by David Clough.
Whatever international action happens as a result of the inconclusive COP26 conference, it is clear that carbon emissions from human activity are changing the world’s climate in ways that are already displacing many people from the places that have been their home and will soon displace many more. Islands are being inundated. Changes to weather patterns are disrupting the growing of food crops and the grazing of animals, as well as increasing the incidence of wildfires and storms. Christians should grieve and lament the devastation caused to human communities and other living creatures as a result of culpable inaction from industrialised nations over decades. We should be angered by the injustice that the heaviest costs of climate change are falling on those who have least responsibility for causing the problem. We should be driven by these emotions to continue to make the case for urgent concerted international action to avoid making the crisis still worse.
But Christians should also prepare themselves for the political consequences of this environmental crisis. The UNHCR reported 82.4 million displaced people at the end of 2020, one in 95 of the global population. The climate crisis was one of the factors that led to the civil war in Syria. The crisis continues to provoke conflict and increase the numbers of displaced people, refugees, and asylum seekers. This presents a new international challenge. Industrialised nations need to decide either to recognise their responsibility to support people displaced by the climate crisis or to ignore these pressing humanitarian needs and instead invest in stronger borders to attempt to insulate themselves from the global disruption. There is a serious risk that some politicians will see opportunities in rushing directly from denial and inaction in relation to the causes of the climate crisis to making the case for prioritizing national self-interest rather than recognizing international responsibilities. In the UK, a clear direction of travel is evident in the government setting aside longstanding commitments concerning the international aid budget, its proposed new Nationality and Borders bill, and inadequate responses from ministers to the rising numbers of asylum seekers drowning in the Channel as a result of the lack of legal routes to claim asylum in the UK.
For many Christians, the implications of their faith for the question of the obligations of the most wealthy nations to care for those in need is clear. Jesus’ injunction to love one’s neighbour and the parables of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25–37) and the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31–46) are obvious reference points. But Christians in the US voted disproportionately for Trump in the context of promises of an implausible wall along the Mexican border. In the UK, most members of the Church of England voted for Brexit in the context of a campaign affirming the priority of national self-interest. So those hoping that Christian churches might help generate political support for international cooperation to help people displaced as a result of the climate crisis have work to do.
One sign of the challenge ahead is a recent article in the journal Studies in Christian Ethics by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christ Church, Oxford. ‘Whatever Happened to the Canaanites? Principles of a Christian Ethic of Mass Immigration’ makes a Christian ethical case for prioritising national self-interest above providing for the needy beyond a nation’s borders. Its argument relies on a tendentious framing of the issue and on false oppositions. The key current issue for the UK and many other countries is ethical and legal responsibilities to those seeking asylum; the article misdirects attention towards fears about ‘mass migration’ and completely open borders. The article will not convince many Christian ethicists that it presents a plausible reading of biblical and theological traditions on this topic. The problem is that it does not need to convince anyone: it just needs to provide a theological fig-leaf for those who have already decided that prioritising the pursuit of narrow national self-interest is politically expedient. It is therefore more important than ever to make the case that unjust and uncompassionate policies on international aid, the reception of asylum seekers, and immigration, are contrary to Christian ethics.
If you are a Christian convinced that churches should be supporting hospitality to asylum seekers, aid for refugees, and justice for those displaced by the climate crisis, it is time to get ready to join the debate. Reading up on the important work of the ecumenical Joint Public Issues Team on asylum and migration is a great place to start.