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Picture of Greta Thunberg at a rally

Greta Thunberg - Person of the Year 2019

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Posted by Simon Tomkins, 8 Jan 2020

Simon Tomkins discusses why Greta Thunberg, who was nominated as Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2019, is a worthy recipient of the honour – and why her movement desperately needs Jesus.

Challenges for us
I’m really impressed by the 16-year-old Swedish Environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg.  She’s a divisive figure who, like all of us, has her flaws, but when I watched her famous ‘How dare you?’ speech, several things struck me:
1. She’s talking about the end of the world in a culture that doesn’t think about the future
Watching Greta speak, I thought ‘that is what it looks like when a person genuinely believes the end of the world may be just around the corner.’  She may not use the word ‘eschatology’, but that’s what she’s talking about, and she clearly believes that people desperately need to change course right now to avoid disaster.  I’m a Christian, and the Bible tells me I have far better reasons than Greta to believe that the end of the world and final judgment are realities – I just wish my words and my lifestyle communicated the same urgency that hers do.

2. She’s talking about human wickedness in a culture that has no moral absolutes
We live in a generation that hates confrontation and is very scared of claiming to have a truth that is true for everyone.  In the midst of that, Greta sounds like some of the Old Testament prophets in the way she confronts moral compromise (again, she’s not using the word ‘sin’, but that’s what she’s talking about).  Part of her appeal has been her refusal to flatter people – she’s calling people to take responsibility for the choices they’ve made.  I wish I had her clarity.

3. She’s willing to suffer in a culture with little courage
I’m not persuaded by all the claims of the Green movement – but it’s obvious that its members are.  Isn’t there something impressive about a 16 year old sailing the Atlantic in Winter?  I’ve read reports of Extinction Rebellion members on hunger-strikes and elderly folk who’ve spent a lifetime obeying the law who are willing to spend the night in prison cells, and I feel ashamed when I think how reluctant I am to suffer for a much greater cause.

Challenges for the Green Movement
Although I’ve been challenged by Greta, it strikes me that her movement faces some challenges of its own:
1. A message of sin and judgment without grace is hopeless
The message of the Green campaigners is almost unrelentingly bleak.  They’ve done a great job highlighting the dangers we face, but who has any credible solutions?  When I’m told I have to save the planet, all I can do is throw my hands up and say ‘I can’t – it’s too big a job for anyone, even Greta.’

2. A message of sin and judgment without grace is self-righteous
I want to say this gently, because I know Greta has had appalling things said about her on social media, but I wonder if the general public struggle with a sense that eco-activists think the problem is ‘other people’.  There’s something instinctively alienating about saying ‘How dare you?’ instead of ‘How dare we?’, and perhaps especially when young people say it to those who have more life-experience than they do.

3. A message of sin and judgment without grace is crushing
As a Christian, I know from church history that there have been plenty of times when preachers have been much clearer about sin than they have been about salvation – and it never ends well.  I recently read a heart-breaking article about mothers with eco-anxiety.  One of those interviewed spoke of how she loves her 4 month old son and added “I could definitely cry all the time…if we carry on the way we are, he will die because of the effects of climate change…I have made peace with the fact that that is what will happen.”  The bleakness of that worldview is terrifying.

How Jesus challenges the Green movement
So what can we say to Greta and our friends who have a heart for caring for the planet?  Wonderfully, the Bible gives us a far greater motivation to care for our environment than the blind terror and deep-seated anger of some in the eco-movement.

1. The Bible says there is only one Saviour of the world (1 John 4.14)
What a relief that a generation that hasn’t learnt to tidy their bedrooms don’t have to carry the burden of saving the planet!  The angels at Christmas proclaim that the Lord Jesus has already taken that job (Luke 2.11)!

2. The Bible says the world will not end in ecological disaster (Genesis 9.8-17)
That’s not to trivialise the danger of man-made climate change, but it does give hope.  Climate change may have devastating effects (as do war, famine, and disease), but the human race will not become extinct.  That gives us a way to acknowledge that climate change is an important issue, without neglecting other significant issues of justice in the world today (child malnutrition, corruption, racism, etc).  Crucially, it guards us from despair because the end of the world is in God’s hands – not ours.

3. The Bible gives us a better motivation for caring for the planet (Genesis 1.27-28)
There are times when climate protestors speak as if humanity is like a virus or vermin destroying the planet.  In contrast, the Bible says that we are kings and queens on this planet (commanded by the Great King to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ – Genesis 1.28).  Anyone who wants to take that command as a scriptural permission to exploit creation has simply not understood what rulers in the Bible are meant to do.  The Lord Jesus shows us a king’s job is to serve those we have responsibility for – not to trample them.  To me, that seems a far more powerful motivation to sort the recycling or cycle somewhere instead of driving – it’s not that I’m a cockroach who needs to atone for destroying the planet, but that I’m a king caring for the world I’m responsible for.

I remain in awe of Greta.  I think she’s the obvious choice as person of the year for 2019.  But how desperately she and anyone who cares about the planet, need to know its Creator and Saviour!

Simon Tomkins is vicar of St Martin's Talke, St John's Alsagers Bank and St James' Audley.

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