| Dr. Tioti Timon is Principal of Tagintebu Theological College in Kiribati. He has written on topics including the relevance of a coconut tree theology for confronting the impacts of climate change in Kiribati and the significance of this theology for reforming theological education in Kiribati.
Stephen: What is the climate situation facing Kiribati?
Tioti: The climate situation in Kiribati is experienced in rising sea levels that lead to environmental erosion, which results in reduction of land area. Because of this, the islands’ economy and agriculture and even the vitality of the culture as a whole are all affected. This also leads to the fear that the island may sink in the future, resulting in environmental refugees. The islands are long (the capital island Tarawa is about 90 kilometers) but narrow; most of the islands are 15 meters wide. So the fresh water sources that people rely on for their drinking water are also affected.
Stephen: What is the religious situation of Kiribati?
Tioti: In the context of climate change, ecological concern is not part of church discussion, ecological pollution and destruction is also not part of people’s concern and care. People don’t know that ecological pollution is a sin. They complain about the negative impacts of climate change to their islands but don’t understand that what they do are also contributing factors to global warming and climate change. Thus, the theological college is called to transform its curriculum to teach eco-theology to enlighten the people biblically concerning their responsibility as stewards for God’s creation.
Stephen: Your work addresses the theme of a “coconut theology.” How does the coconut tree relate to Kiribati theology?
Tioti: The coconut tree is the main tree that the Kiribati people rely upon for their daily living as it provides a wide range of needs in many areas in the life of an I-Kiribati. The Kiribati people see the coconut tree as a tree of life because it provides food and drink, thatching for roofing, and timber for homes. It also provides local medicine and traditional dress, oil for the body, and at the same time it is the main source of income of the people. It is the main source for the well-being of an I-Kiribati. Coconut theology as eco-missional challenges our theological college to teach pastors about the eco-presence of God among the people—the Christ who has lived in the context and culture of oppression and injustice.
Stephen: What are some ways that the churches in Kiribati have not been able to respond adequately to climate change?
Tioti: When sea levels rise, they still hold on to the Noahic Covenant that God would not forget God’s promise to never destroy humankind again. Their faith has given them a false perspective that miraculous salvation is derived from external sources rather than looking within their God-given potential to make a difference where they are. However, this is a strong faith that needs to be nurtured through the pastoral training of ministers at the theological college.
Stephen: How is theological education a part of the response to the climate crisis in Kiribati?
Tioti: Our theological institution is challenged to implement and review its curriculum to address the current situation and the changing context of the church and society at large. This curriculum has been reviewed to respond to the current situation of the people, and in the last semester of 2021, a course on eco-theology and theology of disaster resilience was offered to Bachelor of Theology students. In the course students were introduced to culture and indigenous peoples who have lived for generations with their traditional ecological knowledge that connects them with their environment, enabling them to monitor, observe, and manage environmental change.
Stephen: What theological message should people in other regions of the world be hearing from people in Kiribati?
Tioti: We are brothers and sisters of all creation in the household of God, and we must live with brotherly and sisterly love and consider the suffering of the vulnerable from the impacts of climate injustice.
Tioti Timon is principal of Tagintebu Theological College.
Managing editor Stephen Waldron is a Ph.D. student at Boston University School of Theology.