I am writing this looking out into my garden. I can hear the birds singing loudly and the silence from the lack of traffic noise is stark. If I stand outside and look up at the sky, it is clear blue with no airplane trails across it. The canal where I go for my daily walk is the clearest I’ve ever seen it, now that there are no boats using it, stirring up the mud. Walking with my daughter the other day, we stood in the middle of what is usually a busy road, with not a car on it, and I said, ‘stand still for a moment and appreciate this. You may never experience this again’.
We are going through profound shocks: socially, politically, economically… and the impact of these will last for many years. Alongside the positives that some of us are experiencing, we are also facing fear, grief and suffering. There are immense challenges that we are dealing with, in our homes, our churches and our workplaces. How does the theme of reconciliation contribute to this current time, particularly in relation to our relationship with the wider natural world?
Let me start with the fundamentals: God created a world that he declared to be very good, a world in which people and the wider natural order exist harmoniously in the presence of God. Relationship with God, with others, with ourselves and with the rest of creation is central to God’s loving purposes. But those relationships very quickly went wrong, and the Bible then tells the story of how God works to restore them and put them back to rights – a plan that ultimately finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
““This is a world of awe and beauty; a world that God has created teeming with life, full of diversity and abundance and colour””
The Gospel – literally ‘the good news’ – is thus a Gospel of reconciliation. Through Jesus we are reconciled with God, with the wider natural world, with other people and with ourselves. That means that a Gospel that does not include our relationship with the whole creation is not the full Gospel. How tragic that we have been content with such an emaciated Gospel! (1)
Through the pandemic I have been reflecting on how we live in a wonderful yet wounded world. As we saw at the top, many of us have been re-discovering what a wonderful world we live in. For those of us fortunate enough to have gardens or to be in countries where lockdown has allowed us a daily walk, we have come to appreciate getting outside more than ever. So many people have been reconnecting with the wider natural world in a way they haven’t done for years and realising just how nurturing and good for our wellbeing it is to spend time outdoors.
This is a world of awe and beauty; a world that God has created teeming with life, full of diversity and abundance and colour. And what neighbours we share this world with: the most incredible and stunning mix of strange, funny, scary, cuddly, scaly, odd, tiny, huge creatures that we could ever possibly imagine! (2)
Yet at the same time, we live in a world that is seriously wounded. Against what some church leaders are saying, I want to state that Covid-19 is not a judgment from God: he did not cause it or will it into being. Whilst the Bible indicates there can be times when someone’s sickness is the result of personal sin, if and when people fall ill, there is no biblical warrant for automatically linking that with a person’s sin and we must be very careful before we pronounce something as being God’s judgment.
Having said that however, as we have seen, the Bible is clear that God, people and the wider natural world are deeply interconnected. If one aspect of that set of relationships is broken then everything will be impacted. As hard as it is to hear, the outbreak of Covid-19 is not a ‘natural disaster’. Rather it is a disaster of our own making. Viruses jump species and get into humans, and environmental destruction makes this more likely to happen, and with greater frequency, as people are brought into closer contact with virus-carrying animals.
Deforestation, mining, the bushmeat trade, animal trafficking and unsustainable agricultural practices are all likely factors at play. It is tempting to see this pandemic and the climate breakdown as having their origins elsewhere, to point the blame at people, governments and organisations in other parts of the world. But, Europe is certainly no innocent bystander.
In 2008 the European Commission pledged to halt deforestation, but in 2019 recognised its goals are unlikely to be met with current trajectories. (3) While Europe’s forestation plantations are booming, European consumer practices are still stimulating global deforestation importing nearly a quarter of products which have been cultivated on illegally deforested lands around the world. (4)
A 2010 study revealed that concerning quantities of bushmeat was being illegally imported from Africa into Europe, posing significant health risks to people and livestock. (5)
Alongside this, the virus has spread so rapidly because of our dependence on flying. We’ve known for decades how environmentally harmful flying is, yet we have been steadily increasing our flights in, from and to Europe, amounting to over a billion passenger flights in 2008. (6)
The desperation of poverty and the greed of wealth underpin a global system that is fundamentally at odds with God’s original intention of shalom between all things, and the current pandemic is a terrible consequence of that. And of course, whilst we may be focused on Covid-19, the disasters of climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and plastic pollution are still continuing and we still need to tackle them urgently.
“The desperation of poverty and the greed of wealth underpin a global system that is fundamentally at odds with God’s original intention of shalom”
So how do we bring a Gospel of reconciliation into this situation? One answer to that is found by looking at what it means for us to be made ‘in the image of God’ (Gen. 1:26-28). This description places humans in a particular relationship with God and looks in two directions.
Firstly, it looks in the direction of our relationship to others and speaks of the absolute equality between people: all people have been made in God’s image. That absolute equality means that poverty is an absolute abomination. Covid-19 challenges us here. It exposes the stark inequalities of our world as it wreaks havoc most on those for whom lockdown means no money and no food and who don’t have access to the basics of clean water and soap let alone a garden or park.
Reconciliation with others includes responding to the needs of neighbours both near and far. In Europe, 1 in 5 people are living in households at risk of poverty or social exclusion and research is indicating that this makes them especially vulnerable to the virus, as does living in areas with high air pollution.(7) People in refugee camps are particularly vulnerable in Europe during this pandemic (8).
Reconciliation with others means not only responding to the needs of our immediate communities and nation, but also looking to our global neighbours and the needs of those living in countries that do not have the financial protection or health equipment that we do.
Secondly, being made in the image of God looks in the direction of the whole creation. Like an image in a temple, we are God’s representatives, created to serve and look after the rest of what he has made. Covid-19 challenges us to recognise how far we have fallen from doing that well, but it also presents us with a unique opportunity for change. As we emerge from lockdown and stimulate our economies, will we do so in a way that does not take us back to pre-pandemic levels of pollution? Will we prioritise tackling deforestation and unsustainable agriculture? (9) Will we push our governments to ensure that economic recovery happens within the parameters of keeping within a 1.5°C future? It is encouraging to see Amsterdam deciding to build back its economic activity in a way that meets the core needs of all but within the means of the planet, and the state aid being given to Air France has come with strong climate conditions. (10)
At Tearfund, we are working hard on the ground with our partners in many countries around the world, responding to the urgent needs of the pandemic. And, we are looking at these underlying systemic issues and stimulating a stimulating a conversation with churches to ask, how can we build back a better world that is fairer and greener?’ ( see https://www.tearfund.org/about_you/action/the_world_rebooted/ for more)
As Christians and churches we can have a central role in calling for, and working towards, a world without huge gaps between rich and poor – one that enables us to live in harmony with the whole creation. We know we won’t see it fully until Christ returns to this earth and he dwells in our midst, in the transformation of all things (Rev. 21 and 22), but we are future-oriented people and we can let that hope motivate us now in how we live, act, pray and speak out.
- For full Bible reference and to look at this more see R. Valerio, Just Living: Faith and community in an age of consumerism (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016, p17-24).For much more on this, and an exploration of Genesis 1 and how we can relate the themes of the Days of Creation to issues today, see, R. Valerio, Saying Yes to Life (originally the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2020 Lent Book).
- For much more on this, and an exploration of Genesis 1 and how we can relate the themes of the Days of Creation to issues today, see, R. Valerio, Saying Yes to Life (originally the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 2020 Lent Book).
- See ‘Communication From The Commission To The European Parliament, The Council, The European Economic And Social Committee And The Committee Of The Regions; Stepping up EU Action to Protect and Restore the World’s Forests’ https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1565272554103&uri=CELEX:52019DC0352
- https://www.eurofoodbank.org/en/poverty-in-europe; https://www.newsmax.com/health/health-news/hardest-hit-communities-lower-income-elderly-cdc-death-records/2020/04/01/id/960944/; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/04/200406100824.htm.
- In relation to the current pandemic, tackling unregulated ‘wet’ markets is also critical
- https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/amsterdam-doughnut-model-mend-post-coronavirus-economy; https://www.businesstraveller.com/business-travel/2020/04/30/air-france-told-not-to-compete-with-the-tgv/.