On Monday 25th January the 13 members of Plane Stupid who blockaded Heathrow Airport on the 13th of July 2015 were found guilty in Willesden Magistrates court. They return to court on February 24th for sentencing. The magistrate stated that she intended to deliver a custodial sentence, the maximum permissible period being 90 days.
In her summing up, the magistrate praised the 13 for their integrity, character and intentions and did not dispute that emissions from aviation would exacerbate climate change. Presently, Heathrow is the UK’s second largest source of CO2 emissions after DRAX power station. David Cameron’s 2010 pre-election assurance of ‘no ifs, no buts, no new runway’ is now undone and the UK is back in line with global trends to increase aviation emissions to account for 22% of world greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is in no way consistent with the UK’s legal obligations under the Climate Change Act. Rather, it is entirely consistent with a planet inhospitable to living things.
The magistrate then went on to point out that the disruption caused to the thousands of travellers and the cost to the airport was so significant that she would have to punish them severely. This came as a surprise to many as no climate campaigner has ever been given a custodial sentence in the UK*.
The unprecedented nature of this sentence is noteworthy enough for those of us who personally engage with the issues of climate change. In addition, I feel this is very interesting from the point of view of the Christian observer and potential participant in such actions.
It is tempting to consider this court case and the action that led to it to be a matter of 13 individuals causing inconvenience to thousands and expense to a legitimate corporate entity. This notion that our lives are a matter of individuals exchanging discrete rational interactions is problematic. It is also the product of the fragile ego catered for by capitalism and entirely consistent with our ongoing descent into imminent catastrophic and multivariate collapse. I think as Christians we need to resist this world view.
The disruption caused to innocent bystanders and the opprobrium received from them as a result of acts of prophetic resistance is often a stumbling block for those of us considering non-violent direct action. However, this reasonable and considerate reticence seems more common for Christians than it apparently was for Christ.
Scarsellino – Driving of the Merchants From the Temple
The most reported, cited and possibly most cinematic example of Jesus’ non-violent direct action was the cleansing of the temple. Here we are told that Jesus, with his followers, caused so great a disruption that temple business was stopped (Mark 11:16). This happened in the days leading up to the Passover, the national annual festival to which ordinary people would have spent days travelling, costing much time and expense. In addition, this was amongst the highlights of their religious calendar and Jesus blew it for a number of them. Perhaps, preceding his Crucifixion, if his accusers had not opted to charge him with blasphemy or sedition, someone would have pointed out the disruption that he and his followers (perhaps 13 in total but probably more) had caused to a lot of innocent bystanders in order to make an ideological point: A point they could, no doubt, have made otherwise through legitimate avenues.
The fact that Jesus did not consider the inconvenience or even spiritual and emotional distress of ‘ordinary people’ fit to deter him needs consideration. Amongst other matters we need to remember that the notion of individual morality as we understand it did not really exist then and arguably ought not to exist today in its current form. The notion that the just society is made up of just individuals is very self-indulgent and is the cause and effect of a great deal of consumerism: ideological, theological, ethical and moral consumerism.
Rather, we need to remember that just individuals are the product of a just society who then feedback to either improve or degrade societal justice, redefining normal, respectable and then legal behaviour with each generation and even on a day to day basis. Evidence suggests that we have been spiralling downwards for some time. Whether one sets year zero at the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution, the fall of mankind or similar, we have clearly been at this for a while.
As such the actions of the Heathrow 13 are not those of some individuals imposing their ideology on a great mass of innocents, but rather should be considered a contrarian component in the feedback loop that has us spiralling towards something like hell on earth. The dominant component in this feedback effect is the everyday, respectable and legal behaviour consistent with this polite genocide we find ourselves so comfortably implicated in. The problem with the actions of the Heathrow 13 is not the great disruption that they caused, but that there were only 13 of them and that they belong to a society devoted to self-destruction. It is very instructive that we have together constructed a society who celebrate troublemakers of the convenient past but respond to these contemporary actions with jail time (Matthew 23:29-31).
Regarding the expense caused to Heathrow Airport we Christians need to remember that the Gospel is the culmination of the process of liberation and restoration outlined in part in the Jubilee writings of Leviticus 25. Foundational to this is the statement that the earth is the Lord’s (Leviticus 25:23). As such, ultimate rights to land or resources are not purchasable (by an individual or corporate entity), nor can they be bestowed by favour, but everyone is subject to the law of love as revealed by Jesus Christ. The Heathrow 13 need to give an account of their actions but so does Heathrow Airport.
Jesus’ action overturning tables in the temple would have cost traders and the institution of the temple money, yet he was unapologetic. The legitimacy of the temple and the practices of those using it were not beyond question, rather they were beyond his forbearance. Since the role of Heathrow, not only in terms of emissions, but also in terms of commerce and culture, is not consistent with life on earth, the fact that the Heathrow 13 caused them financial loss may not be cause for concern.
Once again we see that we have together constructed a society that assumes Heathrow’s legitimacy over the activists. This reveals a preference for power, money and climate chaos that I believe is not in keeping with the example of Jesus Christ.
If what I have said is true, or even half true, then the position of those of us who seek to see the world through Christ-like eyes must be to question this verdict and the subsequent sentence. Our judicial system’s treatment of these unlucky 13 reveals to us what our world has become, and poses a challenge to us as the diaspora of the body of Christ, not of the world, but curiously comfortable in the world.
I realise that what I have written is not the majority view of the Church. We all feel called to be good citizens but some under Christ and some under Caesar. For most of us the requirements of these two Lords are indistinguishable. This also serves to reveal us to ourselves.
These 13 women and men appear in court on Feb 24th to receive sentencing. If you would like to show your support then we are invited to attend a solidarity rally outside Willesden Magistrates court at 9am on Weds 24th February.
* The 13 were charged with aggravated trespass and thus appeared in front of a magistrate. If they had been charged with public nuisance (for which they were arrested) they would have appeared in front of a jury. Juries at times find such defendants not guilty. This judgement is an institutional ruling and not an appeal to the conscience of our peers.
Westley Ingram is one of the 5 members of Christian Climate Action on trial in London on May 31st for painting the Department of Energy and Climate Change in whitewash on the first day of the Paris UN Climate Talks (COP21) last November.