Lausanne Creation Care and the Gospel Conference for East and Central Africa

The Centre’s Intercultural Encounter Coordinator, Amy Ross, attended the Lausanne Creation Care and the Gospel Conference for East and Central Africa held at Brackenhurst Conference Centre, near Nairobi, Kenya, 17-21 May 2015: Creation Care in Africa: Theology, Practice and Intercultural Dialogue.

This conference was one of a series of events in the Lausanne Creation Care Network’s global creation care campaign. Emerging from the Lausanne Global Consultation on Creation Care and the Gospel held in Jamaica in November 2012, each of these conferences is designed to help participants develop creation care movements in their own countries (click here to Learn more about the global campaign and read The Jamaica Call to Action, an important document that came out of the Jamaica Consultation).

Amy shares: “Highlights from the programme included fantastic case studies of creation care as holistic mission both in the main plenary sessions and in breakout groups.”

Topics covered in the breakout sessions were as diverse as ‘Urban Waste Management in Rwanda’ (delivered by a knowledgeable Rwandan vicar), ‘Farming God’s Way’ and ‘Indigenous Forestry’ by Care for Creation Kenya, and ‘Tools for Political Advocacy in Africa’ by Dr Jesse Mugambi from the University of Nairobi. Main sessions also included practical creation care case studies, such as A Rocha Kenya’s ASSETS forest protection and ecotourism scheme, which funds high school students’ education, and a project on bio-sand filters being delivered in Kampala by A Rocha Uganda.

Delegates came from South Sudan, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, and even Madagascar. Key speakers addressed creation care from different angles, for example theological, scientific, practical and economic. Different perspectives were delivered by the following contributors, alongside many others who were equally as noteworthy:

  • Dr. Zac Niringiye (Assistant Bishop in Kampala Diocese, Uganda; on the importance of political advocacy in addressing environmental issues)
  • Dennis Tongoi (International Director of CMS Africa; on the necessity for worldviews that motivate and empower communities)
  • Prof. Eric Aseka (International Leadership University, Kenya; on sustainable economics)
  • Dr. Stella Simiyu (Plant scientist for the international Convention on Biological Diversity; gave a scientific overview of the impact of environmental degradation in East and Central Africa)
  • Prof. Jesse Mugambi (Dept. of Philosophy & Religious Studies, University of Nairobi; on conflict, climate and environment)

There was a general feeling that creation care as an issue had been neglected within evangelical church teaching in the region, up until this point in time. However, a number of Bible colleges and seminaries of various denominations were represented at the conference (Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Anglican, AOG, independent etc) and delegates voiced a strong desire to develop curriculum for training theological students, church leaders and material for adult Bible Studies, as well as Sunday school groups.

Comparing creation care priorities in East and Central Africa with the concerns of Western churches and theologians revealed some significant differences and similarities. From the African perspective:

  • There seemed to be a stronger focus on how environmental protection and economic development are mutually compatible, compared to in the West where we are asked to restrict our consumption for the sake of our global neighbours, even when we don’t see the impact. This leads to different explorations of ideas of ‘suffering’ or ‘sacrifice’. See below for further reflections on this issue.
  • Climate change denial was less relevant as a problem that needed to be overcome in churches/seminaries/society. Unlike in the West, the impact of climate change seems to be too obvious to be questioned (many local examples were described by conference speakers).
  • Less evidence of concern about ‘deep ecology’ (i.e. humans on par with all creation) compared with Western ecotheology, which must carefully address this approach because it is seen to threaten Biblical human superiority over the rest of creation. There was simply more emphasis on simply affirming the role of human beings as God- appointed agents of good stewardship.
  • Dealing with witchcraft. Specifically, learning how to ‘tease out’ good creation care practices from traditional spiritualities that have often been rejected historically, in their entirety, following the adoption of Christianity.
  • The need to explore whether Africa is ‘cursed’ by God, relating to acknowledgment of the relationship between environmental degradation and poverty vs. the African capacity to overcome problems through better environmental management following the adoption of an empowering Christian worldview.
  • Corruption of leaders, which was blamed as a large part of the problem.
  • The historical proximity of dependence on the land through subsistence farming, which can mobilise current adult generations in Africa who still have relevant memories of this compared to the increasingly urbanised and disconnected new generation.
  • The importance of Christians as peace-builders in the context of increasing environmental conflict (especially important when natural resources must be shared across national boundaries that were enforced by external colonial powers, without taking into account traditional tribal boundaries that had more closely mirrored natural resource zones). This highlights the power of the global Church to provide vital opportunities for safe and loving dialogue.

Similarities between ecotheology in Africa and the West included:

  • A call to ecumenism, the need to work together across denominational boundaries because the physical nature of the problems is so large.
  • The need to re-affirm the link between spiritual and bodily practices (overcoming an entrenched theology of dualism, inherited from the Greek tradition, which encourages Christian to focus attention on abstract ‘spiritual’ matters to the neglect of discipline and holiness in everyday physical tasks).
  • This is linked to a prevalent belief that Christians shouldn’t engage in politics, but conference speakers identified the importance of church leadership in political advocacy to address creation care issues.
  • Eschatology – the importance of an understanding of the awaited re-newed heavens and re-newed earth, and consideration of what the values of the Kingdom of God look like today.
  • Many of the same key Biblical texts were used to explore ecotheology (e.g. Romans 8, Colossians 1, Genesis, the Noah story) and some of the same (Western) theologians were informing the talks e.g. N.T. Wright was cited by a number of the African scholars and Dave Bookless and Ed Brown, LCCN representatives at the conference, framed many of the issues.
  • Repentance for neglect of creation care in the past.
  • Evidence of the danger of putting the onus on humans alone to solve the environmental crisis, which happens when theologians react to the traditional position of leaving all responsibility to God e.g. last devotional speaker on Thurs morning interpreted Romans 8 as saying that creation is waiting for humans to redeem it by their own effort (rather than in partnership with Christ).

It became obvious during the conference that there are very deep theological questions stemming from the economic disparity between Africa and the West, as well as the impact this has on increasing competition for global environmental resources. This highlighted the vital role of international communication between Christians, particularly to address conflict stemming from the ‘them and us’ attitude that preserves the ‘right’ of people to consume local resources at global cost. It requires courage and sacrifice to really address these issues, but if we can do so as the global Church we will be in a position to assist the rest of the world struggling with these increasingly pertinent questions.

For example, the question came from a young Congolese man “Why should we suffer for the sake of others far away?”, in reference to limitations placed on the consumption of natural resources through protection of threatened state forests.

These forests play a vital role in absorbing global carbon emissions, but can also lead to women not being able to harvest woodfuel for cooking. From a different perspective one may consider Europeans responding to African asylum seekers and economic migrants arriving en masse in Italy, where some people ask themselves the same question

“Why should we suffer share our limited jobs and resources for the sake of others from far away?”

Climate change affects every person on the planet because natural resources must be shared on a global scale. Just as the work of Christian ecotheologians in the UK involves helping people to understand why they should ‘suffer’ (i.e. sometimes denying themselves things they take for granted) for the sake of others ‘far away’, so too must theologians and leaders in the global South explore what these issues mean in their own communities. Here we can follow the example of Christ, who suffered the most for the sake of others ‘far away’. The challenge is in the dialogue and exposure of levels of suffering. Is it a question of having the ‘rights’ to access resources or having the ‘responsibility’ of caring for and preserving them?

Towards the end of the conference it was exciting to see each national group develop goals for application of the knowledge they had gained during the week. These goals fell into three main categories: Personal, e.g. many delegates were church leaders who committed to speaking on creation care regularly in church services and leading by example with their actions; Organisational, e.g. seminary lecturers would develop courses on eco-theology and mission organisations would include creation care as part of their missional activity; and National, e.g. many planned to organise conferences at the national level to pass on what they had learned to their counterparts within their own country.

We are now considering ways that CCCW can respond to the challenges set at the conference and incorporate care for creation more consciously into our work and daily practice.

Thanks to Andrea Ebley/Care of Creation Inc. for providing these photographs.