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

Change and Conflict
distributed 1/28/11 - ©2011

This morning's headlines (MSNBC.com) tell of "open revolt" on the streets of Cairo. Just a few weeks ago, citizen protests toppled the ruling regime in Tunisia.

In contrast, an opinion column by Barbara Ehrenreich printed in today's Denver Post opens with this paragraph:

Why are Americans such wusses? Threaten the Greeks with job losses and benefit cuts and they tie up Athens, but take away Americans' jobs, 401(k)s, even their homes, and they pretty much roll over. Tell British students that their tuition is about to go up and they take to the streets; American students just amp up their doses of Prozac.

I'm not advocating that we form street mobs and torch public buildings. Nor am I suggesting -- as one reader asked after my Notes on liberation theology -- "handing out semi automatic assault weapons to carry out guerilla warfare against the dominating corporate class as some liberation theologians advocated in Latin America?"

But I do continue to wonder what sort of situation, what sort of challenge to our values or self-interest, would motivate people of conscience to more dramatic action for justice and the ecological health of our planet. It is a question about risk and commitment that I raised in last week's Notes, and I received some very thoughtful responses. (Eight of the replies are posted on our website.)

Those wise words from our extended community have helped me see some places where I need to expand last week's reflections. They have helped me see how churches and other faith communities might play a powerful and transformative role -- without all their members getting arrested.

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To be sure, there are many ways to take intentional action for social change. Civil disobedience is one, alongside political advocacy, acts of public witness and mass protests, economic choices about purchases and investments, education, legal challenges, the spread of technological innovation, and efforts to enhance the best qualities of local communities. Individuals and churches can pick from a wide range of actions.

Civil disobedience and some forms of public witness are "last resort" strategies which call for those taking part to place themselves at some form of risk -- financial, legal, or bodily. Few people will make that choice, which is why their witness is so dramatic.

When I consider civil disobedience (prodded by Bill McKibben's challenges) I'm focusing on a narrow range of (1) peaceful and non-violent actions which (2) push against some legal boundary such as trespass (3) for the purpose of forcing discussion about policies and actions. I think civil disobedience is generally most effective when it is targeted toward a narrow issue -- passage of specific legislation or change of a corporate policy -- and not toward a broad theme such as "ending global warming."

Several of the people who wrote to me this week raised a concern about visible witness and disobedience triggering an even larger backlash, and prompting others to violence. I'm realizing that a strong "push back" against disobedience is not a flaw -- it is almost essential to the success of the strategy. The key to effectiveness has to do with what happens after the protesters encounter strong resistance.

Let me go the next step with an example that I used last week -- the "bloody Sunday" march in Selma. A group of 600 people set out from Selma toward Montgomery in a protest related to voting rights. In 1965 Alabama, such a non-violent presence clearly pushed the boundaries of what the powers-that-be considered acceptable. Indeed, the march was blocked by state troopers, who beat and gassed the protesters. The marchers knew that they were being provocative, and they encountered a brutal backlash.

But the violence of the Alabama troopers was not the end of the story. An even larger response -- against the violence, and in support of the civil rights marchers -- brought new people to Alabama for a second march two weeks later that ended with 25,000 gathered at the state capitol. The televised scenes of brutality inspired folk to move from concern to action. Many of those who came in support were clergy and members of white churches across the US. It was not the initial march, but the violence in Selma, which pushed President Johnson to take the lead on the Voting Rights Act.

If the state troopers in Selma had acted with moderation -- just blocking the march, or arresting a few leaders -- the event would not be of historic importance. The state's outrageous response to a non-violent witness brought about a surge of new commitments for civil rights. The backlash against the marchers in Selma helped bring new concern for justice into white churches, and that was a tipping point in the movement.

Civil disobedience may be a less-than-effective strategy today because governments and corporations have learned to be gentle in their response to non-violent protests. Those who break the law -- blocking the gates of power plants, or spending months sitting in threatened redwoods, or unfurling a giant Greenpeace banner on Mt. Rushmore -- tend to be treated with great moderation. And so we look at the actors as passionate but quirky individuals. Their actions alone don't generate transformative situations. We are not presented with the occasion to see the harsh push-back of political and institutional power that might inspire us to join the cause.

So here is what I think might be necessary for "environmental" civil disobedience that would really bring about change. Churches are important in the later stages.

  1. The scale and the intensity of the actions needs to be increased. Rather than a one-hour blockage at the gates of a power plant or coal mine, the non-violent action needs to go on for days or weeks, with yet more dedicated protesters showing up to replace those who are arrested or removed. These people will be taking real risks as they persistently provoke the institutions they are protesting. They will certainly face jail time, and may be exposing themselves to violence.
  2. The strong push-back against non-violent protest needs to be made very visible, and be denounced by moral leaders in religion, politics and the media. Those who are engaging in the protests and disobedience must be seen as standing up for a righteous cause. (The "national preach in on global warming" in about two weeks will help to establish that moral foundation.)
  3. The protests are likely to become an effective mass movement only when a second tier of supporters is mobilized to stand with the initial group of protesters. These acts of solidarity (also non-violent) don't involve disobedience, but could be events like public rallies at courthouses or corporate offices. The substantial involvement of religious leaders -- clergy and lay -- at this level of protest grounds and empowers a growing movement.

Those of us who seek real transformation of laws, values and systems for the healing of the Earth must recognize that we're up against enormous power -- political, legal, economic and cultural. Our work to bring about change must confront and challenge that power. Civil disobedience may be effective only if it dramatically exposes that power.

Civil disobedience can be an effective way to force engagement with the power structures which would prefer to be hidden, and which would rather be seen as benign. The good folk who responded to my questions last week have made me realize the difficult realities of that strategy. Civil disobedience must be willing and able to provoke a strong response from the established opponents, and then be able to build public support for the chosen side in the conflict.

From a church perspective, this form of action against global warming and other threats to God's creation will require a few real saints and martyrs to take the leading action. And it will require many, many others to be a bit less courageous as they stand in support of the cause. It will force churches -- congregations and denominations -- to take a stand.

I'm finding that the questions that I raised last week are even more difficult than I first thought. Effective action may require that we provoke open conflict. The levels of risk at each step of the process are substantial. But selfless, non-violent engagement in a moral cause is at the heart of faithful living.

In the face of Earth's urgent crises -- global heating, species driven into extinction, and people poisoned by the toxic waste of our society -- I hope you will join me in wrestling deeply with what risks our faith calls us to take.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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