Towards Assembly 2024: Pacific Regional Pre-Assembly names climate change, ecological justice as top concerns

by Cheon Young Cheol

The ten member churches of the Council for World Mission’s (CWM) Pacific region held their Regional Pre-Assembly from 29 February to 2 March in Nadi, Fiji, part of a series of regional meetings ahead of the CWM Assembly in June.

In his greeting to the Pacific delegates, CWM General Secretary Rev. Dr Jooseop Keum outlined the troubling scenario of a Pacific that has its waters, homes, and ways of living gradually encroached by empire through colonisation, marginalisation, oppression, and environmental disregard that have resulted social injustices and ecological crises. The silver lining, however, is that Christians know that those do not have the last word.

“The whole world is yearning for Christian love and a new hope, and I believe that hope in Jesus Christ can save the troubled world today,” surmised Keum.

Ecological injustice and climate change

Rev. James Bhagwan, General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, gave the opening keynote address.

He identified the current drive of the Pacific churches in being more “just in their approaches, ensuring that God’s household in the Pacific receives justice through sufficient employment, responsible leadership, and efficient use of resources.”

He also commended the churches’ efforts in attempting to reduce the financial burden on members by converting precious island land to projects which benefit the people.

Yet despite the best efforts of the Pacific churches, Bhagwan nevertheless highlighted the concerning reality that empire still has its claws dug deep into the region.

“Our communities have been turned into marketplaces [by] colonizing legions which prevent the transformation of our people into their authentic selves in Christ,” condemned Bhagwan.  “The Australian, UK, US, or the AUKUS Pact… ignores the burden of responsibility for the impacts of their nuclear testing legacy; ignores the need to mitigate the causes of climate change; ignores the impact of labour mobility schemes on families, communities, and national development while at the same time targeting our forests and oceans for corporate capture disguised by green and blue language.”

He also revealed the various life-denying machinations by the global north that seek to stymie decolonisation efforts in the Pacific by using regional security and climate crises as pretexts to continue to put certain Pacific nations under their thrall.

Bhagwan’s critical take on the callousness displayed by the powers of empire went on to undergird many of the messages that would be shared during the pre-assembly related to climate injustice inflicted on the Pacific region, as well as how rampant climate change constitutes a growing existential threat to various island nations.

Unwilling eco-victims of empire

Echoing Bhagwan’s earlier points on ecological injustice was Pastor Hinatea Marotau of the Protestant Maohi Church.

She directed the attention of the delegates to nuclear testing by the French for three decades from 1966 to 1996 in the waters of Maohi Nui—testing which still has adverse effects on the ecosystem to this day.

In fact, the West continues to use the Pacific to test its nuclear capabilities, as exemplified in the Marshall Islands, this time by the US.

Adding to the woes of the region was the recent decision by Japan to dump radioactive waste from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the waters of the Pacific.

This was an acrimonious move as the Pacific nations view Moana Nui a Hiva (the Pacific Ocean) as not just part of their living space, but also a sprawling territory that defines their identity, culture, spiritualities, and history – all of which continue to fall prey to the cruelty of Western colonialism and capitalism.

Labelling the urgency to mitigate the terrifying effects of climate change on the Pacific communities as a global concern was Dr Maina Talia, a Tuvaluan politician and climate activist.

Referencing the parable of the Good Samaritan, he revealed a twist to how the parable could be unpacked. While the priests who hurried past the hurt man on the road to Jerusalem were concerned about their religiosities, the Samaritan, a historical enemy of the Jews, placed the dying man’s need above his own by asking the more important question: what would happen to the man if I do not help him? Jesus’ message, Talia said, is to go beyond the confines of religion so that life can flourish in a way that aligns with God’s vision.

“Similarly, if I do not stop to help Tuvalu and other low-lying areas, what will happen to them?” challenged Talia, who stressed the importance of not allowing ethnic prejudices and rivalries to blind us to ethical duties.

In recent decades, locations such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands are threatened by the prospect of disappearing under the ocean due to rising sea levels. Many on Tuvalu have even migrated to nearby countries, signalling the possibility that Tuvaluans may be the world’s first climate refugees.

Talia expressed disappointment that the ongoing international debate on the fate of the Pacific islands was not on the lives of its people, but on the preservation of economic gain and benefits.

He accused the world’s capitalistic system of continually exploiting the Pacific’s natural resources, keeping their peoples poor and the islands underdeveloped to siphon wealth to the world’s elite minorities.

He decried the never-ending pursuit of capitalistic gain, GDP, and the promotion of the self as the roots of evil that have strangled—and continues to strangle—the Pacific and exacerbate climate change, a phenomena that no other people on Earth would feel more keenly than those from the Pacific islands.

“The church must be seen as an institution that provides hope and support to victims of the global economic system,” urged Talia, who cautioned the audience to not be like the environmental activists who call for all kinds of ecological reforms but stop shy of condemning wanton capitalism: all bluster but no teeth.

Going back to the actions of the Samaritan who was fully cognizant of the fact that he might be excommunicated by his community for helping a Jew, yet still did it anyway, Talia drove home his message that while actionable love reflective of God involves costly decisions, yet it is a love that the world needs the most now, when it comes to saving the Pacific.

“Do not be like the Levite priests whose neutrality to the man’s sufferings only serves to uphold the status quo. Until there is a radical reorganisation of the world’s economic system that continues to rob and rape Mother Earth, we will not find the answers to the prevailing questions created by climate change.”

Rebuilding of Life-Flourishing Communities is God’s calling

Closing the three-day pre-assembly, Keum shared with the delegates: “Communal life is the life that is revealed by God who Himself lives in perfect unity with the Holy Spirit and Jesus.” He went on to also remind the delegates that the idea of a flourishing community must also include the rest of creation, an area that is often overlooked in mission.

“Rebuilding communities is the heart of the Christian mission—and not just global communities but local ones that will mutually support each other and, in the context of the Pacific, allow all lives to flourish.”

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