In the style of the biblical interpretation done by some of our partners in Latin America, South Africa and the Philippines we offer some reflections as to why Christian Aid have decided to support the Youth Strikes on 20 September. It’s our contribution to understanding where God’s will might be discerned today and followed in this time of crisis.
It’s a reading for the 21st century from the book of Jeremiah in the style of the biblical.
Because they will not listen Jeremiah 6:16-19, 21
Hear this, O foolish and senseless people,
who have eyes, but do not see,
who have ears, but do not hear. Jeremiah 5:21
Climate change means death. Death to ecosystems, death to plants and animals, death to human beings. It will bring death, to many of our expectations, assumptions and much of our confidence in what a normal life will look like. We’re not good with death, so instead, we prefer euphemisms like ‘falling asleep’ or ‘passing away’. We’re anxious not to surrender our sense of control over this life we have and our yearning for immortality. However, this results in denial and numbness and a fundamental failure to face the gravity of the climate crisis that confronts us.
'Thus says the Lord:
Stand at the crossroads, and look,
and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way lies; and walk in it,
and find rest for your souls.
But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’
17 Also I raised up sentinels for you:
‘Give heed to the sound of the trumpet!’
But they said, ‘We will not give heed.’
18 Therefore hear, O nations,
and know, O congregation, what will happen to them.
19 Hear, O earth; I am going to bring disaster on this people,
the fruit of their schemes,
because they have not given heed to my words;
and as for my teaching, they have rejected it.
21 Therefore thus says the Lord:
See, I am laying before this people
stumbling-blocks against which they shall stumble;
parents and children together,
neighbour and friend shall perish'. Jeremiah 6:16-19, 21
Jeremiah was a 6th century member of a priestly family of Israel who found himself called by Yahweh to warn the population of Jerusalem about the impending disaster that was looming over them through an assault by the Babylonian empire. There were political reasons why the Kingdom of Judah should have felt threatened. It was a small kingdom lying between other aggressive powers like Babylon, Assyria and Egypt, but Jeremiah is instructed to explain the catastrophe with reference to Israel’s failure to live according to Yahweh’s covenant and law. But the very people who should have been alert to the failure of the people played down the seriousness of the situation.
'They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.' Jer. 8:11
And continued to assure the community that they were singularly protected by their status as Yahweh’s chosen and did not need to be disturbed.
The Student Strikers are saying: It’s time to act like your house is on fire.
Break This Vessel Jeremiah 19:1-4, 10-11
Prophetic voice is not a plan for social change; it’s not usually the product of conferences and deliberations. It rises up at moments of crisis, often in the words of the unprepared and the unexpected. It’s poetry and symbol rather than prose and proposal. It is not always words, for sometimes only action will do. The communities we serve in the global South know this and show us their commitment to act and their expression of resistance in story, song and symbol. So also does our scripture.
'Thus said the Lord: Go and buy a potter’s earthenware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests, 2 and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you.
3 You shall say: Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. 4 Because the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent….
10 Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, 11 and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended.' Jer. 19: 1-4, 10-11
Here is action and drama, but not merely for the sake of impact. The deliberate smashing of the jug makes visual what up to then has only been described, violent assault and resulting brokenness.
We cannot fill up our streets with broken pots, but we can go with our bodies, as Jeremiah and the elders were instructed to go, to a specific and significant place and there offer those same bodies to this struggle. Our bodies become the symbol of all we are prepared to offer to the creation of the new world and the new sorts of relationships within it that a serious response to climate change demands. Our bodies say: we are physically and mentally engaged with this. The shattering of the pot encourages us to add: and we will offer these bodies and our way of life to be broken so that things may change. Our hearts and minds need to be assaulted by the scale of the problem and we need to learn how to grieve for what will be lost while we open ourselves up, open up those same hearts and minds, to a new life. Our bodies must do the work of surrendering what is no longer sustainable. They must be the source of the energy for the testing of new practices of life and the place to learn new ways of finding purpose and pleasure.
No Small Change Jeremiah 32:6-15
‘No small change’ This was a phrase Christian Aid often used to explain that nothing and no-one is too small or insignificant to make a difference, and from that commitment and action hope is bred into and drawn out of situations that look too big to tackle or too pressing to avoid.
Living with climate change is a reality and we will all have to make adjustments, some large and some small. We lobby our Government to set emission targets and to look at investment strategies and often hear that a more proactive stance will leave the UK and Ireland vulnerable in competitive international markets. We fear being taken advantage of by less scrupulous or committed nations or organisations. We constantly reference China and India as a counter-weight to anything we do.
David Attenborough has said 'we cannot be radical enough' in our action on climate change. But we are plagued with fear and worry about the risk to all we already have and value. This is where the voices of the youngest amongst us are so illuminating. They have so much less invested in what we consider to be the trappings of a normal life (in fact, they would argue, it has got harder for them to acquire them), but they have so much invested in a global future that is truly theirs and which risks being destroyed by the nervousness of those with power. They are hopeful where we are anxious and in denial.
6 'Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.
9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land'. Jeremiah 32:6-15
Jeremiah buys a field. In the face of war and captivity this looks like a senseless act, a waste of money, but it is a sign of hope. It makes concrete the conviction that there is life beyond these difficult times when there will be a place to call home and the practice of the small everyday tasks that create home. It is one small field, but it stands for all the world.
For ‘No Small Change’ also has another meaning for Christian Aid. It means we are not unambitious about the daunting challenge of poverty and injustice and the change to our climate that intensifies those two things. It means we will not be satisfied with tinkering with what is but will pursue what can be. It means vision and imagination are as important as strategy and tactics. It means finding the energy for transformation and standing with it and in it. It means trusting God, feeling the grief and resonating with the desire for newness. It means taking risks and we choose to do so.