Jeremy Brown writes: At the end of last year I studied a module in Social Movement Theory, which gave me a unique opportunity to write about my experiences within Christian Climate Action over 2019. The essay title was about the role of religion in movements that identify as religious. This blog is a summary of my essay, which does some soul-searching about the divine inspiration that fuels our efforts to defend God’s beautiful creation from humanity’s harmful actions.
The Role of Religion
Religion has long been discounted as either irrelevant or harmful to the struggle against injustice – particularly from the Marxist view that religion is the ‘opium of the masses’ that tranquilises political action with the alternative promise of divine salvation (Hannigan, 1991). This can result in a creative tension between political groups with a vision of creating ‘heaven on earth’, versus religious groups that seek to bring about their ‘utopias’ in the afterlife (Park, 1967). But if we look at the civil rights movement, it is clear that Christianity had a central role – with the yearning for social justice coming from Biblical roots: ‘Wherever God is revealed in the Bible, he is revealed as being on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the downtrodden, the outcast’ (Williams, 2002: 213). Can the same be said of the climate emergency? While I’m sure the Lord always stands up for the victims of our burning planet, I’ve nonetheless identified three reasons why Christianity as a religion may sometimes oppose the objectives of CCA.
Firstly, the belief that responsibility lies with God in heaven rather than humanity on Earth, e.g. the widespread belief that the weather is in the ‘domain of the Gods’. For CCA the risk here is that churchgoers remain passive out of a conviction that only God is in control of the atmosphere. This echoes the civil rights movement, e.g. how many church members justified personal inaction by insisting that “God is going to fix it” (Williams, 2002: 217).
Secondly, there’s a barrier in how religion has been used to attack the methods of radical movements. Rev Dr Carson for example remarked that while he took the climate crisis seriously, he deemed it inappropriate to participate in civil disobedience because ‘we still live in a democracy where arguments can be made and presented to governments’, while citing scripture from 1 Timothy 2 that suggests Christians are called to pray for their leaders (Wakefield, 2019). This has parallels with how Martin Luther-King felt let down by many white leaders in the church. While in Birmingham prison, King was sent a letter from clergy who accused his street protests as being ‘unwise and untimely’, and instead urged to movement to wait with patience for the conclusion of the court hearing (O’Brien, 2017).
Finally, there is a risk that CCA is being held back by a doctrine that appears to view a climate apocalypse as an ultimate step towards a New Heaven and New Earth. Indeed, Barker and Bearce (2013) provide evidence that Americans that have a ‘Christian’ belief in end-times theology, are less likely than other US citizens to approve policies to reduce climate change. But when Jesus eventually returns, what will He say if the planet He created with such care and attention is reduced to ashes? And have we at times forgotten what He came to teach the first time he lived on Earth: the ground-breaking message of loving others as ourselves?
The Role of Love
The Bible reveals in 1 John 4v8 the spectacular truth that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8, NIV). If we apply this to climate activism, then I suspect it’s quite likely that a sense of the divine runs through both CCA and the wider movement. This common thread of love is visible on XR’s website:
‘We catch glimpses of a new world of love, respect and regeneration… It’s a future that’s inside us all – located in the fierce love we carry for our children, in our urge to help a stranger in distress, in our wish to forgive …’ (XR, 2019).
Importantly, this quote further reveals the specifics of who to love. But the emphasis on loving ‘a stranger in distress’, is arguably not unique to Christianity or New Age spirituality. It is therefore worth asking whether aspects of socialism might explain XR and CCA more than love as a broad concept. Gill (1998) for instance suggests that in a world of limited resources, religious actors need to make difficult cost-benefit calculations on how best to use these resources to reach their altruistic outcomes. But socialist or Marxist concepts cannot fully explain the deep philosophical or spiritual reasons why many activists believe focusing the expression of love on the groups most aggrieved by the climate crisis is morally right. An example of the deeper motivations is revealed in the following statement to court by Ruth Jarman, a co-founder of CCA that faced arrest for blockading Oxford Circus:
‘I am a Christian and a mother. My faith requires me to ‘serve and preserve’ the earth; it requires me to respect what God has created; and it requires me to love my neighbour, where that neighbour is just as much an unborn child in Bangladesh as someone next door. And the parable of the Good Samaritan requires me not to be a by-stander to violence. I cannot stand by and watch my government knowingly participating in the wholesale destruction of God’s one beautiful earth and my children’s lives without intervening’ (Jarman, 2019).
In stating her identity as a Christian and desire to love unborn children in Bangladesh, Ruth is essentially justifying her actions to court on the basis that radical civil disobedience is likely how Christ himself would act out his love for the world if faced with the same dilemma. But during a phone interview with me Ruth revealed that she carried out the radical actions despite much of her own church community disagreeing with her choices – a cultural community of organised religion that could otherwise have been harnessed as a ‘resource’.
Going deeper, it could even be argued that many secular activists in XR behave more like Christ in loving their oppressed neighbours than many ‘religious’ Christians do. For example, Christ’s famous teaching of ‘love thy enemy’ appeared to be alive across the secular mainstream of XR, in their relationship with the police. The Express reported how police were being hugged by the rebels occupying Waterloo Bridge, while being told “We love you. We are doing this for your children too” (Austin and Williamson, 2019). Again this shows how love appears more influential than religion, at least across XR. But whether the source of this love has its root source in Christ is a deep theological question for another essay.
Example of Canning Town
It is worth emphasising that Social Movement Theory is nonetheless still important to explain how activists can best act with love in terms of outcome. Lessons from ‘Political Opportunity’ and Framing theory for example may have proven very useful in warning rebels to avoid actions in the working-class community of Canning Town (the location where protest triggered a highly aggressive backlash). In other words, the virtuous motive of love must be balanced with insights into perceptions, processes, and outcomes. But the key point is balance, because the role of love must not be understated. Holly Petersen for example, suggests that love, in the shape of forgiveness, is what would prevent disagreements over tactics from escalating into bitter divisions within CCA as an organisation. Writing about her forgiveness of the rebels at Canning Town, Holly remarked that:
‘It is pioneering courage, such as that shown by those who took part in the train action, which has caused Extinction Rebellion to come into fruition and thrive. So instead of passing judgement, I sit along-side my fellow Christian climate rebels in appreciation and love – to reflect and learn from the action and build our strength together for the next steps. It is easy to build a movement, but it is infinitely more difficult to sustain one and I feel so privileged that I get to learn how to do that with such incredible group of people’.
While this act of forgiveness could be explained as merely a tactical choice of framing, applying Goodwin and Jasper’s (1999) defence of Luther-King, for example, would instead lead to the conclusion that the choice to forgive was more for the inherent value of unconditional love itself.
Eternal and Supernatural Love
Belief in the afterlife is another way in which CCA’s identity of love differs from the moral crusade of secular movements (Ysseldyk, 2010). In fact, one interpretation of scripture might suggest that acting out love on Earth is one of the signs of having a faith that leads to eternal life in Heaven. A key reference here would be The Parable of the Sheep and Goats – Matthew 25 v34-35 (NIV), in which Christ offers his eternal kingdom to those who provide for the hungry, thirsty, and homeless. Love for the poor and needy expressed through climate activism could therefore be seen as evidence of having the type of faith and love that ultimately leads to a life with God that is eternal, above and beyond the more immediate task of ‘saving the world’ from catastrophe or extinction.
Another important point is that spiritual interpretations of love are unique in their emphasis on the supernatural. As expressed by Stark and Finne (2001: 90): “religion is concerned with the supernatural; everything else is secondary”.
Prayer is another aspect of the supernatural within CCA. As an activist within CCA, I called on the power of prayer myself, via a blog article that drew parallels with the D-Day Landings. The article was an encouragement to attend a prayer event during the rebellion at Lambeth Bridge. Specifically, to learn from King George VI’s national call to prayer in June 1944, which to the advantage of the troops crossing The Channel, was speculated to have caused a ‘miraculous’ change in weather (Tyler, 2014). Whether or not a real miracle actually took place can be debated, but it nonetheless still clear that prayer is a significant area where spiritual forms of love are unique. As discussed by Chappell (2002), divine intervention and communication from God appear to have motivated Luther-King at times when he lacked the natural human capacity to lead, as shown in his desperate prayer:
‘I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.” At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side for ever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything’ (King, 1958: 134).
Love that Perseveres
The perception of divine intervention and courage was similarly at play with CCA. When I briefly interviewed Ruth, she recalled how she was blessed by always having just enough numbers of rebels to carry out key actions, including on the Docklands Light Railway, even after many dropped out. Although difficult to prove, she agreed this might possibly be a miraculous answer to prayer. But for Ruth, it was the more human side of Christ’s love rather than the miraculous that made a key difference. For example, she remarked that for radical actions such as occupying the roofs of train carriages, it was usually the Christian rebels that persisted to the very end. Ruth believes her persistence came from the virtue of desiring to ‘do the right thing’, rather than a rational utilitarian focus on success. In other words, this spiritual tenacity to ‘battle on’ appears likely to have exceeded any rational cost-benefit calculation described by scholars such as Gill (1998). This finally brings us to the very definition of love in the New Testament where perseverance is a key part of what it means to love one another – an aspect that deserve reflection, particularly with signs that the ‘honeymoon’ period of XR may be drawing to a close: ‘Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’ (1 Corinthians 13 v 6-7, NIV).
By exploring the activities of Christian Climate Action over 2019 I’ve highlighted that ‘love’ more than religion explains the decisions of the activists, including within Extinction Rebellion more broadly. And while belief in the supernatural gives CCA a unique role within XR; overall it seems that the ‘human’ side of Christ’s love, a love that cares for the vulnerable, forgives, and perseveres despite adversity, is what really motivates Christian rebels to keep going in their mission to protect God’s wonderful masterpiece – the planet we all call home.