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OPINION - Civil disobedience for the greater good?

Fr Martin Newell cp has been arrested for climate protests. He tells us why he believes in civil disobedience for the greater good.

Read time: 8 minutes, 9 seconds

Climate change protests have been in the news again in late 2021. Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain have been blocking roads and accused of being counter-productive, disrupting the lives of ordinary people. A number of clergy have had a high profile among the Insulate Britain protests in particular, and other members of Christian Climate Action (CCA) have been involved in these protests too. So what are the considerations for a Christian taking part in climate change and environmental protest?

The first thing to remind ourselves of is the urgency of the climate and environmental emergency, and the scale of the challenge. A number of alarming statements have been made in 2021. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said the 2021 IPCC Report is a “code red for humanity”. David Attenborough said “we are on the verge of destabilising the entire planet." Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney and Bill Gates echoed the words of the Red Cross that “global warming poses a greater threat than COVID-19.” Pope Francis said “this is the moment to act. We are on the edge”. And US Secretary of State John Kerry called COP26 in Glasgow, the “last best chance for humanity”.

Meanwhile the Church, governments, companies, individuals, families and societies were waking up to the problem, but not fast enough. The British government, for example, announced all kinds of more ambitious targets, while implementing policies that move in the other direction [NOTE 1]. The climate is changing faster than we are. Words have not been matched by action. So what are Christians to do? What should guide our discernment?

When discerning the right course of action, the life of Jesus is always a good place to start.

When discerning the right course of action, the life of Jesus is always a good place to start. Other Biblical examples can also be illuminating. First of all, Christians are called to be disciples of Jesus. A disciple is one who imitates their teacher and follows their example. In this case, it is relevant that when Jesus and John the Baptist foresaw the disaster that would be the Jewish Revolt of AD70 and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, they called the people to repentance. Jesus said “You see all these… not one stone will be left upon another” (Matthew 24:2) And John the Baptist challenged the leaders of his day “Who warned you to flee the retribution that is coming?” ( Matthew 3:7 ). In the Old Testament Book of Jonah, the prophet Jonah reluctantly risked his life to call the people of the great city of Nineveh to repentance, saying “only forty days more and Nineveh is going to be destroyed” (Jonah 3:4).

Today's context and our scriptures call on Christians to reflect on how God is calling the people to repentance today. How might we co-operate with God and allow God to work through us, to turn our people away from the path of disaster and ecological suicide that we are on? How can Christians act so that the human family changes course to avoid the destruction that is coming, where it is possible that “not one stone will be left upon another”? How are we to call the people to repentance, to make the right choices so “that we might live” (Deuteronomy 30:15 - 20)?

The teaching of our churches is also an important factor in our decision making as Christians, although it might be more important in some traditions than others. In this context, it is worth noting that in the words of Pope Paul VI “modern people listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they do listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses” [NOTE 2]. Actions speak louder than words.

Church teaching and the teaching and example of Jesus are also important in deciding what is an appropriate form of protest. For example, nonviolent action and civil disobedience. In relation to this, recent church teachings have been emphasising the place of nonviolent action in Christian life. For example, in Pope Francis' World Peace Day letter, “Non-Violence, a Style of Politics for Peace” [NOTE 3]. More important for many is that Jesus in his life and ministry taught and practiced nonviolent action. This is not something passive, and is often disruptive. An example is Jesus turning over the tables of the bankers and the traders in the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15 – 19, Luke 19:45 – 46, John 2:13 – 25). When he did this, he disrupted the worship of God, the most vital activity for a faithful Jew. The Temple was also an important economic hub of central importance for the country [NOTE 4]. Jesus' action was what today we call “civil disobedience”. He was breaking the laws of his day and challenging the Temple system at its heart. That is why three of the four Gospels show this action leading directly to His arrest. Jesus also taught non-violence in the Sermon on the Mount. For example when He said “if they take your coat, give them your cloak as well” ( Matthew 5:40 and Luke 6:29) some argue that he was advocating that the oppressed engage in naked protest in court [NOTE 5].

So what might non-violent prophetic action look like in relation to climate change? All the 'normal' methods have been tried, and many forms of civil disobedience and direct action too. Some positive changes have been made but we are still racing towards the retribution of the Earth that is coming. This is the view that led some Christians to take part in Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Insulate Britain [NOTE 6], both of which have been controversial. Some say it is wrong to disrupt the lives of ordinary people, others that it is counter-productive and dangerous, putting lives at risk. Whatever you think of Extinction Rebellion, it is undeniable that their protests raised awareness of the urgency of the threat and need for action on climate change.

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Christianity OPINION - Civil disobedience for the greater good?

Those who took part in XR or Insulate Britain protests respond to these charges in a number of ways. One is that Jesus disrupted the lives of ordinary people in cleansing the Temple. Another is that the economy, the human family, needs to be disrupted. We cannot go on killing ourselves, each other and God’s creation. Radical conversion always brings with it disruption of the way-things-are. And the way things are is already disrupting the lives of millions of people around the world every day. For example some of the poorest countries are already being affected by extreme weather, others are low lying and suffering greater flooding due to rising sea levels.

There is always the risk, for example, of being counter-productive, or of delaying emergency vehicles. Such risks have to be considered. A response is that there is risk in everything in life. It is impossible to live without it. Risk assessment professionals weigh up risk of any given activity, compared with the positive good of the action taken and do what they can to minimise those risks. XR, CCA and Insulate Britain say that this is what they do, for example, always allowing emergency vehicles through.

Some of the poorest countries are already being affected by extreme weather, others are low lying and suffering greater flooding due to rising sea levels.

Christians have to weigh up the risk of acting in these ways, with the risks of not acting. There are as many sins of omission as of commission, but they are usually not as obvious. While there may be some risk to protestors and others, the risk of the loss of millions if not billions of lives due to the climate emergency far outweighs that risk by many orders of magnitude. And no movement has never been able to create significant change without at least some members being willing to take significant risks, especially with their own safety. American civil rights protestors were beaten up on marches, and shot at, even killed, for example [NOTE 7].

Some people say that the protestors should use other means. It is a principle of non-violence to seek first to use 'ordinary' and lawful means, and only once these have been tried and not achieved the desired aim, to move on to protest, direct action and civil disobedience. Christians in XR and Insulate Britain, for example, have said that every other means has been tried, and that for a movement to be successful it needs to try every morally legitimate tactic.

So, to conclude, there are a wide variety of factors for Christians to consider when deciding how to work for an environmentally sustainable future, and whether there is a place for a particular form of protest in Christian discipleship. But it is clear to many that, in the right time and the right place, such tactics and practices are a legitimate part of the following of Jesus that at least some are called to. And that therefore it should be considered as an option, and not simply ruled out.

NOTES

1 – See “Climate Change Sheet” for example: www.martinnewellcp.wordpress.com/2021/10/15/climate-and-environmental-emergency-actions-not-words-needed

2 – See Evangelii Nuntiandi, number 41.

3 - See www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/pope-has-already-taught-nonviolence-lets-put-it-encyclical

4 - For example, see “The 'enigma of Jesus' temple intervention” which refers to “ the political and economic interests which coalesced in the Jerusalem Temple”: www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222015000200038.

5 – See Walter Wink “Jesus and Non-Violence: A Third Way” and other books by Walter Wink.

6 – See www.christianclimateaction.org, for example.

7 - For example, May 7th 1965 “Civil rights protestors beaten in bloody Sunday attack” : www.history.com/this-day-in-history/bloody-sunday-civil-rights-protesters-beaten-selma and the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr.