Creationtide 3: On Civil Disobedience

Sunday 27th September 2020
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Service of the Word
Deuteronomy 24.18-22

There is a current debate about the extent to which climate protesters should break the law and my straw poll shows that most people are against the tactics of Extinction Rebellion so it might surprise you to know that Christianity was and is built on civil disobedience.

In spite of what Saint Paul says in Romans 13, but at its simplest, Jesus was killed for breaking the law: he said that earthly powers, including Rome, would be overcome by love; and he said that the Mission of the Messiah would overcome Temple Law. He paid the price for what he said as we all must. The greatest political philosopher of the 20th Century, John Rawls*1, writing in the context of protests in America against the Vietnam war, said that civil disobedience was necessary but that when it was practised, the perpetrators should disobey openly and take their punishment under the law. That is precisely what Jesus did; and it is also what the martyrs did until the establishment of Christianity as the state religion under the Emperor Constantine. As I write, there are millions of Christian martyrs all over the world, notably in China, suffering and risking imprisonment and even death for Christ's sake; and not only Christians, but also Uighurs. Civil disobedience is rarely an easy ride, serving the campaigner's ego.

The key concept at the heart of the discussion, as elsewhere, is motive. If we undertake civil disobedience against, say, a planning decision so that our house is exempt from some civic imposition, that is quite different from disobeying the law to protect the vulnerable on a small scale or protecting our vulnerable planet on a large scale. It is simply not true that we either obey all laws or undermine the rule of law. We obey the law as Christians as far as we can but if law undermines the teaching of Jesus, as it did when Hitler passed laws, then disobedience is our last resort.

Very often the concepts of law and order are almost impossibly entangled. When many people complain about Extinction Rebellion's tactics they are actually upset because of the breakdown of order not because of the inadequacy or absence of environmental legislation. They would, possibly, like such legislation but they rank their personal inconvenience higher than the lives of those whom climate change will ruin or bring to a premature death. If we look at the law as simply an instrument for our person protection and well-being, we will find that our motives are flawed.

I recognise that this is a profoundly uncomfortable debate. In the best of all possible worlds we would like the world to be governed by laws which are universally recognised and universally just; but the price of such a world would be the reduction of our wealth and our ambition. While there are many measures which can operate on the basis of mutual benefit, generating growth, this cannot be true of moderating climate change. As the Beatles said, the more love you make the more you take, and that is true, too, of building up mutual support in communities. It is also true in certain circumstances in economics where collaboration generates growth. But in the context of physical scarcity and ravaged terrain, growth is the opposite of the answer; in the matter of using the earth's resources it is increasingly clear that this comfortable concept does not hold.

We are all different. Some of us are comfortable marching in the streets, even gluing ourselves to symbols of earth's exploitation, while others will be more comfortable writing letters. We may have to operate outside our comfort zones to achieve certain ends so that we take to the streets as well as writing letters; but at the very least we should be careful of trying to limit other people from acting in a way which makes us uncomfortable. Something is not automatically wrong because we would not do it; and, anyway, it all goes back to motive. WE may not want to join Extinction Rebellion and we may not like its tactics but we need to ask ourselves to what extent we are entitled to thwart their activities, legal or not. And, at a deeper level, we always need to ask when ethics trump the law. We know that the law can be unjust and we know that ethics are essential to our survival; law, after all, grew out of community, not the other way round. People who think that society grows out of law really mean that it grows out of order.

In making any decision about what to do, it is important to understand both how bad things are and whether we can do anything. On the day I am writing this the World Wildlife Fund has published a report*2 which says that the planet has lost more than 2/3 of its mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians in the past 50 years, the same 50 years which have seen income and wealth ever more concentrated in the top 10% in the West and, more recently, the top 1%; so all the ravages of our planet are for the benefit of an ever smaller portion of the population*3.

But the WWF Report also says that the situation is reversible if we act quickly; but before we turn the situation round we have to stop land degradation for short-term gain, particularly taking logging out of all our supply chains. On the same day a citizens' deliberative assembly, under the auspices of six Parliamentary Committees, also published its findings*4 indicating what we must do to meet the UK target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050; some people might think this target is too modest but the important thing is that we are shown that there really are things that we can do.

My final comment is as stark as the rest: I almost daily encounter people who tell me how much they love their children and grandchildren; but that can't be abstract. You can't love anybody and ignore the peril into which they are being pitched.

*1 Rawls, John: A theory of Justice

*2 Living Planet Report 2020, World Wildlife Fund/Zoological Society of London

*3 Piketty, Thomas: Capital in the 21st Century

*4 Final Report, Climate Assembly UK.