Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Risk and Disobedience
distributed 1/21/11 - ©2011

A recurring conversation with my wife, Allyson, has dealt with matters of risk and commitment. It all started with our participation in Monday morning's event honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It continues this week as we talk about eco-justice.

For many years, Denver has hosted a huge "marade" -- with elements of a march and a parade -- on King Day. In what is often the largest event in the country, over 10,000 people join in the 3 mile trek from City Park to the Civic Center. Throughout the gathered crowd, there's a cheerful (and sometimes nebulous) affirmation of Dr. King's commitments to justice and non-violence.

The marade is also an occasion for people and organizations to be visible in aligning themselves with King's fine principles. The self-promotion is shameless. Churches bring carloads of members to walk with their banners. Many of the 13 candidates in Denver's mayoral election were present with signs and brochures. Labor unions, school groups, and AIDS education programs were among those near us in the sprawling procession. We were honoring King, and also announcing that our various causes were -- of course! -- close to the spirit of King's life and work.

As we walked briskly down Colfax on a splendid winter day (bright sun and 54 degrees), Allyson reflected on the marade as an inherently "safe" event. There is absolutely no danger to life, limb or reputation for those who show up. It is a fun social event that also affirms a national hero and his values.

Allyson's thoughts were focused by the memoir she is reading of one of the Little Rock Nine -- the African American youth who integrated an Arkansas high school in 1957 under the daily protection of federal troops. We also have talked about the countless courageous folk who took part in the marches King led. Those who marched knew that they might be subject to violence, and that their peaceful response was essential to the strategy of transformation. On the "bloody Sunday" march from Selma in 1965, the brutal actions by Alabama troopers horrified the nation and generated the political context for President Johnson's introduction of the Voting Rights Act.

It is clear to me that there is no similarity between our fun walk on the marade and the extreme risk taken by people of conscience in Little Rock, Selma and elsewhere. We belittle the memory of King and others in that movement if we equate our Monday festivities with their dangerous marches.

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The lead article in a recent Christian Century magazine (1/11/11) is Disobedience: Direct action on global warming, by Bill McKibben. Bill refers to the civil rights movement as he calls us to take some risk as we act on our climate commitments.

For the most part, the strategies of those working to minimize global warming have been polite and safe. We've written letters and met with our Senators. We've done educational forums in churches and schools. We've been creative in staging the big public events of and 10-10-10. But really, all of those actions have been about as risky as taking part in Denver's marade. Some of us have invested lots of time and energy to the cause, but we've been safe. Now it is time to take some risks as evidence that we're serious.

McKibben wrote:

Some of us have been thinking that it may be necessary to mount a campaign of mass action, of civil protest, of dignified disobedience. Its goal would not be to shut down the fossil fuel system ... The campaign's aim, instead, would be much simpler: to demonstrate the sense of urgency that this issue requires. It would be in the nature of a witness.

He proposes some targets for acts of disobedience: the worst of the coal-fired power plants, "the fossil fuel billionaires that fund the cynical disinformation campaigns," and the congresspeople who have done the most to block progress. At this stage, McKibben is open to suggestions on where to act, but he is clear in naming the how:

Civil disobedience is a tactic that's in decline, because we've forgotten certain truths about how to use it honestly and effectively. Maybe the most important of these is: it's a last resort, a step we use when other avenues are exhausted.

He calls us to step out of the safety zone, and take a stand for our beliefs. Specifically, the "us" he calls to are those who are older and who have some prominence in our communities. "It's not fair to impose an arrest record on someone who hasn't even landed his first job; those of us with a little more security need to lead the way."

So I ask myself, am I willing to be arrested for blocking a coal train or some other act of protest? I haven't been, so far -- and I'm not sure whether my choices are grounded in considerations of effective strategy or a lack of personal commitment. McKibben's advocacy for a well-planned set of actions will force me to decide.

I encourage parish clergy to take part in the National Preach-In on Global Warming this February 13 -- and I know that there is real vocational risk for many pastors who preach boldly. The presence of risk creates tough decisions, but risk cannot be an excuse to avoid acting.

In our religioius tradition, we honor many who lived, acted and died with bold courage as they faced great personal risk. Prophets and martyrs through the ages are lifted up as models of faith and conviction, including modern martyrs such as Sr. Dorothy Stang who was assassinated while protecting the land, livelihood and culture of people living in the Amazonian rainforest.

It is nice if we do the safe thing of honoring people of commitment and courage, but the great crises of this time call for far more than "nice." May we each dig deep into our consciences and examine how far we are willing to go in support of the causes we say we support.

What will move you to risk your reputation, your job, your safety or your life? When will you agree to be arrested as a way of forcing action to preserve this fragile Earth? What is it that you might do that entails real risk and sacrifice -- for any cause?

Those are hard questions, and I haven't answered them for myself, yet. As I wrestle with those choices, I will value your thoughts, your experiences, your support, and your prodding.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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