We spent the first three days of 2020 driving to and from Canberra, for a family wedding. Once we drove across the border from Victoria into NSW, visibility on the road slowly deteriorated as the air became more dense with smoke. By the time we reached Canberra, we could see less than 100m in front. Getting out of the car, the smoke clung to our clothes and flushed into our throats as we breathed, causing everyone to cough and eyes to sting.
We had the radio tuned to the ABC for reports on the fires. As we drove into Canberra we listened to a pollution expert explain that air quality index readings above 200 are considered hazardous to health. That day in Canberra (as it was for most days in recent weeks), the readings spilled over 2,000, and even reaching 5,000 during parts of the day. Canberra wasn’t only the dullest city in Australia, it now has the worse air quality of any city in the world.
Our hotel was situated just around the corner from Parliament House. The flag and spire on top of the building that usually dominates the area, couldn’t be seen due to the blanketing haze. We drove across Lake Burley Griffen with its famous fountain but all was invisible to us.
Picture this, the situation around the country worsened over the week. Returning home to Melbourne on the Thursday, we drove south along the Hume Highway. For the entire 700km journey smoke covered the roads and the paddocks and hills on either side. 700km of smoke from bushfires. As we approached Albury/ Wodonga the smoke thickened, and at times visibility on the road was less than 200m. We stopped for lunch in Wodonga, where the smoke was heaviest. Our food had little taste for the smoke covered everything. The air tasted of ash, and its’ heaviness found a home in our throats and noses.
I have passed through bushfire areas before. Growing up in country Victoria, I’ve experienced burnt out bushland and smoke lingering around the hills, but never anything so thick and covering an area of such staggering size. Something like 10 million hectares of land is now scorched black. That’s an area larger than many entires States in the USA. More than 20 people have died, 2000 homes destroyed, and it is said that half a billion animals have been killed.
Cooler and wetter conditions mean that most of the fires are now either under control and at least temporarily dampened until the weather changes once again. We can be thankful for this temporary reprieve.
The reason for writing this post less about sharing our recent family road trip and more about offering some advice. Unlike most bushfires in Australian history, this time everyone has an opinion. Some of the suggestions are helpful while others should be avoided.
I want to offer 6 responses that Christians can make following these weeks of fire (and in preparation for the rest of the fire season which we mustn’t forget has another two months to go). I want to begin where I think the Bible encourages us to begin
1. Weep with those who are weeping and mourn with those who are mourning.
“mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15)
If we cannot start here and empathise with those who have lost much, frankly our opinion about the rest is little more than a noisy gong being played out of rhythm. Fast-forwarding to politicking and virtual signalling is uncouth and uncaring.
2. Avoid the heated and at times disgusting politicisation of these events.
In one sense it is impossible to separate the fires from politics altogether. Of course, understanding what has happened and learning how to better manage the future matters enormously. However, over the last month, we have seen some of the grossest grandstanding and vilest commentary that I have witnessed in Australian political history.
No, I am not referring to the Prime Minister here. I recognise Scott Morrison has made errors of judgement in his initial responses (in my opinion, taking his family on a one week vacation over Christmas is not one of them). I also think that the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, has overall addressed the crisis well. While I frequently disagree with the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, he has conducted himself well and served Victorians well throughout this crisis. There have been however too many loud and loquacious voices using this tragedy for political point-scoring.
In such dangerous and exhausting circumstances as the nation has witnessed, there is naturally going to be anger and frustration, especially by those who are closest to the fires. But much social media and media responses have only served to fuel anger and encourage outrage in an irresponsible way, and often by people who know little about the subject matter. My plea is, don’t dump more petrol on the crisis.
Think before you tweet. Check before you share articles. Ask, is this righteous anger or are you justifying your disapproval of political opponents?
3. Don’t claim to be an expert when we are not
I have been asked to write some thoughts on the bushfire emergency. Until now I declined. Let me share why. There are two reasons why I have hesitated in writing anything on the fires. The first reason is that when someone’s house is on fire you don’t stop to argue about how the fire started, you go in and help them. There is a time to critique and analyse, and there is a time to get on with the job of helping out. As I suggested under point 1, many Aussies who have a megaphone in hand have skipped the important step of mourning and weeping, and instead jumped straight to blaming and shaming. Second, while I understand there are 25 million experts on climate change in Australia, I am not one of them. I can offer a point of view about fires and climate change, but I no more an expert than most of my 25 million fellow Australians. The problem is of course, that by even admitting such, there will some critics who assume I must be one of those evil climate deniers. Anything other than shrilling at the top of my lungs has become reason to cast suspicion on a person.
So what do I think? I accept that the globe is warming and that human beings have contributed to this problem. I am not a climate change scientist and neither are most of us. One cool fact though is that at Mentone Baptist Church we have an actual climate change scientist, and conversing with her is more than helpful. In addition to accepting the science on Climate Change, I also accept reporting that has revealed many of the fires that have started this season are the result of human agency; arsonists. Extreme drought conditions in many parts of the country and years of ignoring Indigenous practice of fuel reduction burning are also a combustible combination. It seems as though there are multiple factors contributing to the terrible fires burning across the country, including climate change. Indeed, it only makes sense that climate change will produce more volatile conditions (i.e. droughts and heat) leading to bushfires. It is vital that experts once again meet and provide workable and important solutions for future seasons (which include pathways to introducing more renewable energies). Believing in responsible policies and avoiding extreme rhetoric does not amount to Climate Change denial. These are my 2 cents worth of comments, spoken as an Aussie novice in this area.
4. Donate without playing to the crowds.
When donating to any of the organisations collecting for fire relief, don’t grandstand. It’s helpful to promote organisations who are doing good work but we don’t need to know how generous you are personally.
Prayer isn’t useless. There are Aussies fighting the fires and who have escaped the fires who’ve been praying and they stand by prayer. Pray is effective for those who pray to a living God who is Sovereign over all things. Christians pray to a loving Father, who is the creator of all things and who is compassionate. We don’t pray because we understand everything that happens, we pray because we trust God who sees all things.
Pray for those fighting the fires. Pray for the communities who are facing fire. Pray for rain. Pray for our Government and political representatives that they will make wise decisions both in their immediate responses and for planning for the long term future. Here is a suggested prayer written by Glenn Davies, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney:
“Our heavenly Father, creator of all things and especially the creator of this land and its original peoples, we call out to you in these desperate times as fires have swept across several parts of our country.
Our hearts cry out to you for those who have lost loved ones, and those who have lost properties in the wake of these ravaging fires
Father we pray, in your mercy, restrain the forces of nature from creating catastrophic damage; in your mercy protect human life.
Guard those volunteers, rural fire service personnel and emergency services who selflessly step into the breach to fight these fires. Guide police and authorities who help evacuate and shelter those who are displaced. Bring comfort and healing to all who suffer loss.
Remembering your promises of old that seedtime and harvest will never cease, we pray that you would open the heavens to send refreshing rain upon our parched land.
In your mercy, we pray for drenching rain.
We pray that despite the forecasts, in your miraculous power you would bring forth rain to quench these fires and to bring life back into the earth, so that crops may grow and farmers may bring forth the harvest of the land again.
We bring these requests before your throne, in the name of your Son, who died and rose again for our deliverance,
6. Put your hope in God
Before Christmas, I wrote an article about hope, because I am increasingly hearing and seeing a young generation express hopelessness and despair. There are many reasons why millennials are sensing a world without hope, and chief among them is the issue of Climate Change. In that piece, I suggested something that amounts to blasphemy according to some, but it is true and needs saying:
“Climate change isn’t the existential threat facing the planet and humanity. It is a symptom of an ancient problem that we have afforded to ignore for far too long. If there is no God, why should we ultimately concern ourselves with altruism? Why bother with protecting the environment for future generations if purpose is found in the individual and defined by personal satisfaction? The fact that we understand that there are moral boundaries and that the future does matter, is not an argument against Divine purpose but the only rational explanation for having such concerns. How we behave toward one another and how we use the planet is important because this isn’t a meaningless existence.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
There has been a cosmological battle taking place for millennia, and it is ultimately against the Creator, not the creation. The ancient mandate to care for the world remains, but the growing call to save and redeem the world is not one within our purview. Those who believe we can save the planet have far too high regard for human capability and moral will. I’m not saying, don’t bother reducing carbon omissions and forget about investing in renewable energy; far from it. The house I live in won’t stand forever but it doesn’t mean I neglect the building. I neither wreck the house nor place all my energy and hopes in the house. I’m just pointing out the fact that people putting their ultimate hope in other people will always disappoint in the end. The role of global saviour is too big a job. You see, I don’t believe things are as bad as we suggest they are; despite even the good around us the reality is far more perilous.”
The Bible tells us that the world in which we live, with all its beauty and wonder, is also a dangerous place. It is cursed and corrupted and corroding like those old fashioned corrugated iron roofs that mark the Australian landscape. The hope for creation lies not in our management skills and commitments, but in the Gospel alone. When Christians forget this, we place too great a burden on our children to fix that which we cannot, and we may slide into preaching a Gospel to Australia which is no Gospel at all.
“19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:19-25)
We can’t survive without hope. Hope in the world or hope in humanity is an age-long route to despair. Human responsibility is noble and right, but the hope of the world cannot rest on the shoulders of any given generation.
“And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5)