Giotto: Lamentation (The Mourning of Christ)

by Gary Clark

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Romans 12:14

Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you.

Martin Luther King

(A Gift of Love).

This is not Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, recently published by Penguin, represents a radical political manifesto based on an unflinchingly honest appraisal of the climate science and the catastrophic consequences of business as usual. It is also represents a declaration of rebellion against the British government. It is uncompromising in its opposition to the vested interests, such as fossil fuel corporations, that have seized the levers of power in our so-called democracies.

This is a radical book that calls for revolution against the current establishment. However, it is unlike many other political manifestos in that it is infused throughout by sentiments that can best be described as religious. In this sense the book has more affinity with the peaceful and religious based resistance of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, than Russian anarchists or the violent insurrection advocated by Lenin. For example, in her contribution “Die, Survive or Thrive” environmental lawyer, Farhana Yamin, reflects upon the neo-liberal polices that have bought our planet to the precipice of catastrophe, noting that while it is too late to prevent all of the negative impacts of climate change this should not ‘destroy our capacity to nurture. It cannot destroy our capacity to love and our sense of justice.’ As she continues:

We can and now must redesign human societies based on love, justice and planetary boundaries so that no person or society is left to face devastating consequences  and we learn to restore nature together.

The religious dimension of the book is even more evident in the essay written by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who writes:

Extinction Rebellion recognises that the climate crisis is a symptom of a far wider kind of malaise and corruption in the human imagination…In the Book of Proverbs, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the divine wisdom is described as “filled with delight” at the entire world which flows from that wisdom. For me as a religious believer, the denial or corruption of that delight is like spitting in the face of the life-giving Word who is to be met in all things and all people.

Elsewhere, I have explored how the religious or spiritual dimension of human experience informs the ethical principles of Extinction Rebellion. In that piece I discussed ego dissolving religious experiences induced by psychedelics that have been found to enrich and deepen ecological awareness – the kind of awareness I believe as a species we need to cultivate on a planetary scale if we are to avert ecological and social collapse.  However, there is another dimension of religious sentiment I want to explore here: that is it’s hard headed strategic rationale.

Modern peaceful civil disobedience frequently draws inspiration from Gandhi, whose political action against British rule in India was deeply imbued with both Western and Eastern religious texts and literature.  Martin Luther King, who drew on Gandhi’s example of peaceful revolution, was a Baptist minister who based his resistance to structural racism in the US on the teachings of Christ.  This is no more evident than in his Gift of Love, much of which was written while imprisoned in Birmingham jail. Basing political resistance on the Christian principles of love and forgiveness, is far from being emotionally facile sentimentality or narcissistic indulgence. It is a hard-headed political strategy that is not only frequently successful – it also evokes the emotions from your opponents and the public that are necessary to achieve radical social and political transformation. As King writes:

We will match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. And do to us what you will, and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And so throw us in jail, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators and violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead and we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom but we will not only win freedom for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience, that we will win you in the process. And our victory will be a double victory. This is the meaning of the nonviolent creed. This is the meaning of the nonviolent ethic.

While we do not expect such repressive measures against Extinction Rebellion, the ability of nonviolent peaceful resistance to transform the emotional state of our opponents and society more generally is one of our main aims.  And such transformation is most likely to occur if we incarnate love and compassion in our bodies, in our words and in our actions.

This may all sound counter-intuitive to activists who are used to thinking in terms of adversarial struggle against their perceived ideological opponents. Can you defeat your opponents by loving them? I think it is strategically the best option we have – particularly as nonviolent peaceful resistance is statistically more likely to bring about revolutionary change than violent resistance is.  This is partly because our opponents are deprived of the negatives caricatures that they will inevitably deploy to discredit us. It is hard to demonise a hundred people sitting on a road singing soulful songs and offering kindness – and at times refreshments – to the police. Such an atmosphere is not one that evokes apprehension and fear in police and therefore one that is less likely to result in repressive responses. Additionally, when the relationship with police is humansied through communication and dialogue, and they are certain we will maintain nonviolent discipline in a stress and tension free social space, it dramatically reduces the likelihood of a violent response. This is a crucial strategic principle. While some will argue the police are merely there to enforce the will of the state and the elites they are also human beings. And to treat them so through respectful dialogue will not guarantee the absence of a violent response – but it will dramatically reduce the likelihood of one.

But Extinction Rebellion offers more than a successful strategy for effective revolution. The aesthetically rich and dramatic nature of the protests seek to evoke emotional responses from the public about the dire situation our species and planet is in – and how we may reconnect with the natural processes of our world that we have become dangerously removed from. In this sense Extinction Rebellion actions based on love and respect for our opponents seek to nurture the aesthetic and ethical sensitivities of the entire social body. This is not some intellectually formulated ideological position. It is about embodied emotional responses that can move us all, from worker to executive and from child to adult – what Williams called ‘our lost or suppressed memory of what it is to live in alignment with the rest of the world, to understand how our bodies themselves “think.” ’ Such embodied experience comes naturally to the young – as we find in our own children – as it also forms the aesthetic of many of our poets, such as Wordsworth whose poetry is grounded in the experiences of childhood and our lost connection to nature. And such emotionally enriching cultural spaces are welcoming and rejuvenating, which will help attract the large numbers we need to effectively blockade cities.

When I think about religion and ecology St Francis of Assisi, the 13th century hippy, nature lover and carer for the poor and disenfranchised, frequently comes to mind. Significantly, in 1979, Pope John Paul II declared St. Francis the Patron Saint of Ecologists. St Francis had a habit of travelling around his home town of Assisi in Italy preaching to animals and singing songs of praise to the elements. St Francis has been called the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history for his humility, faithfulness to the example of Christ, and radical attitudes towards nature, which ran against centuries of religious ideas that justified human domination and exploitation of the nonhuman world. His love of nature could definitely inform a new eco-aesthetic as we move deeper into the twenty first century.

Giotto: Saint Francis of Assisi Preaching to the Birds

St Francis’s attitude to nature seems to be a kind of survival of very archaic shamanic beliefs about the sentience and aliveness of nature – a nature which he did not objectify as an inferior other outside the self, but as a living entity which he engaged with through song and prayer. As we find in Indigenous conceptions of nature, St Francis saw the elements and the animals as kin – that is as family. Such an attitude of dialogue, kinship and reciprocity serves as model for us moderns, who have lost the capacity for such deep affective engagement with the non-human world. From his poem Canticle of the Sun:

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night and he is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with coloured flowers and herbs.

I sometimes whimsically wonder if St Francis, because of his loving sacrifice of personal gain in service of the poor, and his love of the natural world, might also serve as the patron Saint of Extinction Rebellion. Such a deep love of nature, combined with the kind of peaceful and loving civil resistance practised by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, could make our movement one of the most politically and spiritually potent of the coming century.