In the lead-up to further climate protest action next week, we spoke to two theologians about peaceful civil disobedience to find out what a faithful Christian response might look like.
By Jack Wakefield | 04 Oct 2019
Extinction Rebellion – it's a provocative and now familiar title. Maybe you’ve talked about the movement, in excitement or outrage, and wondered how we respond as Christians.
Over Easter, thousands of people – including many Christians – caught coaches and trains to London to join the protests. During their two weeks of blocking roads and bridges, these activists achieved record news coverage for climate change. They got the country talking about it like never before, and just weeks later Parliament responded by declaring a ‘climate emergency’. The new momentum from Extinction Rebellion (XR), the School Climate Strikes and growing concern about the crisis have blown away the stagnant air of climate politics.
While respecting their aims, the big query for many of us is their method. XR’s argument is that traditional campaigning has failed to achieve political change at the speed required by the science. So they opt for non-violent civil disobedience to turn up the pressure on governments.
Civil disobedience in the Bible
The Very Rev Dr John Stafford Carson (Principal and Professor of Ministry at Union Theological College in Belfast) is concerned by this strategy. He says: ‘Even under the reign of a ruthless and godless emperor, Paul tells his readers in Rome to be in subjection to the government… The position the Scriptures commend is one of submission to the civil authorities and to disobey the government only if it commands evil, such that it requires a Christian to act in a manner that is contrary to the clear teachings and requirements of God’s Word. Civil disobedience should only be considered when the government’s laws or requirements are in direct violation of God’s laws and commands.’
We can find examples of peaceful civil disobedience in the Old and New Testaments. When Mordecai warned Esther that thousands of lives were at risk at the hand of the authorities, Esther decided she had to speak up, even if that included peacefully breaking the law.
She said: ‘Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish’ (Esther 4:16).
Similarly, in the New Testament, John the Baptist was imprisoned for publicly criticising Herod’s actions and Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers in the temple.
Climate change and civil disobedience
Peaceful civil disobedience has strong theological roots, and history has shown that it has achieved social change (such as the suffragettes, civil rights movement, anti-apartheid movement). The question for us to consider prayerfully, then, is whether the government's failure to act fast enough on climate change so far is in fact a violation of God’s laws and commands.
That is the conclusion of Rev Jon Swales (Leader of Lighthouse, a fresh expression of church in Leeds, and Tutor in Old Testament and Biblical Theology at St Hild College). He was motivated by his faith to join XR in Leeds in July. He says: ‘The scriptures speak of justice being at the heart of God (Isaiah 61:8) and ...as Extinction Rebellion recognise, this issue is one of justice: it is predominantly the rich, Western countries which have caused climate change, while it is the developing nations that suffer the brunt of its effects... Perhaps the time is coming, or now is here, when the Church should act. Not as cheerleaders or chaplains for the political and economic status quo, with its vested interests in the stranded assets of the fossil fuel companies. But rather as followers of the Lamb, who will join with others in raising the alarm about the ongoing climate catastrophe whilst simultaneously resisting the seductions of the consumerist lifestyle many of us see as normal.’
Dr Carson takes the climate crisis and the need for urgent action seriously too, but he adds: ‘While we still live in a democracy where arguments can be made and presented to governments, it seems inappropriate for Christians to engage in civil disobedience. Rather, Christians are commanded to pray for their leaders: “I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people — for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” (1 Timothy 2:1–2).’
Praying on the Faith Bridge
Next week, starting on Monday, activists will be back on the streets of Westminster and Christian Climate Action, a Christian group within XR, have invited churches and Christians to join them for prayer, worship and protest on Lambeth Bridge, which will be known as the ‘Faith Bridge’. As a charity, Tearfund does not engage in illegal activity but we will be joining with other Christians on the Faith Bridge to pray legally for climate justice for people living in poverty.
Tearfund is heartbroken by the climate emergency’s impact on people in poverty, and by how the crisis is accelerating. In Romans 13:10 we read ‘love does no harm to a neighbour’. But every year global emissions continue to rise and our government continues to approve plans to extract more fossil fuels. They are a long way off track to reach their new target of net-zero emissions by 2050 (and even that wouldn’t be soon enough for millions of people already facing the impacts of climate chaos). So the system we live in does do harm to our neighbours.
Let us pray
Whether or not you think now is the time for peaceful civil disobedience, we hope this blog has helped you consider the situation and the activity of Christians on the Faith Bridge. Whether you’ll be on the bridge yourself or strongly disagree with the action, we can all unite in prayer and worship:
We can worship our God, the God of justice and creator of all things, and the one who will bring restoration and renewal.
We can pray for people already suffering from the impacts of climate change, from floods in India to storms in Mozambique to droughts in Somaliland.
And we can call for faster action from governments by signing petitions and meeting MPs – and some people will think now is the time to add peaceful civil disobedience.
Header image credit: Alexander Savin
Written by Jack Wakefield
Jack works in our Tearfund Action team and feels most at home walking in the countryside, he is also a pretty big fan of ice – cream.