Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Civil Disobedience, Withdrawing Consent
distributed 4/15/16 - ©2016

Previously, in Eco-Justice Notes: Last week, I looked to the biblical prophet Jeremiah as a model of an outspoken, assertive, and deeply faithful "activist" who was engaged in issues of government policy and community values. Thanks to the 17 readers who have informed my reflections with their thoughtful and helpful comments!

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This week, there is an ongoing act of civil disobedience taking place on the steps of the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Since Monday, over 700 people have been arrested as part of the "Democracy Spring" sit-in campaign against corruption and big money in politics. This week's protest has not been picked up by the mainstream media, yet, only by outlets like Democracy Now!

I think back to a much more visible week of civil disobedience in 2011. At the end of that summer, 1,253 people -- many of them upstanding and prominent citizens -- were arrested at the White House while protesting the Keystone XL pipeline.

Before that sting of arrests, few of us had heard of Keystone, and those in the know considered it a "done deal." But that week of protests, including unexpected jail stays for some of those who were arrested, brought the pipeline into national awareness. That dramatic protest helped launch four years of activism, and helped establish Keystone as an icon of fossil fuels. As unlikely as it seemed in 2011, those acts of civil disobedience finally led to the cancelation of the pipeline last November.

Civil disobedience is on my mind recently, as Eco-Justice Ministries participates in planning for the "Break Free from Fossil Fuels" protests coming up next month. In Colorado, and other locations, some of those protests will involve civil disobedience.

This is not a social change tactic to be considered lightly. So I have been reflecting on the ethics -- as well as the strategic practicalities -- of civil disobedience

An article by a pair of philosophers provides some good background. They write, "Civil disobedience is generally defined as conscientious, public, and nonviolent resistance to unjust public laws or policies." They also offer a helpful framework, noting four categories where legal systems are unjust: where they require evil, where they promote evil, where they permit evil, and where they prohibit good acts. The authors continue:

As for Christians, only one category is noncontroversial: disobeying laws of the first variety where evil actions are mandated. But notice that in this case civil disobedience is passive. This suggests another distinction, namely that between passive and active civil disobedience. Passive civil disobedience involves a refusal to do what the law requires, while active civil disobedience involves doing what the law prohibits.

But those definitions are not a perfect fit for the Washington, DC, protests that I've mentioned, or for what might be part of the Break Free actions.

To focus on the fossil fuel related events, they are driven by the reality of human-accelerated climate change. The use of coal, oil and natural gas -- and the release of greenhouse gasses -- is warming the planet, warping the climate, raising sea levels, and unjustly bringing severe impacts to parts of the world that have done the least to create this crisis.

In this setting, I would say that laws and government policies "promote evil". When governments actively promote the extraction of fossil fuels, and when legal systems protect the right to extract those fuels above other community rights and goods (as in the Colorado constitution!), then the government is promoting a practice which is clearly causing damage. Devastating the planet is an "evil" which must be resisted.

But when people were arrested at the White House fence in 2011, they were not breaking a law about fossil fuels. Their active civil disobedience was not "doing what the law prohibits." I don't remember the exact details, but the law they broke was something like unlawful assembly.

As a matter of conscience, the Keystone protesters broke a law to protest government policies that promote evil. The importance and the urgency of the issue inspired them to take a very public stand, to place themselves at some risk, in order to elevate the public debate on this issue. These arrests were not only expressions of personal commitment. They were designed to be highly visible acts of public witness.

Christian Peace Witness puts this form of action in a broad historical context.

Throughout history, people have responded to numerous social and political emergencies and transformed systems of institutionalized violence by engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. Social transformations -- such as women's suffrage, establishing workers' rights, ending legal racial segregation, protecting the environment, establishing a moratorium on nuclear testing and ending the Vietnam War -- were the direct result of broad-based networks of ordinary citizens who took action. These and many other movements featured nonviolent civil disobedience as a way of clearly and publicly withdrawing consent from unjust policies and to sharpen for society the crucial choice for justice and peace.

Breaking a law about unlawful assembly is a way of "withdrawing consent" from a climate-destroying energy policy. It is a way of going on the record, in court, as a refusal to condone and cooperate with that policy.

As I've pondered the civil disobedience that might take place in Colorado next month, there have been times when I have thought of it as a kind of publicity stunt. People getting arrested are more likely to get into the news than a crowd of people holding signs. That is true, but it misses the point.

This kind of civil disobedience -- risking arrest as public witness against unjust policies -- is an institutionalized, legal expression of withdrawn consent. Just as divesting from fossil fuels is primarily a way to withdraw our consent and erode the legitimacy of fossil fuel production, breaking the law as an act of protest is a bold announcement that "the way things are" is not morally acceptable.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state becomes lawless or corrupt."

Civil disobedience dis-obeys the power that is defining the rules. We've moved way beyond questions about a particular policy, the phrasing of a law, or what kinds of incentives are most appropriate. This strategy expresses disagreement about core perspectives of government policy and social understanding. It says that the state, itself, has become evil or corrupt.

It is, I think, inappropriate to resort to civil disobedience over a narrow policy question of how far a fracked oil well needs to be set back from homes and schools. Is 1,000 feet enough, or should it be 1,500? (But, it isn't my house that's next door to a well, so I may not be getting the full sense of the issue.)

I am coming to realize, though, that it is appropriate to consider civil disobedience in a setting where those oil wells are granted broad exemptions from zoning laws; when neighbors are denied the right to protest, or to be compensated for damages to their health and property; and where the direct and indirect emissions from each new well adds to the global climate crisis. In that extended situation, the state itself has become lawless or corrupt.

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I'm not sure if I, personally, will risk arrest four weeks from now. The planning for next month's actions, though, has led me into a new and deeper awareness of civil disobedience as a moral witness in the face of corrupt power, and entrenched social values.

May we all -- prayerfully, honestly, and confessionally -- examine the systems and the policies that lead us ever deeper into climate crisis. May we all consider how far we are willing to go to withdraw our consent from that which promotes evil.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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