Get Arrested on April 23 (or Don’t), but God’s Creation Needs Christians to Begin Acting Experimentally
by Lowell Bliss
As might be expected, Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet begins with an explanation of why the misspelling. He tells the story of the Apollo 8 mission in December of 1968 and their famous photo of our planet entitled “Earthrise.” Commander Frank Borman said that it was “the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life.” However, forty three years later, at the publication of his book, McKibben arrives at the conclusion:
As the director of Eden Vigil and the author of Environmental Missions, I spend my time with one foot in traditional Christian missions (evangelism and discipleship) and one foot in creation care. On the missions side, I’ve used McKibben’s conceit to declare that we need to explore new ways of doing missions—that, as per Acts 1:8, we are now called to be witnesses “to the uttermost parts of the Eaarth.” And even the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) gets a new colour scheme, with Jesus promising to be with our disciple-making “lo, to the end of the Anthropocene.”
Here in 2020 however, I pivot to my creation care colleagues and I am surprised to discover that I must say the same thing to them: on April 22, go ahead and celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, but please, on April 23, be prepared to celebrate the first Eaarth Day. You consider yourself a creation care advocate, perhaps even a climate activist? Praise God. But realize, your faithful and hardworking service is now being conducted on a planet that is different than the one on which you started your work. We spend a lot of time talking about business-as-usual CO2 emissions scenarios (BAU). We need to begin a conversation about BAU creation care strategies and tactics. Recycling, composting, changing lightbulbs, lobbying, writing letters to Congress, letters-to-the-editor, declarations, Days of Prayer, voting, conferences, the occasional sermon-- how’s that working out for you? It is time to experiment with new forms of activism.
The first Earth Day (1970). Francis Schaeffer’s book Pollution and the Death of Man (also 1970). But more in the timeframe of our activism: EEN’s What Would Jesus Drive? campaign (2002), the Evangelical Climate Initiative (2006), Pastor Tri Robinson’s interview with Bill Moyer (2006), Lausanne’s Cape Town Commitment (2010), NAE and Dorothy Boorse’s Loving the Least of These report (2011), Lausanne WEA’s Jamaica Creation Care Call to Action (2012), the Canada/US LWCCN conference at Gordon College (2015), Lausanne Base Camp at COP21 (2015). . . all of these events (and so many others before 2016) represent truly remarkable “Earthrise” moments. We contemplated the beauty of God’s creation and renewed our commitment to be good stewards of it. But we no longer live on that planet.
Likely few of us could contemplate waking up tomorrow, growing out our dreadlocks, inking up some new “tats,” and joining Extinction Rebellion by the end of the day. Certainly, Anglican minister from Sussex, England, David Baker couldn’t. Christianity Today asked him to comment on the Extinction Rebellion protests that were gumming up London commuter traffic in April 2019. It’s a good article, and Baker begins by reassuring us that “he gets it.” His first two points are “we should recognise the overwhelming consensus about climate change, especially if we have yet to do so” and “we should wake up to the fact that Christian campaigning about climate change is a natural outworking of our faith.” But his third point is to ask whether the Extinction Rebellion protests are “justified on this occasion” and his conclusion is “It seems to me on balance not.” Nonetheless, it is Baker’s concluding sentence that intrigues me the most. He writes, “But such would be the effect of unchecked climate change on the planet, especially its poorest and most vulnerable, that I would be open to being persuaded...”
I wrote Baker and asked. Actually, what happened is that Baker posted his article on my friend Ruth Valerio’s Facebook page. Ruth had attended the protest and Baker writes, “I have a lot of sympathy with the passion of the participants, and their willingness to take a stand. I silently cheered when Ruth Valerio of Tearfund wrote on Twitter: ‘So I get the questions around [Extinction Rebellion] but we need large-scale societal change & for that we need agitators as well as reformers.’" I read the article through Ruth’s Facebook page, and wrote a question to Baker in the comment stream: When will that line be crossed for you? What will it take for you to be not only open to persuasion, but actually persuaded to participate as Ruth did? In his article, Baker had included a quotation from Christian political scientist David Koyzis: "Civil disobedience is our very last resort, to be contemplated only with fear and trembling. But by no means can faithful believers rule it out of bounds." Consequently, this is how my actual question to Baker was worded: “Thank you for the article. Here's a serious question: if we take Koyzis's statement as a word to the wise, what set of climate circumstances would indicate for you that it has become a time ‘of last resort’?”
Baker never wrote back. (Fair enough; he doesn’t know me.) I didn’t mean to challenge him, as much as I meant to challenge myself. I was genuinely curious. When have we reached a point in climate neglect, where I myself would be open to try new tactics, things that for whatever reason—probably unfamiliarity and timidity—I have reserved for the category of “last resort”? What about you? The problem is that, as per the old adage, “tomorrow never comes.” Baker’s “the effects of unchecked climate change” always seem to stay one step ahead of us, one step ahead of our BAU activism. I am also challenged by the adage, generally attributed to Einstein, that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Maybe the line we eventually cross is not the pain of unchecked climate change, but rather the frustration of unfruitful climate actions.
One of the reasons we only nibble at the edge of last-resort activities is because we think we need to jump all the way in: dreadlocks, tattoos, and card-carrying ER association. Instead, the Kansas Leadership Center advises a better, more realistic path: we can “act experimentally.” We can begin by beginning. We can dip our toe in and test the water. We can try something new and different. The purpose of what are often called “SMART experiments” is to learn from them, to prepare yourself for a fuller, more effective act of leadership the next time, and the next time, and the next time. There was a time when lobbying my Kansas senators and representative was an experiment, though I did not think about it as such. It thought of it as climate activism, and it was. But I also learned from it—namely that the Koch Brothers, based in Wichita, KS, have such a headlock on these three gentlemen that they are deaf to this particular tactic. I learned that a visit to the Kansas offices on Capitol Hill is an exercise in indignity, where your assigned staffer will reassuringly explain to you how their party leader in the White House has “all the best climates.” Fah!
If you are like me—a white member of the American evangelical tribe, erstwhile or otherwise—then non-violent civil disobedience for the sake of the things you value may be new to you. But admit it: you’ve been intrigued by the idea, haven’t you? And maybe, as Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and the ailing Paris Agreement process threaten to narrow traditional democratic options even further, you sense that new tactics of climate action are going to be required sooner rather than later. If so, I’ve got good news for you. There is a SMART experiment in non-violent direct action that is already on the schedule and coming to a location near you. (Save the Date: April 23, 2020). And—the best news of all—a team of veteran Christian creation care leaders, led by Sojourner’s and YECA’s Melody Zhang, is preparing a SMART place specifically for you. I keep using the acronym SMART because the letter S stands for “safe:” as we try new tactics, you can titrate the amount of risk that you want to begin with. You are a beginner. We understand. We bless your curiosity and we applaud your courage in trying something new.
#StoptheMoneyPipeline. That’s the name of the campaign. Here’s your chance to do a deep dive into the leading edge of climate action, and to do it safely. If you are interested in learning more about what is likely the highest leverage strategy to compel fossil fuel companies to “keep it in the ground,” then you can read McKibben’s article in the New Yorker:“Money is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns.” If you are interested in the data behind the campaign, you can read Rainforest Action Network’s report Banking on Climate Change 2019. Here’s the narrative: Chase Bank is the largest funder of new fossil fuel projects—$196 billion since the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement. On April 23, from sit-ins and prayer-ins at national sites and local sites near you, or in on-line actions, we’ll be sending a message to CEO Jamie Dimon: “Defund Climate Change.” The shortest introduction to the campaign is this 5:12 video by 350.org and The Years Project. In the video you can get a preview of what the April 23rd direct action might look like. You can also hear from Rev. Lennox Yearwood what some of the Christian messaging sounds like. And all of it can lead you to the actual campaign website: https://www.stopthemoneypipeline.com.
But don’t be scared off by the police in the video, or by Jane Fonda and the list of other allies, if you find these things scary. Today’s SMART experiment is simply to “Save the Date” and to remain, like David Baker, “open to persuasion.” The next SMART experiment will be to explore what Melody and our team generate by way of a plan and a website. (Stay tuned.) You will learn that, whereas some people will be risking arrest, many others won’t (including myself who do regular border crossings on a brand new Canadian Permanent Resident card.) You will be provided training so that you will know what to expect. Equally as important, you will be provided with some good old-fashioned discipleship and Bible study. What is a Christian approach to an action like April 23rd’s? God has created the planet to be a house of prayer for himself, but polluters have participated in turning it into a den of thieves. You have a zeal for caring for God’s creation. If, on April 23rd, we are going to re-captiulate our Master’s confrontation with the money changers (cf. Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, John 2) then we dare not do so as just a religious gimmick to grab a cheap headline. Only an authentic engagement with our faith and with the Scriptures beforehand will give us the authority to say to Jamie Dimon: “Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not; defund climate change now!” Our team is grateful to Brian Webb of Climate Caretakers for launching the exploration of this idea and for organizing our first conference call with Bill McKibben. Kudos to Brian as well for discovering this quotation from Rev. Jim Antal: “We need to make civil disobedience a normative expression of Christian discipleship, just like prayer is a normative expression of Christian faith.” We can act experimentally even with Rev. Antal: you don’t have buy his statement today hook-line-and-sinker, but would you be willing to “rent” it for the next two months?
So, please join us on this journey. And if you are a leader of a church, creation care organization, or ministry, please consider joining the coalition that Melody is forming, and bringing your constituency smartly along. Some of you are already diving headfirst in the #StoptheMoneyPipeline campaign. You are familiar with this type of activism. We bless your faithful courage and zeal. But for the rest of us, and the rest of our organizations: please consider the possibility that the Eaarth of the year 2021 (as soon as that: namely, post-US elections, post-COP26) will have burned through our BAU options as effectively as a California wildfire through the town of Paradise. Christians won’t be ready for non-violent civil disobedience then, if we haven’t acted experimentally now.
Save the Date. Stay tuned. Write me with questions if you wish: email@example.com