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Ecocide: Will the Church dare to be prophetic again?

Posted in: Blog, Featured
Date posted: 6 January 2020

By Holly-Anna Petersen, Operation Noah trustee.

I call myself a Christian because I am in love with the character of our Christ. I am captivated by Jesus’ gritty drive for righteousness, which led him to prophetically call out the powers of the time – an act which he knew would ultimately lead to not only his arrest but his execution. I love that this sets the challenge in my day to day of how I can be deeper and braver in how I love.

As I press into this challenge, I can’t help but feel a lack of inspiration from the mainstream Church. For example, last year after the UK government set the target of going zero carbon by 2050, the Church of England decided to set its own net zero target. The National Farmers Union and the UK water industry both set their net zero target at 2040 so did the Church of England decide to be at least as ambitious as these two organisations? No. Despite the government’s target being wholly unreflective of the climate emergency that we face, the Church of England decided to take the least prophetic option possible and just copied the Government’s 2050 date. I can’t help feeling how far Christianity has strayed from its roots when instead of challenging powers like the state to be more morally ambitious, it looks to them for guidance in how to set its moral compass. When this is the path we choose as Christians, I find myself falling short when people ask me if the Church has any relevance in today’s society. 

Image of Pope Francis by Ashwin Vaswani

A beacon of hope for me came at the end of last year, when Pope Francis set out some proposals to a room of lawyers. The main aspect of this meeting picked up by the press was that he proposed ‘sins against ecology’ be added to the compendium of Catholic teachings. However, a lesser-documented aspect of this meeting was that Pope Francis stated that ‘ecocide’ should be added as a fifth category of crimes against peace at the international level. Explaining what he meant by the term, the Pope explained ecocide as ‘the massive contamination of air, land and water resources, the large-scale destruction of flora and fauna, and any action capable of producing an ecological disaster or destroying an ecosystem’.

Ecocide is not a new concept. It has a long history of people pushing for it to be recognised. For example, it was spoken about by the Swedish prime minister in the early 70s with respect to environmental damage incurred during the Vietnam war. It was also discussed throughout the drafting of the Rome Statute in the 1990s, but was removed from the final draft by oil states such as the US, the UK, France and The Netherlands. More recently, the issue has gained some traction due to being the focus of an international campaign by the lawyer Polly Higgins, who passed away last year.

Image of cross on top of church by Akira Hojo

The history behind the term does not make the Pope’s statement any less courageous or prophetic. In speaking out on the issue the Pope is aware that he is challenging the powerhouses of our time – pushing for a law which would hold both multinationals and governments to account. The audacity of the statement was acknowledged by the secular organisation Greenpeace, who commented that ‘as the international legal and banking systems slowly toy with the idea of making environmental harm some kind of crime/metric of failure, the Pope has decided to get ahead of the game’. 

This act reminds me that although much of Christianity has become institutionalised, we can still be true to our roots. We can still make the brave decision to speak out and stand up to injustices by those in positions of power. As the emergency of our ecological crisis becomes increasingly bleak, it is clear that if the Church chooses this path, we will not only be relevant in today’s society, but a vital institution for the years ahead.

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