Column Title: Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission
Column Entry: Climate Justice and the City
Column Description: If you hang around long enough, mingle with enough folks in enough places on this fragile planet, and pay attention at least part of the time, life happens. And with life, stories. In this monthly column, Dennis Smith, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication, shares communication insights and wisdom gleaned from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. Through mission service, God gifted Dennis with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine whupped him upside the head and “invited” him to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.
December 2021 / November 2021 / October 2021 / September 2021
Climate Justice and the City
Digging through some files I came across a keynote address I gave to the Asia/Pacific Regional Assembly of the World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) held in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2011. At the time I served as President of WACC.
As I was preparing that address, I remember that colleagues from Asia and the Pacific had described to me the existential issues they were facing because of rapid changes to the climate and how unequally those changes were impacting their communities. Extreme weather events were taking an enormous toll on the most vulnerable communities, especially in major urban areas, while also having a devastating impact on small farmers whose crops were ruined by drought or floods, or whose access to urban markets was cut off by damaged infrastructure.
As we visited communities experiencing such havoc, my colleagues spoke not of climate change but of climate justice. Those on the margins of society had far fewer resources with which to prepare for and respond to climate emergencies than did the wealthy or the middle classes. Even official mitigation efforts tended to favor the rich. Therefore, as Christian communicators, they focused on emergency planning, training, and advocacy that specifically addressed such inequality.
As communicators they were increasingly called upon by the churches, community organizations, and academic institutions they served to be a vital link in emergency response after natural disasters, to help communities prepare for such events, to influence public discourse – especially by demanding government accountability and denouncing corruption, and to advocate for government services.
In the last decade, these challenges have only increased and the call for climate justice has emerged as a key issue for communicators in churches, NGOs, and universities in the so-called developed world.
Communication Challenges and Climate Change
Climate change is caused by human beings. It is the result of choices made by those holding political and economic power, choices that have generated great wealth for a few. These same choices have invisibilized, silenced and led to the deaths of untold millions of human beings.
Decades of mission service in the Global South have taught me that the struggle for climate justice is also a struggle for the city. All over the world, the city is the seat of power: the power of the political and economic systems that rule our nations, the power of economic elites, the power of the media systems that promote public policy agendas. These media systems foment consumer culture and generate the imaginaries that nurture our dreams and expectations as peoples.
Power is concentrated in the city. The UN estimates that in 2007 for the first time in history, the majority of humankind had become city dwellers. In so many countries, it is in the city where young people—and especially young people of color—without jobs, without access to education, are portrayed by the media as hooligans. It is in the city where even civic-minded citizens fear to gather peacefully in public spaces because they are plagued by crime and violence. It is in the city where peoples’ right to organize and express their hopes and dreams are monitored and controlled by the authorities, and all too often, labeled as sedition.
This is the context in which we need to remember that in Revelation, chapter 21, John of Patmos portrays God’s long expected Reign as descending to Earth in the form of a city!
Thinking back on my own evangelical upbringing, I confess that I grew up with a deep ambivalence about cities and urban life. It was hard for me to imagine the city as being a place where one could encounter the constant presence of the Creator. Yet, over the decades, I am surprised to note that I have become a very urban person. For almost 30 years I lived in the grimy bustle of Guatemala City, Central America’s largest urban center. In 2011, I moved with my family to begin a decade living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, one of the world’s great cities.
I have noted over the years that urban churches often see themselves as bunkers where believers hunker down and seek refuge from the city. This is not surprising since big cities can be dirty and noisy, violent and inhospitable. Many urban church members have told me how they came seeking refuge from rural poverty and corruption, only to discover that the city, with its anonymity and casual vices, had become a constant source of temptation as they sought to find within themselves the opportunities and discipline they needed to survive. They described how the bedlam of the city had drained their energy and hope. They came to church, they said, desperate to replace anomie with community.
I am not surprised, then, when I hear city pastors decry the moral decay that can accompany urban living. When churches retreat into a bunker mentality, convinced that cities are essentially evil, urban life not only threatens our piety, but also our sense of solidarity. All too often, urban church members cease to think of themselves as thoughtful citizens, as active members of the larger community. In an environment where the rule of law is precarious and where life itself is cheap, it is easy to embrace the seductive, authoritarian discourse of politicians (and preachers!) who promise security while trampling due process and human dignity with draconian actions. In such an environment, our longing for security can lead us to respond in ways that would normally make us ashamed.
I remember one Sunday morning when people were gathering for morning services at a church just a block from our home in Guatemala City. Somehow, the parishioners had captured a petty thief who was trying to escape on a motorcycle. He had been trying to steal a car radio. The response of the crowd was immediate, electric. In minutes they had pulled the thief off the bike and stripped him down to his underwear. They found a rope and bound his wrists behind his back. They beat him with broomsticks until his head and back were bleeding. My wife walked by just then and noted that the minister was standing at the entrance to the church. She took in the scene in seconds; she heard someone calling for more rope to lynch the thief. She saw that the minister could not have been unaware of what was going on. She also saw that only the minister could save this person’s life She knew the minister well, they had grown up together; she told him that he must intervene, and quickly. Reluctantly, he did so; the crowd disbanded, the police came and took the thief away.
Later, I couldn’t help but wonder about the thin veneer of Christian conviction that could so suddenly be peeled away and turn that band of urban believers into a lynch mob, knowing that that ugly spark of violence still lurked within me, too.
Returning to my visit to Indonesia, as we visited at-risk communities, I decided that, as Christians, another key element in the struggle for climate justice is how we think about our relationship to nature.
I grew up thinking of climate and the environment—indeed, of nature itself—as being somehow distinct from humankind, and from cities. I grew up in the mountains of northern California, in the United States. It was a wild and beautiful setting with mountain streams, tall trees and secret places where one could feel intimately connected with Creation. It was a time in my life when I embraced the romantic vision of poets like Wordsworth, who, in his “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey,” was:
. . .well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. . .
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her. . .
When I moved to Guatemala in the 1970s I would see this same pastoral vision portrayed in murals painted at the front of small evangelical churches, both in the city and in remote rural communities. These graphic representations of God’s peace, of God’s tender care for the flock, portrayed sheep grazing in green meadows beside mountain streams. Curiously, these idyllic scenes seldom included human beings!
Perhaps our romantic view of nature combined with our long emphasis on the pathologies cultivated by the city has played into the hands of those who want to silence our voices and quell our desire to mobilize and build for the common good. Seeking spiritual refreshment in a pristine wilderness will continue to restore our souls, but somehow, we need to learn to discern and be at peace with the rhythms of the city. As we learn to look, we will find in the city beauty and courage, solidarity and vibrant energy. When we look at the faces and listen to the stories of those we encounter each day, we will understand that these are the faces of Jesus.