Climate justice and the Bible

Warming stripes for the globe. The left hand side is very blue, changing towards white from the center. The right hand side starts to become red, and the far right is dark red.

You won’t find the word “climate” anywhere in the Bible, so it would be tempting to conclude that our faith has no bearing on our reaction to the climate crisis. But “justice” ? Justice turns up in the Bible a lot, right from the book of Genesis. And stewardship of creation is also mentioned – stewardship of God’s creation. We have a duty to care for the creation given to us. 

What is climate justice? 

Climate change has been extensively studied, and two things are clear: it is human driven, and it will have severe impacts for human society. Those two factors make for a crisis, but alone they do not cause a problem of justice. The justice issue arises because of unequal distribution of cause and effect: those most responsible for the problem are mostly the world’s richer nations, whilst those most at risk for the effects are typically in poor nations (and/or already disadvantaged parts of society). 

Let’s look at four passages from different parts of the Bible, and see what they might say about an approach to climate justice.

Matthew 6:19-34

Doesn’t the Bible say we should have faith in God to provide?

Matthew 6:25 (and the short sermon in the following verses) is sometimes cited to suggest we shouldn’t worry about climate change, because God will provide what we need. It is, depending on translation, “the Gentiles”, “unbelievers” or “pagans” who spend time worrying about material needs in the future. But Matthew 6:33 suggests something stronger than merely not worrying: we should “strive” for the “kingdom of God”, and we’ll find our needs met as well. The preceding verses offer some insight into what this might mean, starting with talk of treasure in Matthew 6:19. And strive is a strong word – it’s not a bit of homework, but a significant task that we should take seriously. “The dog ate it” won’t cut it here.

A brown dog, licking its lips like it's just finished eating something tasty.
The dog ate it… is that the end of your work for the Kingdom of God?

What about people who are starving now?

Not everyone finds that they have all they need for life. Some people live, and die, in severe poverty today – and many more did at the time these passages were written, even those with great faith. This reality is difficult to reconcile with a reading of this passage that suggests no one with faith will want for essentials. It could also be said that if people in poverty are happy we should not mind the inequality, but this runs contrary to notions of justice threaded throughout the Bible – more on that later. 

What’s this about treasure?

We are to store up treasure in heaven. This treasure will not decay, or rust, or be stolen. What is it? This is a question that can take a whole book to answer – a whole Bible in fact! We can look at many passages that describe the kingdom of God, righteousness and other concepts to begin to understand what following God looks like.

This particular passage is instead invested in the choice to be made: do we follow God, or not? The first three paragraphs make this point in different ways, contrasting between earthly and heavenly treasure, light and darkness, and God and wealth. We shouldn’t store up earthly treasure. Not anything that can decay, rust or be stolen. God knows that we need certain things – we don’t need to store up vast wealth to be sure we will have them.  

My eye isn’t a lamp!?

Matthew 6:22-23 sounds very strange to modern readers, particularly to anyone familiar with physics or biology. We know that our eyes do not produce light, but receive light reflected from the objects around us. At the time this passage was written, it was thought that the eye produced light to see with. If it produced no light, then the person could not see. Following the metaphor, if a person does not serve God, then they would be in complete darkness.

Ezekiel 34: 11-22

How does God care for the flock?

Ezekiel 34:11-16 paints a beautiful picture of God’s relation to the people of God, the flock. First (11-13) God will gather them up, then (13-15) God will ensure they have all they need, good food, water and a place to rest. God will (16) find the lost, heal the wounded and build up the weak. Finally, God will “feed them with justice” – an odd phrase, but it seems that justice is included with other things the flock needs. Like our passage from Matthew, God will provide what is needed. 

Why are we talking about sheep and shepherds?

At the time of writing in the near east, sheep and shepherding were common metaphors to describe the relationships societies had with their gods and/or kings. God is represented by the shepherd, and we are the flock, the sheep and the goats. So we see the prophet using language and imagery that would have been familiar to his audience, and extending the metaphor to describe the Lord. 

Waste isn’t okay. What does that have to do with justice?

Ezekiel 34:18 describes wastefulness on the part of some in the flock: treading over good pasture, messing up water. These are things that the rest of the flock need – you can almost hear in v19 the outrage – “must my sheep eat what you have trodden..”. And God goes on to describe the judgement that will be made, between the fat and the lean sheep – between those with too much and those with not enough. In Matthew we were cautioned against having too much – in this passage we see the injustice visited on others as a result. And God will judge between the two groups. 

I’m not wasting things or breaking things for other people. Why is this relevant? 

Almost everything we buy, use or do emits carbon dioxide. Carbon footprint calculators use spending as a way to estimate carbon emissions because spending correlates well with emissions. The more you have, the more you are contributing to the climate crisis – and the suffering that causes. In many ways, our excess carbon emissions are exactly like trampling over the pasture of others, or messing the water up once we’ve had our share.  

A sheep is looking down at the camera, very intensely.
Have you trodden in her drinking water? How have your actions affected the resources others need to live?

Exodus 23:1-9

What does justice look like? 

The Bible contains many passages on justice – let’s take a look at one on a human scale. Exodus 23:1-9 gives some guidance on issues of justice. It starts with a basic point: don’t lie. In a world of misinformation and disinformation, this bears repeating. Climate change has its share of misinformation. It can be hard to sift through the noise to find the truth, but truth is the foundation of justice. Even when the majority are going along with it, we should not be complicit in injustice. Note this call to justice stands even in cases where we might want to favour “the underdog”.

No one I know has a donkey. Isn’t this irrelevant today?

Donkeys are not a common sight today. However, verses 4 and 5 use them to make another important point: we should not deny justice to our enemies. We shouldn’t turn away from their loss, and we should not let the donkey suffer because it would benefit our enemy to help it. Climate justice will require working together for the good of everyone, whether we like them or not.

Bribes? No one takes bribes today…

The problems attributed to bribes in this passage are: a bribe blinds the officials, and a bribe subverts the cause of those who are in the right. We may not call them bribes, but dubious financial interests remain an issue in society today. For instance, many pensions are invested in fossil fuels. Donations can be made to political organisations and lobbying groups. Again, we cannot serve God and money. 

What is a resident alien ?

Translated variously as resident alien, stranger, foreigner and sojourner, the person mentioned in verse 9 is an outsider. Someone likely without friends or family, who has moved in from another place. These people are also to receive justice, and there is a call to empathy here as well. How should we interpret this in an increasingly globalised world, when we know our actions here will impact people everywhere?
4 different sorts of home: a cottage, a tall apartment block,  a house with a garden and a block of flats with balconies.
Who is your neighbour, in a global world?

Galatians 6:1-10

Isn’t the climate crisis just too big to tackle though?

It can be hard to know where to start: climate justice is a huge challenge. We should not be discouraged, but look instead to our God. Galatians 6:7-10 reminds us of this – if we work in faith with God, we will gain eternal life. We should not give up, but work for the good of all. 

How do we go about it then?

We have guidance on how to do the work: Galatians 6:1-10 gives us one example in scripture, but there are many others. In short, to work together, share the burdens but ensure we do our part well, and always relying on God. Working with others will help the scale of climate justice seem less daunting. And climate justice is a whole community effort. 

Share each others’ burdens but also do our own work? That’s a contradiction!

Isn’t it nice when scripture reflects real world tensions? Life is like that sometimes – you need a bit of both, and it isn’t always clear what the right balance should be. Doing your part, helping others out and accepting help are all vital to living in community. The split between them will change with time, place and person, as well as the work.

Someone isn’t doing their bit. Should we force them?

It’s tempting, isn’t it? But Galatians 6:1 specifies that we should be gentle, and avoid temptation to doing wrong ourselves. In many translations the language used is “to restore” – this has a gentle connotation. It’s far more helpful and wholesome than just forcing someone to go along with it.

That was a lot. What were the main points again? 

Pretty much from the word “go” in the Bible (okay, it actually says “Exodus”) we see God making a thing about justice, and doing justice well. By the time we get to the prophets, like our example from Ezekiel, we see justice is an essential part of society. Stories about fat and lean sheep show the harm done when some have too much and others too little – and that God cares about such harm. Our Gospel reading from Matthew presents us with the choice: seeking the Kingdom of God, or building our earthly treasure. And our epistle reading from Galatians gives us some tips on working well together in a Christ like fashion, and how faith in God can keep discouragement at bay – even when faced with such a huge task as climate justice. Because wherever our climate justice journey takes us, our God is with us. 

Warming stripes from
Images from Pixabay
Music performed by Matt Beckingham