This weekend the London Marathon takes place under the threat of disruption by climate change activists and in the context of further protests by Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil. Both groups are committed to highly disruptive direct action. These protests – both the issues they represent, and the tactics involved – are incredibly emotive. But are they legitimate?
I’ve found myself asking this question of late and I suspect many others will have done so as well – particularly people affected by disruptive action. My own starting point is to affirm the right to protest, set within some clear biblical principles and boundaries. In Romans 13:1 Paul writes, “let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.”
These verses have often been used to suggest Christians should not protest. However, this is surely an over-reading of the text. The command to submit to those in authority must be balanced with our freedoms to express our views in a democratic society. The Christian worldview has space for both. We submit to authority, and we use government-endorsed freedoms to express our concerns about specific policies. This is a great privilege.
Whilst I believe in the right to protest, I do not think that all protests are right. The passion and righteous anger that motivates some to act can become selfish anger and hate. Good goals and causes can mutate into idolatrous or destructive behaviour. And so, we need to consider the current climate change protest groups against biblical models and principles. What does it look like to stand up for a just cause, or against an evil one, in scripture?
There are biblical precedents for protest. The most obvious is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3. Together, they protested a command from Nebuchadnezzar that they should bow down and worship a massive, golden statue of himself. As those loyal to God above all others, the four men knew this violated the first commandment: you shall have no other gods before me. As such, they protested the decision and refused to bow down.
They are not the only protesters in the bible. If we see protest as a means of shining a light on ways in which God is dishonoured, then it is not surprising that Jesus ‘protested.’ For example, he caused quite a scene in the Temple courts when he overturned tables and drove out the moneychangers. Yet, in doing this he never hurt anyone, or violated any human law. His actions pointed people back to his Father, and what the temple courts symbolized, without doing wrong.
From both these biblical examples we can draw a clear principle of caution. What motivates us to protest is key. For the Christian we must question why we want to protest, what we are seeking to achieve, and for whom? Daniel and his three friends were self-evidently motivated by a love for God and a desire to put Him first. In Jesus’ example, the Bible says, ‘zeal for His Father’s House consumed Him’.
We can also find examples of godly protesting throughout Christian history. At various points, the church has failed to defend the vulnerable and uphold truth. But there is a great and rich history of faithful Christians being moved to protest injustice. Christians have led protests on issues that grieve God’s heart, from slavery to civil rights, debt relief, poverty, and creation care. Christians have also championed the value of life from conception to natural death.
Christian protestors must always uphold the dignity of other image bearers. Actions must always exhibit compassion and civility. This was the remarkable witness of the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther Jr. and others in 1960s America. In the actions of many protesters today we do not always see Christlikeness and a desire, in Dr. Kings words, to “be loving enough to absorb evil, and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend”.
For Christians the ends should never justify the means. Therefore, while I sympathize with some of the climate change protesters’ concerns, I cannot support some of their goals or tactics. Although there have been steps taken by both radical climate change protest groups in recent days to minimize direct injury to others, I am not convinced that their actions have been fully safeguarded from unintentionally harming others.
Personally, I agree that as image bearers, human beings have not cared for God’s creation well. Human cultures have exploited resources without thinking of the consequences for humanity, and the earth itself. Creation care says something profoundly important about who we are – people made in God’s image. It says something about our role in God’s creation, and, most importantly about the goodness of God. It is these beliefs that should motivates Christians to speak out.
We have both a challenge and an opportunity in this area. We must not shirk our responsibility to point to a better story for creation care – the church cannot be silent on environmental issues. But let’s lead the charge in providing a more respectful, and loving dialogue. If we do protest and do so in a way that is persuasive rather than pernicious, minds will be changed.