by Brian Drayton

As I, along with many others, have been trying to identify how climate change relates to Christian understandings (theology, you can call it, or “giving account of the hope that is in us” to use Paul’s phrase), it can feel like a primarily scholastic enterprise,

But then I think about stories such as the one that just broke today. Governments and large corporations (their conjoined partners) have responded to protests against the continued hegemony of fossil fuels, and in favor of a future that avoids the worst cases of climate change, by essentially criminalizing such protests.

The Ohio legislature is the latest of several to pass such legislation, and the bill if approved would authorize substantial financial penalties not only for protesters using any of a number of tactics, but also for organizations, including religious groups, that provide any support or encouragement. As the Huffington Post reports (accurately quoting the bill, which can be read in full here):

Any organizations that “knowingly direct, authorize, facilitate, or encourage a person to commit any of the following offenses or provide compensation to a person for committing any of the following offenses” can be “punished with a fine that is ten times the maximum fine that can be imposed on an individual.” Companies that operate critical infrastructure could then sue those same organizations in civil court, too.

The bill includes fossil fuel facilities, pipelines, etc. among the items of “critical infrastructure.” In addition to physical damage or human injury, crimes may also include such broad offenses as “to interfere with the use or enjoyment of the property of another” in various ways.

Now there are a lot of Friends (and others) who are feeling moved to what our tradition would call “prophetic witness.” In other areas, such as refusal to participate in war, the mainstream has treated the variance represented by small dissenting sects as an annoyance which is not included under their definitions of “free exercise of religion.” On the one hand, this can be seen as an example of the narrowing in American religious discourse of the nature of “sin” so as primarily to focus on sexual activities; the culture does not now consider gluttony or usury or envy or acedia as sins to be avoided.

On the other hand, much rhetoric around variant theological views treats minority positions almost like consumer choices. Opposition to abortion, on this view, is absolutely central to Christian belief, whereas opposition to war, or reverent treatment of Creation, are considered eccentric add-ons. If I make you violate those strictures, I am not causing you any serious spiritual damage, whereas if, for example, I make law that forces a health professional to treat a trans person like anyone else, or prescribe a Plan B abortifacient, I am endangering their souls, interfering with their religious practice, in a way that the Constitution forbids. The Quaker stance on war, however, claims that opposition to war is an unavoidable mandate.

I remember when I was standing before my draft board, arguing my case to be classified as a conscientious objector. My draft board was deeply skeptical about my position, because I claimed a religious motive (I was not yet a Friend, and so not a member of a recognized “peace church”). They peppered me with the sort of questions that most COs got back then.

The thing is that, though this was an intimidating and even scary experience, I found my fears taken away when I remembered why I was standing there. I’d filed as a supporting document a copy of the gospel of John, and when I kept the commandment to love in mind, and the dialogue with Nicodemus, I felt grounded—not confident in myself, but deeply rooted and prepared to take what came. I was strengthened to make my case, and succeeded.

When I later came among Friends, and read the “Peace Testimony” statement (you know, the one that says, “The Spirit of Christ is not changeable…”) I felt that I was among a people who understood the gospel more fully than my former communities had, and I was surrounded by a cloud of witnesses to instruct and strengthen me.

So with climate change, and earth care, and the need in our times for prophetic words and acts. If we understand that “The Spirit of Christ” is expressed also in God’s engagement with, and love in, the creation, then we cannot separate that testimony from our other testimonies about worship, marriage, war, justice, etc. The responsibility to stewardship of Creation, as an expression of love of God and love of neighbor, is consequently unavoidable, inalienable from our understanding of the Gospel. It is therefore not an option, or a consumer choice, or a political fad.

This can strengthen us individually and as communities, in times of struggle and social conflict around these issues, when the Powers seek to crush dissent from their hydrocarbon idolatry — but it also gives us an additional way to appeal to the witness in others, including those who profess Christianity, or claim to defend the sanctity of conscientious action. And so our theology can equip us to fully make our case — not only acting as the Holy Spirit directs, but putting it into words, and perhaps images and songs, as well as deeds, using many channels to convey how the story of God’s love is taking, yet again, uncomfortable shape, bringing turbulent peace on the Dove’s wings of metanoia and transformation, and how this story is our story.

Brian Drayton is a member of Preparative Meeting in New England YM. This article was posted on Brian’s blogsite Amor Vincat (“May love have the victory!”) on December 19, 2020.