Responding to the Australian Bush Fire Crisis

We spent the first three days of 2020 driving to and from Canberra for a family wedding. As 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 filled our throats as we breathed, causing everyone to cough and eyes to sting.

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 filled our throats as we breathed

We had the radio tuned to the ABC for reports on the fires—heard a pollution expert explained 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 reached 5,000 at times. Canberra wasn’t only the dullest city in Australia, it now had 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 Griffin with its famous fountain but it was all invisible.

And 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. When we stopped for lunch in Wodonga, the air, and our food, tasted of ash.

I have travelled through bushfire-affected areas before. Growing up in country Victoria, I know what burnt out-bushland and smokey hills look like. But I had never experienced anything on this scale. Something like 10 million hectares of land is now scorched black—an area larger than many entires States in the USA. More than 20 people have died. 2000 homes have been destroyed. Estimates suggest 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, however, is less about sharing our recent family road trip and more to do with offering some advice. With this bushfire, it seems, 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 then, frankly, our opinion about the rest is little more than noise 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. We must understand what has happened and learn how to better manage our land.  Yet 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 away on a one-week vacation over Christmas was not one of them). I also think that the opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, has generally addressed the crises well. While I frequently disagree with the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, he too has conducted himself well and served Victorians well throughout this crisis. There have been however too many attempting to this tragedy as an opportunity 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 for 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 …

First, 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 of us have skipped the important step of mourning and weeping, and gone 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 am no expert. Some will conclude from this that I must be one of those evil climate deniers. Such is our current social climate: anything less than a wholehearted willingness to join the collective scream has become a reason for suspicion.

While I understand there are 25 million experts on climate change in Australia, I am not one of them.

But am not a climate change scientist and neither are most of us. At Mentone Baptist Church we have an actual climate change scientist, and listening to her has been far more helpful. But it seems evident that there are other factors too. Many of the fires that have started this season are reportedly the result of arson. We have had extreme drought conditions in many parts of the country and paid less attention to fuel reduction. It seems as though there are multiple factors contributing to the terrible fires burning across the country, including climate change. 

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.

5. Pray.

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. Prayer is effective. as Christians we pray to the living God who is Sovereign over all things—and to a loving and compassionate Father. We don’t pray because we understand everything that happens; we pray because God does.

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,

Amen.

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: that we worry a little less about saving the planet—a task which is beyond us—and pay more attention to our Creator. 

Again, 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, 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.

 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 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. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 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)


First published at https://murraycampbell.net/

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