by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool and Chair of the Ozanne Foundation
Last Thursday I stood with a number of colleagues, lay and ordained, as part of the Christian Climate Action contribution to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London. We read from the book of Revelation In Trafalgar Square, standing in front of the National Gallery, surrounded by people of all faiths and none who were taking their stand together to form part of this extraordinary non-violent direct action movement.
I was not arrested, though I could have been. Some of my ordained colleagues there had been arrested the previous day, and a great many Christians have been arrested before and since, just a few of the 2600+ people (at the time of writing) who have taken their protest to the point of loss of liberty. Without violence they break the law and they face the music. And who are we to judge?
On the way to Trafalgar Square I passed Downing Street and Admiralty Arch, two of the several places where I myself had been arrested in the 1980s, over 35 years ago. At that time it was my great privilege to be a national co-chair of Christian CND, and to have been able to take a stand on the wide rainbow of non-violent advocacy which wanted to see nuclear weapons banned, within the still wider rainbow that seeks to change the world for the better in any way. That was around the time of the “Church and the Bomb” report. I spent time lobbying the General Synod and arguing with bishops, and I spent time in the cells at Cannon Row police station. All that advocacy felt like one seamless thing to me.
And the arguments used against Extinction Rebellion last week were also familiar to me, since the same things had been said to me whenever I sat in the road, or chained myself to railings, or prayed persistently outside a US base, or otherwise took action all those years ago. “Isn’t this just ridiculous middle-class posturing?” “Aren’t you just messing about?” “Do you really think that these protests will change policy – will change anything at all?”
All these are fair questions, but they miss the point. The point is that non-violent advocacy is a wide, wide rainbow, and each colour in it has its place, and it would be foolish to assume that no part of it makes or will make a difference. It’s a matter of diversity, as St Paul understood very well when he spoke of the body and its different parts.
The advocacy of Mahatma Gandhi or of Dr Martin Luther King took its place within this diverse, non-violent, world-changing rainbow. Within the rainbow some work quietly and unobtrusively to influence political and other leaders with facts, evidence, scholarship, quiet wisdom, nuance. Others will follow the advice of an editor of the Economist: “Simplify, then exaggerate”, crafting messages which motivate the heart and lead people to take a stand, and proclaiming them clearly and very loudly.
In the case of Extinction Rebellion the messages and demands are suitably loud and clear (See https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/demands/):
- Tell the truth (and declare a climate emergency)
- Act now (and move to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025)
- Go beyond politics (and establish a citizens’ assembly to focus the practical steps)
The details of these demands are of course open to debate, and so are some of the tactical choices made about where and how to protest and what to disrupt. But when it comes to the future of the planet the rainbow of advocacy needs XR, just as it nees Greta Thunberg and the school strikes. The urgency of the climate crisis means that nuanced debate between sophisticated grown-ups is not enough, as the famous sculpture by Isaac Cordal, “Waiting for climate change”, makes clear:
“To put it very directly: it is worth changing our habits of consumption, the default settings for our lifestyle, the various kinds of denial and evasion of bodily reality that suit us, the fantasies of limitless growth and control, simply because there are healthy and unhealthy ways of living in this universe.
To go on determinedly playing the trumpet in a string quartet is a recipe for frustration and collapse and conflict. There are ways of learning to live better, to make peace with the world. Learn them anyway: they will limit the disease and destruction; they may even be seeds for a future we can’t imagine…
It just might work.”
And as a person of faith he says:
“In the Book of Proverbs, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the divine wisdom is described as ‘filled with delight’ at the entire world which flows from that wisdom. For me as a religious believer, the denial or corruption of that delight is like spitting in the face of the life-giving Word who is to be met in all things and all people…”
And he ends by saying:
“Anger, love and joy may sound like odd bedfellows, but these are the seeds of a future that will offer life – not success, but life.”
So what? Well, with all this in mind, there is a question for you who are reading this. On this matter – the future of the planet – and indeed on any other matter of justice and peace, will you take your stand within the rainbow of non-violent advocacy? And if you will, where will be the right place, the best place, for you yourself to stand?
Of course some approaches stand outside any non-violent advocacy rainbow. On one side is the assumption that no advocacy is necessary at all, or perhaps that advocating is so naïve as to be pointless, or perhaps that we can’t be bothered – that other people will engage with it and so we won’t have to. And on the other side, the assumption that only violence will change things, or that if we feel we must break the law, then having broken the law, no consequences should or must be faced.
Neither of these approaches was taken by Mahatma Gandhi, or by Dr King. As they engaged with the issues of justice that lay before them, each one understood the spectrum of advocacy and operated across it; at times pragmatic, at times prophetic. Jesus too spoke highly of the law and also acted in ways that challenged it, reaching out to the excluded. In words of the Lutheran Gordon Lathrop that so often speak to my own heart, “…we are speaking of the biblical, historic Christ who eats with sinners and outsiders, who is made a curse and sin itself for us, who justifies the ungodly, and who is himself the hole in any system”.
Jesus lived with urgency, for the times were urgent. The times for us too are urgent, as indeed they have always been.
If you’re a Christian then, in matters of the future of the planet, in all matters of justice and peace, will you listen for the voice of the triune God who loves you, the voice of the Holy Spirit within you who comforts and provokes you? Will you take your stand within the rainbow of non-violent advocacy? And if you will, where will you stand?
Paul Bayes is Bishop of Liverpool
 Extinction Rebellion, “This Is Not A Drill”, Penguin Books 2019