On July 30, the whole world watched as 13 Greenpeace activists dangled from ropes tied to the St. John’s bridge in Portland, Ore., red and yellow streamers catching the wind. They were blocking the exit of the Fennica, Shell’s ice breaker headed to the Arctic to facilitate drilling. These young activists hung there for 40 hours in makeshift platforms and slings during some of the hottest days on record, before the police and Coast Guard brought them down. One hundred feet below them, filling the river with their colorful small boats, were Portland’s “kayactivists” from the local Climate Action Coalition — some were experienced paddlers, others kayaking for the very first time. On shore stood over 500 people, cheering and chanting “Stop that boat!” Some were moved to tears by this unprecedented spectacle and by the courage of the protesters.
But everyone was not so thrilled. The Oregonian printed several letters from readers castigating the activists for disrupting traffic on land and sea and for wasting tax money. One wrote: “Make them pay serious fines or spend time in Portland jail.” Another complained: “Congratulations, Portland! You’ve confirmed that this is a city where it’s important to be weird.” There arises a legitimate question: what is the difference in civil disobedience and simply breaking the law? Was this an instance in which such a protest was justified? Perhaps it would be useful to look at the history and purpose of this radical form of protest.
The principles of civil disobedience are derived from both Western and Eastern sources. Socrates taught that there is a rational ethic that transcends the law of the state. Buddhists adhere to the concept of the dharma, or obedience to cosmic law.
John Locke (1632-1704) posited that government takes its authority from the people, and the purpose of law is to secure natural rights. The people are duty bound to change any system of government which fails to align with their natural rights.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote “On the Relation of the Individual to the State,” (1848) in which he claimed that the authority of the state depends upon the consent of the governed, and furthermore that adherence to justice transcends adherence to law. Citizens have the duty to disobey bad laws, though they must accept the consequences, he said.
Gandhi (1869-1948) became the leader of the nationalist movement in India, making civil disobedience, or what he called “satyagraha” — loosely translated as “insistence on truth” — as the moral grounding of his work. He was committed to non-violence, and taught that people are bound by duty to resist all untruthful laws.
There is no greater moral issue before us today than global warming. Our generation has a sacred call to prevent the worst: flooding of our cities, refugees fleeing rising water, failed states, and armed conflict over resources. The people who will suffer the most and the soonest, of course, are the poor.
I see again those young people suspended from slender ropes high above the river in the searing heat, see again the huge ship Fennica bearing down on the paddlers in their tiny kayaks. These activists are the David to the Goliath of the fossil fuel industry. They are spiritual warriors of the highest degree, showing us the meaning of sacrificial love, the love that Jesus himself embodied.
It’s time to rattle some cages. It’s time for all people — including and most particularly people of faith — to come forward and be counted. The future of the earth is in our hands.
Press link for more: Marilyn Sewell | huffingtonpost.com