Moderator Mardi’s Blog: Non-violent Civil Disobedience?

I’m getting a lot of questions about civil disobedience in relation to climate change. Given the urgency and our government’s refusal to consider any meaningful action, people are wondering, and asking, whether the time for non-violent civil disobedience is at hand.

Bill McKibben, whom I respect enormously, has already answered with a clear ‘yes.’  Bill’s Movement (named because climate scientists say we need to return to a carbon dioxide level of no more than 350 parts per million in the atmosphere for our species’ survival) has issued a Call for Civil Disobedience Campaign in Washington DC later this month.  Bill is inviting ‘a wave of nonviolent civil disobedience’ at the White House gates between August 20th and Labour Day to focus on convincing President Obama to withhold permits for the so-called ‘Keystone XL Pipeline’ “from Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries, adding enormously to planet-scorching CO2.”

On May 11, I joined other Canadian religious leaders on a panel addressing how people of faith advocate for care of creation. A young man there asked me about civil disobedience and, though his tone was respectful, I found the question challenging. It’s not an easy decision.

Stephen Scharper was in the audience and quoted me in his fine May 23rd Toronto Star article entitled ‘A Fiery Environmental Apocalypse’ — and then another Star writer, Antonia Zerbisias, asked for my comments on civil disobedience in relation to climate change.

Here’s what I said to Antonia:

“I encourage people first and foremost, to work for change through our democratic institutions.

“Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and author, was in Canada recently. I was inspired to hear him describe how the government of Australia reversed its position and adopted a carbon pricing system, because public pressure led them to it. I am hopeful that Canadians will lead our government in similar ways. We have many means by which to inform and inspire our elected MPs and Senators to do the right things to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions.

“The United Church of Canada does recognize an option for non-violent civil disobedience in some circumstances.

“As early as 1936, we supported a woman named Dorothea Palmer who was arrested in Ottawa for distributing birth control information to a mother of nine living in poverty. The United Church of Canada provided a witness in her trial, the Rev. John Coburn, who informed the court that the church’s 1936 General Council had adopted a resolution counselling that contraception be a matter of individual conscience. Dorothea Palmer was eventually acquitted on all charges.

“We explored the question of non-violent civil disobedience again in 1984, in relation to the development of nuclear weapons which cause mass and indiscriminate destruction. At the 30th General Council held that year, the church noted that such weapons “compromise Christian discipleship by making it impossible for Christians to fulfill their calling to be neighbour to one another and gardener to creation” and that “church history records many occasions when Christians have had to break the civil law in order to obey the law of God.”

“The church at that time decided to produce a study guide which continues to guide members in our assessment of the validity of non-violent civil disobedience.

“The guide considers scripture, the spirituality and theology of non-violent civil disobedience, the importance of discernment within community, historical church statements and past experience.

“Non-violent civil disobedience is part of our Christian tradition. It goes back to early Christians breaking Roman law with the sole aim of being loyal to Christ. In a democratic society, though, I think our primary obligation is to work for change through our institutions, unless, in faithful discernment of all the factors I’ve mentioned, we become convinced that democratic change is impossible.

“I view climate and ocean change as among the most pressing moral issues of our day, and that’s why I encourage all Canadians to act personally and politically for a just and sustainable future.”

There are times and places where civil disobedience is certainly justified. Returning to this month’s actions of civil disobedience in Washington, D.C., I have to say that I have the highest regard for both Rabbi Arthur Waskow (whose article about this appears on the Shalom Center’s website and Bill McKibben. I met Rabbi Waskow a few years ago when he was presiding at a Shabbat for the interfaith peace community in Philadelphia, and Bill and I both spoke at a Climate Summit held in Toronto last August. Arthur and Bill are people of deep faith and commitment to the common good. There is no doubt in my mind that they have come to their conclusions about non-violent civil disobedience in this case faithfully.

The criterion that we should discern the need for civil disobedience not on our own but within community is critically important to me. As Moderator, my community  is the General Council, which has faced this issue at least once before.

In October 1985, a group of Haida blocked a disputed area of forest that loggers planned to cut with the blessing of the government of British Columbia. Their actions resulted in 70 native people being charged with contempt of court. The General Council of the United Church gave its moral support to the Haida’s effort to preserve the culture and ecology of South Moresby. The Moderator at the time, the Very Rev. Bob Smith, went to Lyall Island to be with the demonstrators. Although he did not engage in civil disobedience, he sent a telegram in the name of The United Church of Canada to the federal and provincial governments in support of the Haidas.

As a Canadian church leader, my efforts continue to be focused with my own church and government. It’s heartening to see so many United Church members and leaders giving faithful priority to the moral challenge of climate change. I long to see Prime Minister Harper engage in this moral challenge in a way that reflects the best of Canadian concern for Earth and all Earth’s peoples, and so will continue to pursue dialogue with him, as I have had with other Canadian parliamentarians and leaders including oil industry leaders.

It’s more than unfortunate that demonstrating one’s concerns at the gates of the White House is apparently an illegal act for Americans. Last I checked, there is nothing illegal about demonstrating on Parliament Hill. If someone is organizing parallel events on Parliament Hill to this month’s Washington actions, please let me know.  In the Canadian context, both Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal church members have expressed their concerns to me that the oil industry is trying for an end run around U.S. concerns about oilsands pollution and will trample on native lands with Enbridge Inc.’s (TSX:ENB) proposed pipeline from Alberta to the B.C. coast. This, it would seem to me, is a related Canadian concern to this month’s protest in Washington.

For now, I will continue to focus my efforts on planning with other Canadian faith leaders to add strength to the voice of the World Council of Churches at the next United Nations climate talks, the 17th Conference of Parties to take place in Durban, South Africa later this year. And I’m making significant plans for Earth Day 2012 about which I’ll say more in the months to come.

Through all of this, I will continue to engage in discernment within my community of faith – as I encourage all of us to do.

May the courage of those taking action in Washington spark our own courageous actions of all kinds – whatever they may be – in order to participate fully in God’s healing of soul, community and creation.

Under what circumstances would you engage in non-violent civil disobedience as part of God’s healing work?