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Why Vanessa Nakate’s Christian Environmentalism should be taken seriously

At the age of 22, Vanessa Nakate stood in front of the Ugandan Parliament building alone with a cardboard sign. Green love Green peace and Climate Strike Now were among the slogans written on it as she carried out her single-person protest for five months.

It was a small start for someone who has become one of the most recognized African voices from Gen Z toward climate action. Since that point, she has amassed a social media following of over 300,000 people, written a book, and been named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

Last month, the now-27-year-old shared an image of herself with her hundreds of thousands of followers, again raising her signature cardboard sign. This time, the message read, What does Jesus Christ have to do with the environment? Everything.

Aligning her Christian faith with her climate activism is nothing new for Nakate. She has long described herself as a born again Christian Environmentalist, and has addressed her faith in her book, A Bigger Picture. She has also shared passages of Scripture on her social platforms, however this most recent post seemed to gain more backlash than most.

“Unfollowing you,” replied one commenter. “Your religion belongs to your private sphere and not in the public sphere.”

“Historically, people who preach a religion and try to get other followers are not thinking about the environment,” pointed out another.

Many of those who were critical of Nakate expressed that they wished she’d keep her Christian beliefs separate from her work as a climate activist. However, this kind of compartmentalizing simply doesn’t work for her. Nakate’s climate activism is a direct result of practicing her faith. “Climate activism, for me, is more than a passion; it’s a duty, it’s a responsibility,” she says. “Its divine purpose is to reveal the love and heart of God to people. God loves you and I, and he wants a safe and clean home for all of us.”

Nakate’s activism seems to surprise people used to seeing environmental concern and faith on opposite ends of the social spectrum. There is a tendency, particularly in the United States, for religious individuals to be far less concerned with the environment than their secular counterparts. According to the Pew Research Center, climate change does not seem to be a topic discussed much in religious congregations, and few Americans view efforts to conserve energy and limit emissions as moral issues.

Because of this, many environmentally concerned nonbelievers may have skepticism or distrust toward religious language being applied to climate activism. However, it should not be easily dismissed.

A faith-based approach to environmentalism, like Vanessa Nakate’s Christian activism, should be widely embraced by anyone concerned with a healthy planet. It represents the global majority, provides a greater motivation for sustainable changes, and invites others to consider their role in caring for the planet.

It also represents a steadily increasing willingness in faith communities to engage environmental concerns. A study in France recently found that 81-82% of Christians would like to do more in the face of environmental degradation and climate change.

Plant With Purpose partners with churches around the planet

Vanessa Nakate’s spiritual and cultural background represents the global majority

Those who believe that faith should be kept separate from environmental action should consider the simple fact that about 85% of the world is religious. Christianity represents the largest group, comprising about a third of the world’s population, followed by Islam at a quarter.

Our planet needs a major shift away from extractive practices toward more sustainable policies and mindsets. In order for this to happen, the environment must become a stronger priority among a growing number of people.

As a Ugandan activist, Nakate’s voice is more representative of global Christianity than what is typically portrayed in Western media. As of 2020, two-thirds of Christians live in the Global South, with Africa and Asia being the regions where Christianity is growing the quickest. By 2050, it's estimated that Africa, Asia, and Latin America will represent 76% of Christianity.

“It was fascinating to uncover a recent study concluding that while people of Abrahamic faiths may be less environmentally concerned overall, Black and Hispanic Christians are more concerned about climate change than both white Christians and secular people,” writes Leah Penniman in Black Earth Wisdom

“The Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity get a bad rap when it comes to environmental ethics and practice. I have worked to reconcile this troubled ecological report card with my own experience of faith … though we may not be the statistical majority, I am not alone in my understanding of Abrahamic faiths driving an environmental imperative.”

Faith remains one of the strongest influences on our behavior

Faith-based environmental activism is also imperative because of how strongly our spiritual beliefs influence our lives and behaviors. A person’s sense of identity is often the best predictor of how they will act, behave, or vote, and religion is a large dimension of identity. Around the world, people’s faiths have an impact on their daily routines, their diets, and their financial choices. These behaviors undoubtedly also have an impact on the environment.

Those who advocate for believers’ environmental advocacy to be divorced from their faith overlook the importance of not just having a what but a why. A deeper sense of purpose can provide resilience in times of hardship and resolve throughout setbacks and obstacles. One spiritual perspective looks at sustainability as more than a change in behaviors but a restoration of relationships.

Pope Francis writes in his 2015 encyclical, “If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters unable to set limits on their limited needs.” In 2013 in Evangeli Gaudium, he stated that, “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.”

While the majority of broad-level statistics suggest a negative relationship between religious affiliation and environmental concern, results shift when looked at more closely. According to the Pew Research Center, among Americans that are highly committed to their spiritual life– attending more services and praying regularly, 92% are likely to agree that God gave humans a sacred duty to protect the Earth. Among those with a low commitment, only 24% agreed.

Faith can turn our abstract beliefs into action

As James 2:14 puts it, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?”

The example of a Christian climate activist like Vanessa Nakate can help enable other believers to see a pathway for turning their beliefs into action.

Not all of Nakate’s social media responses were negative. Some were like a user who explained, “I love God but I also want to help the world to solve social issues. And I know fighting for the rights of people is my calling, and I was having issues blending my faith and work together. I asked God to reveal to me people that are doing this social justice work in their own respect and are Christians … and miraculously you posted that post on what does Jesus Christ have to do with the environment.”

“You have inspired so many people,” replied another. “Whether it's about your faith or your environmental campaigns. I am Christian and to see Christians like yourself do what you have been doing is truly amazing.”

While the position of a Christian climate activist may often feel like a solitary space, there are many who have made this connection. George Washington Carver once said, “I love to think of nature as unlimited broadcasting stations, through which God speaks to us every day, every hour and every moment of our lives, if we will only tune in and remain so.”

Atmospheric scientist and Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy, Katharine Hayhoe, says “My faith tells me that God does want people to understand climate change and to do something about it.”

The National Black Church Initiative representing over 15 million Black Christians has been working to stop global warming for over twenty years.

Plant With Purpose, a Christian environmental organization, has planted almost 63 million trees toward restoring watersheds in nine countries by approaching land restoration projects through a lens of spiritual renewal. As Pierre Francisque, a member of our Haiti program explains, “God gave me nature to live in, so I must manage and use it well.”

About the Author

Philippe shares the stories of people living at the forefront of the climate crisis, who are working to transform their ecosystems and communities. He loves emphasizing the human experience, and keeping conversations about the environment centered on the communities most affected by it. Philippe has led storytelling trips to Mexico, Thailand, Colombia, Tanzania, South Africa, Haiti, and a number of other countries. He has previously served in similar roles at Liberty in North Korea and Mobility International.

Philippe obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Communications, as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Global Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He furthered his studies by earning a Master of Arts in International Studies as well as a Master of Arts in Nonprofit Management at University of Oregon. Philippe is also an illustrator, podcaster, and digital artist. Outside of work, Philippe loves spending time with his wife and their three kids.

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