‘The Stakes Are Too High’: Christian Faithful Take up Climate Protest
Cloaked in black and carrying white buckets filled with artificial blood, the group filed in silence to the entrance of London’s Downing Street, behind a troupe of child and teen activists.
Ringing a bell as they walked, the 45 adults — all participants in Extinction Rebellion, a protest movement seeking rapid action to curb global warming — formed an arc facing the British prime minister’s residence and poured out their buckets, turning the surrounding road into a sea of red.
The liquid, they said, symbolized “the blood of our children,” on the hands of politicians who have failed to act on climate change and stem its impacts, from worsening floods and droughts to growing poverty and water and food shortages.
Among those at the protest in March were three members of Christian Climate Action, a small group of retirees and students who say their religious faith is compelling them to take an increasingly active role in trying to stop climate change.
Climate change “is leading to a social collapse. We need to respond in more caring and collective ways,” said Phil Kingston, 83, a Catholic church member from Bristol who took a train to London to participate in the Downing Street demonstration.
As climate change protests pick up in London and around the world, they are drawing an increasingly broad range of protesters, from students following in the footsteps of 16-year-old Swedish “school strike” leader Greta Thunberg to grandparents concerned about the growing risks their grandchildren face.
Religious groups — from Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other faiths — are among those joining the protests, out of concern, in some cases, about the moral and spiritual implications of human-driven climate change.
Christian Climate Action took shape about six years ago, initially with just a handful of active members from a range of Christian denominations, said Ruth Jarman, 55, one of the group’s original members.
But as it has become involved with Extinction Rebellion — an emerging movement that uses nonviolent protest to demand action on climate change — interest in the Christian action group is growing, especially among younger generations, members say.
“Finding Extinction Rebellion really fitted in with our values so well. It’s very clear on using nonviolence, being motivated by values of love and care rather than anger,” said Jarman, who lives in Hartley Wintney in Hampshire.
Since November, Christian Climate Action activists have disrupted traffic, spray-painted government buildings with political messages and the Extinction Rebellion hourglass symbol, blockaded entrances — and prayed for action, Jarman said.
An Anglican parishioner, she has been arrested five times for those protests — a risk not all Christians are willing to take, she admitted.
But “for me, it’s the first verse of the Bible that hits home: If God created all that is, what does it mean for us to be destroying it?” she asked. “For us to be participating in its destruction is sacrilegious — not something believing Christians should be doing.”
Faith in action
Faith groups, in Britain and around the world, have taken a growing role in pushing action on climate change, with some churches, mosques and temples pulling their investments out of fossil fuels, championing efforts to cut food waste and raising awareness about climate risks.
Last July, the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, voted to disinvest by 2023 from fossil fuel companies that fail to meet the aims of the Paris climate agreement.
Under that 2015 deal, world governments agreed to hold global average temperature hikes to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius.
Because faith groups around the world control trillions of dollars in assets, such pledges can help drive action in companies that fear losing investment, or push much-needed cash to greener investments.
Experts say religions, which connect with people’s emotions and personal lives, could help mobilize them in the fight against climate change where facts and politics have failed.
Kingston, of Christian Climate Action, points to Laudato Si – Pope Francis’ 2015 papal encyclical that called on the world to unite against climate change impacts, particularly on the poor and powerless – as one of his motivations for taking action.
Most members of Christian Climate Action have a history of campaigning against climate change by writing letters to politicians, doing charity work or walking in marches, Jarman said.
But over time, they saw their efforts produce little action — one reason the group has stepped up its tactics, she said.
“As Christians, we should be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary to serve and protect God’s creation,” Jarman said.
Father Martin Newell, 51, a Catholic priest who works with the Congregation of the Passion, a religious order devoted to serving vulnerable communities, has been committed to activist causes for decades, having previously advocated against nuclear arms and weapons trading.
These days, however, Newell — who lives at Birmingham’s Austin Smith House, a shelter for refugees and asylum seekers — is also working with the Christian Climate Action.
“I realized when someone asked what keeps me up at night [that] I was having nightmares about climate change,” he said.
When the group asked Newell, who has been arrested many times as part of protests, how to get started taking a more active role in climate campaigning, “I thought this is maybe an answer to my prayer,” he said.
The priest has since educated members of the group on how to effectively use civil disobedience tactics and has become an active member of the group.
In late February, Christian Climate Action held a training session in London that featured everything from prayer and discussions about what the Bible says about non-violent action to practice with protest tactics, according to a flier for the event.
At such events, 83-year-old Kingston said he has “gained much clarity about the nuances of non-violent direct action,” including how to best interact with the police and other authorities.
“Being respectful in word and deed to all persons is the essential component,” he said.
Not all of the Christian Climate Action protesters have had the support of their churches, and some say they have faced strong disapproval.
Kingston’s priest, for instance, was “rather horrified” when the parishioner was sent to court in 2016 for criminal damage, stemming from a protest during which Jarman and Newell were also arrested and fined, Kingston said.
The activists had targeted the Department of Energy and Climate Change building in London, to point out that the U.K. government’s action at home on climate change didn’t match its rhetoric at talks leading up to the 2015 Paris Agreement.
“We painted whitewash — it’s from the Bible, it comes from Jesus talking about hypocrisy — on the building, and we painted in black paint, ‘Department for Extreme Climate Change,'” Jarman said.
“Then we kneeled down on the pavement and prayed, and got arrested.”
Kingston subsequently was banned him “from any kind of public face with the parish” by his priest at the time, the activist said.
But he has pushed ahead, contacting other parishioners through his private email and becoming increasingly public with his views.
“I don’t care — the stakes are too high. The church should be much more upfront and brave,” he said.
The protester said he began seeing climate change as a serious threat when his first grandchild was born nearly two decades ago.
He realized that “my grandchildren and all their generations in front of them … are voiceless” despite being likely to face climate change’s worst impacts, he said.
“It’s a justice issue. The upcoming generations need life, and we are creating tremendous suffering” by destabilizing the planet’s climate, he said.
He said having older protesters working alongside young activists in the Extinction Rebellion protests has its particular benefits.
“What we’ve realised is neither the corporations nor the government want to arrest us,” he said. “We are a liability in terms of health.”
The activists say their protests aim to achieve a few things in particular: big cuts in Britain’s climate-changing emissions, more honesty from politicians about climate threats, and the creation of a formal parliamentary “Citizen’s Assembly” to discuss needed changes to climate policy and advise the government.
The assembly is crucial in order to “do what is right rather than what is politically acceptable,” Jarman said.
But the protest movement is having a secondary effect as well, Jarman said, in bringing together people who might not otherwise have met and joined forces.
Mothiur Rahman, a legal strategist who works with Extinction Rebellion, for instance, said protesters who are members of faith groups have asked their churches to house out-of-town participants arriving to take part in a new round of protests set to begin April 15.
“One church has given their support and will have their doors open for us to sleep over in, and I am speaking to a mosque as well,” Rahman added.
Newell said he thinks faith-based protesters have found a solid welcome among more traditional environmental activists, and have a role to play as climate protests grow.
“The people who started Extinction Rebellion, and environmentalists, tend to be more secular. But they understand faith and trusting God and are open to people joining them,” the priest said.
“We appreciate them and they appreciate us,” he said.