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In these strange and difficult times when so much feels tenuous, from our employment to our health, Cameron Conant keeps returning to this sentence from Pope Francis, ‘Realities are more important than ideas.’ (Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel) 231)
I puzzled over these words for several months before realising that Pope Francis was trying to help me (and all of us) understand that what often prevents us from acting on injustice, including the injustice of climate change, is our allegiance to certain ideas over and above our commitment to understanding the experiences of the people in our neighbourhood or of those around the world.
When we idolise an economic philosophy, a particular way of reading the Bible, or a political ideology, we risk missing out on what’s happening to people down the road, across town or in another country.
For those of us trying to be Christians in these unsettling times, I’m convinced we must avoid the temptation of getting lost in a world of ideas, oblivious to the lived experiences of our neighbours – something Pope Francis suggests leads to ‘a life-less and unfruitful self-centeredness’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 233).
Many of us will know from Scripture, if not from our own experiences, that a lived-out faith is the only faith there is (James 2:20); indeed, salvation is not some invisible spiritual transaction as much as something that happens when the defrauded get paid back (Luke 19:8-9), or when the poor, imprisoned and marginalised get fed, clothed, visited and welcomed (Matthew 25:34).
However, just like faith can become ‘lifeless’ when it is disconnected from the experiences of others, the climate crisis can also become just another ‘idea’ that we engage with rather than something that actually happens to real people with names and stories – people who we are called to walk alongside.
As an Operation Noah Board Member and as one of the co-leaders of the Citizens UK ‘Just Transition’ campaign, people’s personal stories help inform and shape the work I do. In fact, over these past three months, my church has been part of a listening campaign that has stretched across the whole of London – 400 people from 20 different institutions talking about how London’s polluting energy, housing, economic and transport systems impact them and their families.
In listening to people, we have heard how expensive energy bills and poor insulation can make home a difficult place to be (as well as being major source of carbon emissions), the ways in which air pollution negatively impacts health, and how insecure work is a source of stress for families and young people.
We’ve spoken to a diverse range of Londoners – Christians, Jews, Muslims, university students, retirees and even children. Like Noah, just eight years old, who lives in East London, was born with a lung condition and has asthma. Noah sometimes stays awake all night, coughing, because of the air pollution outside his house, and occasionally misses school as a result. When we talked with Noah and his parents, Noah asked us, ‘Is clean air too much to ask for?’
We also spoke with Bel who lives in Lambeth, is in his early 20s, and is currently looking for work, but would ‘love to be part of the work force that re-builds the UK’ as part of the kind of post-pandemic, clean energy revolution we need.
These and many other stories are shaping the ‘Just Transition’ policies that our Citizens UK alliance is now developing with the public policy think tank IPPR. Green policies we will put to the candidates for Mayor of London at our Mayoral Assembly in 2021, which we will hold either in person or online.
We’re placing people’s experiences at the heart of London’s response to the climate crisis by developing policies that prioritise poor and low-income communities and we’re involving these same communities in the process.
Being part of this London-wide listening campaign has reminded me of how important it is for people to share their experiences. It has also reminded me that the Gospel is not merely a future salvation event, but a present one.
Ideas are important and necessary, but as Pope Francis reminds us, and as my fellow Londoners’ experiences confirm, realities are more important than ideas.
Cameron Conant is a writer and Operation Noah board member. Learn more about the Just Transition campaign.