by Mary Harrington
Wednesday, 5
February 2020

It’s time for the church to go green

Lent is the perfect opportunity for Christians to reclaim environmentalism
by Mary Harrington
It is high time the Christian church reclaimed environmentalism. Credit: Getty

The Archbishop of Canterbury has called on Christians to ‘go green for Lent’, with a new #LiveLent challenge designed to encourage us to ‘Care for Creation’.

It is high time the Christian church reclaimed environmentalism. In our secular and individualistic age, the sphere of public morality — traditionally the preserve of religious leaders — has been assailed from the Left by demands for greater individual autonomy in the social sphere, and from the right by an account of homo economicus that frames all of humanity as rational, self-centred and atomised.

Meanwhile, the ecological question speaks directly to questions of how individual actions impact on the collective, in a way that makes it wholly a matter of public morality. How are we to set aside our individual desires for the kind of joint action, self-restraint and mutual obligation that would help us to address environmental issues?

In the absence of confident leadership on this matter from our erstwhile moral guardians in the church, millenarian movements with all the hallmarks of a religion — including sin and apocalypse — have sprung up in the Church’s stead to call on us to repent. But these movements, while passionate, have been hamstrung by their inability to let go of a resolutely individualistic (or at best identitarian) account of human nature.

In this respect, they reproduce the account of homo economicus that delivered us the quintessential ‘tragedy of the commons’ that is our contemporary ecological crisis. We must attempt collective action; but we are also all individuals and no one has the right to tell us what to do. It is a bewildering bind. No wonder so many young people are depressed.

In contrast, the Christian account of humanity offers considerably more hope. Rather than being innately selfish, in this worldview humanity is made in the image of God, and though tainted by original sin, capable of being purified through repentance and efforts to seek salvation.

Homo economicus will never be saved, however much he repents; homo Christus, on the other hand, has a chance. By offering what we have as a sacrifice to the common good, in the Christian story we take one step closer to salvation for all of us. Going green for Lent is thus both literally and symbolically a small way in which we practice thinking about others and — hopefully — helping to shore up our depleted common good.

Whether or not one holds a personal faith, to me this seems a more optimistic, fruitful and  actionable approach to collective change in the interests of the common good than a mixture of self-organising collectives and shouting at world leaders in Davos.

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