Lent breakfasts session 5 - Passion Sunday, 29 March 2020
Iconic Images from the past two decades : Greta Thunberg – Unlikely Prophet of Climate Crisis
By Gill Persicke
There’s an image which, although it started circulating in autumn 2018, still sticks in my mind’s eye – (see image here) - a simple image of a teenage girl sitting on a pavement. She looks pretty normal, with her jogging pants and her trainers and her battered purple rucksack; but next to her, propped up against the wall, is the tell-tale sign, neat, legible, but clearly homemade: “Skolstrejk fӧr Klimatet”. This is Greta Thunberg, and that sign is propped up against the wall of the Swedish parliament. And you probably know the rest: how her solitary “school strike” has inspired people (both young and older) around the world to take climate crisis seriously, to believe that we can do something about it, to challenge the politics and power structures and entrenched thinking which are destroying the health of our planet.
How on earth has this come about? It seems incredible, but the teenager from the pavement has now addressed the United Nations; she has the ear of presidents and celebrities alike; she has twice been nominated for the Nobel peace prize; she attracts vast enthusiastic crowds wherever she goes (as well as attracting, of course, both measured criticism and the most vindictive internet bile). How has this extraordinary fame and influence come about? Well, I think it has something to do with Greta being such a very UNLIKELY kind of prophet.
Likely and unlikely prophets
Greta wasn’t the first person, of course, to cry out against what humanity is doing to this planet – people have been at it for decades, many of those people more influential, more mature and better informed than Greta was when she first started. Let’s take a single example: the American politician and environmentalist, Al Gore. He was the Democratic Vice-President of the US from 1993 t0 2001; he’s founder of the Climate Reality Project; he’s been a tireless, articulate and impassioned campaigner, and yes, he HAS (jointly) won the Nobel Peace Prize for his climate activism. But, in spite of the considerable impact Al Gore has made, it was Greta, not Al, who broke through the invisible barrier; it is SHE who has managed to bring climate crisis to popular attention, and galvanise ordinary people into extraordinary action. Perhaps she was lucky, perhaps the timing was just perfect, the fruit ripe for picking; but there’s something else here as well . . .
Al Gore is what we might call one of “the usual suspects”. He’s a man, for starters, and a powerful man, influential, highly-educated, white, mature in years and experience. In some ways, his political profile perhaps counts against him – because those who are opposed to his Democratic Party policies may, as a matter of course, be inclined also to oppose pretty much any cause which he espouses. But actually, it is all too easy for all of us (whatever our political convictions may be) to EXPECT certain messages from certain types of people, so that those messages inevitably lose freshness and urgency. Not the fault of the messenger, for sure – it’s just the way the world works.
The great Biblical messengers we know as the prophets were very often not “the usual suspects”. The prophet Amos felt himself to be an unlikely candidate for the job, to the extent of resisting his
very vocation. “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son” he says, “but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees”. Greta is saying something similar, I think, when she cries, again and again, “I shouldn’t be here, having to do this; I should be at school, being an ordinary schoolgirl”. And there is Biblical precedence for her youth as well – how about this passage from the book of the prophet Jeremiah (chapter 1, verses 4-10)?
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’
Although Greta herself expresses no religious motivation for her work, she does look, to my eyes, like a girl whom God has chosen, consecrated even, as God’s spokesperson. A young girl in a floppy pink tunic with a plait over her shoulder isn’t the person we normally expect to see addressing the UN – but there we heard her holding the nations and kingdoms of this world to account, crying out about what needs to be plucked up and destroyed, what needs to be built and planted. She is saying something which humanity can hardly bear to hear, so shocking and challenging is her message – and many people hate her for it. But hey, prophets never were in the business of being liked – truth, not popularity, is their domain.
So where’s the Coronavirus Connection in all this?
The need for us to attend to Greta’s voice has absolutely not gone away, even in the thick of COVID-19; and as we work to rebuild things after the pandemic, environmental considerations will need to be right up there on our list of priorities. But right now, in the thick of the pandemic, we need to remember something else as well; that God also speaks through a DIFFERENT kind of prophetic voice, a voice rich in comfort, reassurance and hope in times of suffering (Isaiah 43.1-2):
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
I’ve been aware of so many voices bombarding me recently: voices on radio and telly and social media; voices of family and friends and neighbours (at a safe distance, of course!); a surprising variety of voices even inside my own head. Some of these voices are frightened and negative; they may even be relishing the opportunity to be alarmist, divisive and pointlessly critical. But other voices sound authentically God-inspired to me – they are the warm-hearted ones, the voices of
comfort and occasional flashes of wit and humour, the voices which dare even to speak of hope – right now! So to end this reflection, I’m going to offer you not some questions to think about and a prayer, but one single thing instead – a little spiritual exercise for you to do. Here goes:
Spend a little time attending to the voices you hear today –
The public voices on telly and radio and social media
The voices of people you know – the people in your house right now, or any people who may telephone or email you
The different voices which may be vying for attention inside your own head.
Know that you are not at the mercy of these voices – you can CHOOSE which ones to attend to, and which ones to turn away from, gently but resolutely.
So attend and discern – look out for the authentic voice of God in everything you hear today, and trust that voice above all others. And be prepared to be surprised – God may speak to you today not via the “usual suspects” but through someone (or something) absolutely “Greta-like” in her/its unexpectedness.
God will never fail us – God will never stop speaking to us and guiding us through. So, listen out for the UNLIKELY VOICE OF GOD today.
If we had been in group discussion at our Lent Breakfast, you might have contributed your thoughts. If you have thoughts or ideas on this session, please let me, Gill Persicke, know and I will put together some feedback on the session.