Written by Ruth Valerio and reviewed by Susan Geddes
Ruth Valerio is an engaging and inspirational communicator, and this is a relevant and challenging book. Ruth’s whole life so far has been dedicated to her values of caring for the beautiful world God has given us and the transformation of society. (Currently she is Director of Global Advocacy and Influencing for Tear Fund.) In her blog she describes herself as “community activist, Christian, academic, eco-warrior, mum, author, veg grower, wife and pig keeper rolled into one”.
This is a reprinting, the original having first been published fifteen years ago, during which life has of course changed incredibly fast. It tackles many issues of injustice, global poverty and climate, encouraging us to see caring for God’s world as something we can do better and something we do out of love for our Lord and His creation, to live simply “so that others may simply live”.
This is an area where churches have often lagged sadly behind. It is readable, thought provoking and written for a wide audience – readers who are approaching these fundamental issues from a faith viewpoint for the first time, or those who have been engaged for a long time but are looking for new ideas or inspiration, or whose circumstances have changed.
Yet while acknowledging the challenges, this book finds good in many places and offers much hope for a more just world. (I’d definitely fall into the old-timer category, having grown up as a new Christian in the late 1980’s with the music of Larry Norman, the More-with-less cookbook and recycling German-style.)
Each chapter of the book begins with a different letter of the alphabet, so there are chapters on “A for activists”, which lays out the scriptural basis for acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly; then “B for bananas” and so on – all areas in which most of us probably need to make some adjustments. Some of those feel slightly more natural than others; the format does however make for a book which is easy to dip into and read (or reread) a chapter quickly, with a great many personal touches as Ruth shares her own journey and a few ideas (action points) at the end of each chapter to help us know where to begin.
The book also covers a lot of ground – Ruth’s knowledge of many subjects is detailed and impressive (the references were too extensive to be included but can be found on her website instead.) This can mean that some of the arguments are perhaps simplified and not quite as nuanced as they actually are – for example, in “D is for driving” there is no mention of the elements needed for electric car batteries and the problems in obtaining those responsibly. (She does mention mining in other contexts.) However, in a book which covers so many different areas, she has done an admirable job in taking huge issues and breaking them down in such a way that we can make do-able changes.
Ruth acknowledges that in the Christian life there are no easy answers, only “guidelines to follow and the Holy Spirit to prompt.” She is honest about her own journey towards a simpler lifestyle and the challenges we all face; an especially poignant example of this is found in the chapter “W is for water”, where she relates how she had taken a special holiday to India and only become aware later that there had been a drought situation in that area, while she was unwittingly taking showers. Her enthusiasm over her weekly organic vegetable delivery is contagious, even as we remember that so many of the world’s population do not have enough to eat.
There were a few issues that I had not really been aware of – for example, the environmental damage caused by sachets used for packaging small affordable quantities in poorer countries. Another less well-known aspect of the technological revolution is the environmental cost which including production and disposal as well as data, rivals that of the aviation industry (something I might have mentioned to my own children once or twice!).
I found “S is for simplicity” especially helpful with its reproduction of Foster’s ten principles of simplicity. As he writes and Ruth quotes, “Our century thirsts for the authenticity of simplicity; the spirit of prayer, and the life of obedience.” Simplicity, she says, “encourages us to focus on our relationships – with God, others, the wider creation and ourselves” and “simplicity is not about meanness and poverty, but about true abundance, about having life to the full.”
Ruth does seem to tend towards one side of the political spectrum. This does not prevent her from presenting clear, balanced arguments on, for example, the benefits and problems associated with globalisation, and need not be a problem for us in working together for change, as surely these issues should transcend politics. While some of her solutions might sound a bit idealistic, it is worth remembering that she speaks passionately and out of love and a wide range of experience.
These issues are definitely at the forefront of people’s minds and there has surely never been a better time to republish this book. While Christian charities have been working for justice for several decades, as a church we have been very slow to take up the cause, perhaps from justifiable concerns that the Gospel message become diluted, perhaps from lack of information and awareness.
This would be to misunderstand God’s plan for His creation and created people. Rather, an important part of our discipleship is to ensure we are using our blessings to bless others. As well as through our prayers, worship and Christian life, God’s kingdom is also made visible on earth through our actions. Ruth shows us that we need not feel helpless or discouraged, but that we can start somewhere. We do this, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the only thing to do.