Growing recognition that the time has come.
On Wednesday, May 25, 16 interfaith clergy were arrested for protesting the West Roxbury Lateral in Boston, Massachusetts, the controversial 5-mile section of the Algonquin Incremental Market pipeline of Spectra Energy. Representing Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Unitarian Universalist faiths, the interfaith leaders entered the construction site and sat on the edge of the hole that housed the 16-inch steel pipe. Boston police announced that the clergy had 5 minutes to leave before they were placed under arrest. They stayed and were arrested.
An additional 75 other religious folk stood around them singing and praying, not only for climate justice, but for the peace and well-being of the arresting police officers and the construction workers working on the project.
“This was my first time getting arrested and I don’t believe it will be my last,” commented the Rev. Dr. Ian Mevorach, co-founder of the Common Street Spiritual Center in Boston, in a piece on HuffPost Religion. He explained that, “We’re fighting for the survival of life on our planet.”
Climate change activists are increasingly realizing time is running out for business-as-usual energy consumption and environmental advocacy. Many see direct action civil disobedience against fossil fuel projects as the last and best hope to keep fossil fuels in the ground, crucial to limiting the warming of the earth to 1.5 to 2.0 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, a member of the Massachusetts Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action, invited me to participate in the civil disobedience. While convinced that human caused global warming is real, and that we are the first generation to feel its effects and the last to do anything about it, I was not quite ready to join the protest.
I declined because of my identities as a Lutheran pastor, oldest son, and a descendant of an almost pure German heritage. These identities compel me follow the rules and preserve law and order from which we derive our freedom. Our theology teaches that God works through human law to restrain sin. The chaos that comes from a breakdown in the social order is the enemy most to be feared and avoided at all costs.
And yet, when month after successive month is observed as the warmest on record, and when scientists are telling us that the climate is changing at unprecedented speed, isn’t a changing climate the biggest threat to social order? How will order be preserved when food systems fail in response to unrelenting droughts or floods caused by climate change? When fresh water sources dry up and entire populations lack access to safe drinking water? When temperatures soar to the point that stepping outside becomes a matter of life and death? We’re already seeing a breakdown in the social order. Some point to historic droughts in Syria in the years before the country’s civil war as a contributing factor to the disintegration of Syria and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees that have overwhelmed Europe.
I consider the words of Jesus recorded as Matthew 10:34-35, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”
God’s work in Christ Jesus never gives a blessing of peace to sin. God’s love for humanity always contains clear judgment against sin in its many forms that threaten humanity and destroy the planet. While we might yearn for a savior who allows us to live comfortably and peacefully in sin, “Do not think that,” warns Jesus who instead brings the sword of accountability. Family member is turned against family member, people of faith against civil law in protest of expanded fossil fuel consumption, as sin is confessed, as people repent and join themselves to God’s redeeming work in the world.
Civil disobedience is not alien to God’s work of reconciliation, but is in fact a witness to it. When used prayerfully, strategically, and in community with other people of faith, it is the work of a liberating and loving God protecting and saving community from itself and restoring right, whole, and healthy relationships.
Grounded in love, rooted in faith, and sustained in prayer, it is time for people of faith to carefully and prayerfully recognize the ways in which civil disobedience is not a departure from faith, but a way in which faith is boldly lived out for the sake of the world.
“When our feet were dangling on that trench, and construction was halted,” Mevorach observed, “I knew in my bones I was right where God was calling me to be. We were in the Spirit, worshipping not only with words and songs, but with our very bodies and souls. The sun was shining and it was a glorious day to be arrested for a just cause.”