sheet, that there are simply too many things that money cannot measure, let alone buy.
My children remind me that the currency of life itself is relationships, and that the currency of relationships is time. These are our most precious commodities, these are what truly light up our lives and our world.
My children remind me of the great debt we owe to future generations. I’ve been trying to explain climate change and divestment to my older two recently, and the other day my four-year old daughter turned to me and said: ‘Daddy, I don’t like climate change.’ Oh the wisdom of a child.
I don’t like climate change either – that’s why I’m here tonight. I’m also here on behalf of my children, and their children, and their children’s children, and for the sort-of world I want them all to live in. And because we are part of a universal family, my children are your children and your children are mine: they are all our sons, they are all our daughters.
So too are the many refugee children drowned crossing the Mediterranean this past year as they flee their homes in Syria, a conflict where a drought was the spark that lit a war. They are all our sons, they are all our daughters.
So too are the children in these islands whose Christmases were ruined by the floods of our warmest, wettest year so far. There will be many more of those. They are all our sons, they are all our daughters.
And what will we say to them all – these children of the world? What will we say to them when they ask us one day what did we do to tackle climate change?
Will we tell them our churches were left reading the history of divestment, or that our churches were leading the history of divestment?
Will we tell them our churches maintained their bitter divisions in the face of climate catastrophe, or that our churches swallowed their theological pride and came together to tackle climate change and build a better world?
Will we tell them that our churches continued to act as if they lived in an ecological bubble, or that our churches rediscovered and revelled in their care of a creation that both sustains and inspires them every moment of every day?
The apple trees of tomorrow
Martin Luther King, again, said ‘Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, today I would still plant my apple tree.’ Whatever climate change brings tomorrow, today we will still plant our apple tree. Today we will campaign for a #FOSSILFREEFAITH, divested from fossil fuels, reinvested in the apples trees of tomorrow.
And so, to our different denominations on this island, with such a heritage of hope, we say: Divest and reinvest!
To the comfortable Christians of Ireland who are more interested in changing their car or their kitchen than themselves or the world, we say: Divest and reinvest!
To our wealthiest congregations, with their gilded buildings surrounded by fleets of gilded cars every Sunday morning, we say: Divest and reinvest!
To the other faiths of Ireland, as well as to its secular organisations and institutions, including Queen’s University Belfast, we say: Divest and reinvest!
And to those Christians who deny climate change because of their vested interest in the status quo; to those Christians who think that we can do whatever we like to this wonderful world; to those Christians who think that the sooner we trash the planet the sooner Jesus comes back, we say this: we love you dearly, we really do, but go take your toxic theology, put it in your pipe and smoke it. And then divest from pipes and reinvest in a cleaner technology, like e-cigarettes, and smoke it all over again.
Finally, ending on a positive note, for we will not be defined by negativity. To our beloved Church, of which we are a part, on this, our beloved island, on this our beloved planet, our one and only home, we say: Divest! Divest and reinvest!
Together, let us put our money where our mouth is.
Together, let us put our money where our heart is.
Together, let us plant the apple trees of tomorrow.
Together, let us rise up and live out the true meaning of our creed: that every person, every place, every generation is created equal.
Together, let us realise our dreams; let us become a #FOSSILEFREEFAITH.
This is an edited version of a speech given at #FOSSILFREEFAITH, the Christians on the Left Northern Ireland panel discussion on fossil-fuel divestment by the Irish churches, at Queen’s University Belfast, 23rd February 2016. There is more on the case for fossil-fuel divestment by churches here.