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Religious protesters: Tables to be overturned

by
23 July 2021

As the Home Office seeks to curb protest, Joe Ware speaks to Christians prepared to take a stand

Helena Smith

Religious protesters blocking Westminster Bridge during climate-change demos in October 2019

Religious protesters blocking Westminster Bridge during climate-change demos in October 2019

THE American grass-roots organiser and author L. A. Kauffman has described the present time as the “golden age of protest”. In the past few years, there has been a spike in public protest movements, both in the UK and around the world.

Footage of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the response to the killing of Sarah Everard by a police officer, Greta Thunberg and the school-strike movement, and Extinction Rebellion demonstrations that brought roads in central London to a standstill shows that people are taking to the streets in significant numbers, even despite the pandemic.

How should Christians respond, however, to movements that can result in disruption, property damage, and confrontation with police and the democratically elected powers of the state?

For some Christians involved in these protests, taking a stand is nothing new. The Revd Martin Newell, a Roman Catholic priest from Birmingham, is involved in Christian Climate Action, which operates alongside Extinction Rebellion (XR). He has also spent six months in prison after breaking into RAF Wittering and causing £28,000 worth of damage while disarming vehicles that transport Britain’s nuclear weapons.

Fr Martin Newell

Fr Newell, aged 53, joined the pro-peace movement at university, and came to the view that the potential of nuclear weapons to cause large-scale, indiscriminate killing made them immoral. He said: “I became convinced Jesus was a pacifist, and that I should be one, too.

“In the past, if you wanted to be a conscientious objector all you had to do was refuse to join the military, albeit with serious consequences. Today, due to high-tech warfare, the powers-that-be don’t need young men, just our silence and our taxes. I believe we’re complicit if we don’t oppose it.”

Fr Newell grew up in a conservative, Daily Mail-reading family. “I was too young to vote in 1979, but, if I had been able to, I’d have voted for Thatcher,” he said. But during his university years he remembers being challenged through his attendance at the Christian Union: “There was a poster which said: ‘If you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?’ That really stuck with me.”

On the subject of being a law-breaker, Fr Newell is at peace with it. “I’m OK with breaking the law for the right reasons. Jesus actively opposed the unjust laws and structures of his day.”

 

NOT everyone agrees with the spirit of disruption caused by Christian Climate Action and the like. The Rt Revd Nick Holtam, recently retired as the Bishop of Salisbury and formerly the C of E’s lead bishop on the environment, wrote in this paper that some of the tactics of Extinction Rebellion had “strained relationships” (Faith, 2 October 2020).

In an interview during the protests in 2019, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “We have to start on all of these things with respect for the human being. And you can be disrespectful in the way you demonstrate, and you can be disrespectful in the way that you treat those who are demonstrating.

“We believe in free speech. But you have to think, ‘Whose lives are we making not just more difficult but perhaps catastrophically more difficult?’”

Fr Newell does have sympathy for those affected. “I certainly feel sorry for some of those caught up in them. During one of the XR roadblock protests, a woman came up to me who was a carer who couldn’t get to her work. I tried to give her some money for the Tube. I felt terrible.

“But without those protests, the awareness about the climate emergency would be much less — and that would be catastrophic. Also, the lifestyles we lead, and the way our economic system exploits other countries, are disrupting people’s lives overseas all the time. The wars the UK has waged on other countries, which kill and maim, cause far more disruption than our protests.

“Look at Jesus driving out the moneylenders in the Temple. The activities taking place there were among the most important for faithful Jews, and Jesus thought it was appropriate to disrupt that. If Jesus thought it was OK to cause disruption in the face of injustice, then it’s OK by me.”

Referring to the police, Fr Newell said: “I find police quite like dealing with non-violent protesters. We’re nice; we’re not a danger to them. Their job is usually much more stressful than dealing with us.”

 

GRAHAM NORMAN, a police inspector in Wimbledon, and deputy chair of the Christian Police Association, said that, from anecdotal evidence, it was rare for Christians in the UK to be involved in protests that broke the law.

“As Christians, we should always consider the impact of what we do on others. As police, we are charged with upholding the law of the land; so I would always urge all to respect this.”

Asked what he made of Christians who took part in law-breaking protests in the past, such as the Suffragettes and the civil-rights movement, he said: “As far as I’m aware, the Suffragettes were not a Christian movement, although there may have been Christians in the movement.

“It was clearly an important and worthy cause; but, as a Christian, I can never see a case when proactive violence is justified. Martin Luther King is a great example of peaceful and godly protest that changed a nation. The discriminatory laws in the US were clearly contrary to God’s law.

“We are blessed to live in a country where much of the legislation is based on the teachings of the Bible, although that is changing as we become more secular. We also have free speech, and freedom to practice our faith, which is really important.”

 

MARTIN LUTHER KING, a Baptist minister who was arrested on numerous occasions until his life was cut short in 1968, is an example of someone who inspires many of today’s Christian protesters — and yet is also praised as an example by police, politicians, and other representatives of the Establishment.

Benjamin Wayman, Associate Professor of Theology at Greenville University, Illinois, said that King’s radicalism jarred with his portrayal as a national treasure by those happy with the status quo.

“Isn’t it curious how the Revd Martin Luther King, Jr, is considered an inspiration today, when, during his life, he was regarded as a terrorist and threat to democracy by so many? Similar sentiments were shared by the ruling class during Jesus’s life; he was, after all, executed as an enemy of the state: a rival king that threatened Roman rule and order.

Sarah CresswellThe Revd Helen Burnett

“Such revisionist history turns the revolutionary and prophetic witnesses of King and Jesus into milquetoast symbols to cover our complicity in oppressive structures. Such histories expose our deep mistrust of the gospel and its relentless challenge to the status quo.

“Recovering the challenging, uncomfortable, and revolutionary witness of the Reverend King would not only do justice to his legacy, but also give us a glimpse into the very heart of God.”

For the Revd Hilary Bond, a pioneer priest in the parish of Wareham, Dorset, and a member of Christian Climate Action, it is King’s friend Mahalia Jackson who is the source of inspiration. Jackson was standing by King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 when King gave his most famous speech.

Ms Bond said: “She realised there was something that he should be saying that he wasn’t saying, and so she shouted out: ‘Tell them about the dream, Martin!’ He heard her, abandoned his written notes, and launched into what is possibly one of the most famous speeches of all time.

“When you take part in a protest, it’s obviously good to have a plan. But it’s also really important, in terms of Christian protest, to listen to what God is saying is the right thing to do in the moment, too.”

For her, the reason to risk arrest by taking direct action was because other forms of activism had not proved successful. “For a long time, I signed petitions, and wrote to my MP and to big businesses that were in a position to make a difference on the climate crisis.

“I don’t like breaking the law, but I have reached a point of desperation where it seems as if no one is listening and I have nowhere else to go.

“I love this world that God made. There is so much beauty and goodness in it. I don’t want to see sea levels rise and cause mass migration, with people fighting over land and food. And I don’t want, in ten, 20, 30 years’ time, for the young people I know to be coming to me and saying: ‘Why didn’t you do something? You knew.’”

 

CHRISTIANS sometimes make a stand on a small scale. Natalie Collins, a gender-justice specialist, ended up starting a solo protest in 2015, when she launched a petition calling for the Hillsong conference to withdraw its invitation to the US pastor Mark Driscoll to headline meetings in Australia and the UK.

The year before, Driscoll had faced formal complaints of abusive behaviour from members of the staff and congregation of his church, Mars Hill. He resigned, and the church was dissolved.

Collins’s petition was signed by 3250 people, despite being described as “shouty and ranty” and not Christlike by Carl Beech, the president of Christian Vision for Men. The petition caused Driscoll to be demoted from headline speaker, but a pre-recorded interview with him was still played at the Australian conference. Collins decided that she would protest at the London event a week later at the O2 Arena.

She said: “I informed the O2 of my intention to protest, and arrived at the arena armed with a bed sheet with a large painted message: “Weep with those who weep.” Although five people had said they would join me, no one made it, and so I stood alone outside the event as 8000 Christians streamed towards me.

“At first, I was terrified. When no one else turned up to protest with me, I considered going home.” But, she says, “I couldn’t just go home. I needed to stand there as a representative of all those who had been hurt, and, in my embodied being there and being brave, they would know that someone thought they mattered. And so, I unfurled my bed-sheet banner and held it up.

“I was a lone voice. Surely with [odds of] 8000 to one, I couldn’t be right? But, as I stood there, banner held up, arms aching, the Spirit of God burned within me, confirming that being on the outside with those who have been mistreated will always be where God calls me to be.

“In lots of ways, it prepared me for future seasons, which have required me to be a warrior for women: challenging those in power, often being a lone voice. And, hopefully, some of those who were hurt by Mark Driscoll will have read of my protest and been comforted that their pain mattered enough for me to take a stand.”

 

THE issue of protest, and how it should be policed, is currently on the agenda in Westminster, since the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, introduced the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. The legislation would criminalise activities that cause an individual serious “annoyance” or “unease”, and forbid protests if the noise “may result in serious disruption to the activities of an organisation”. Thus, even protests outside Parliament itself could be stopped.

The Revd Helen Burnett, Team Vicar of St Peter and St Paul, Chaldon, with St Luke’s, Whyteleafe, in the diocese of Southwark, has been arrested for her part in protests with Christian Climate Action (News, 4 October 2019; Comment, 1 April). She thinks that the Government is trying to shut down opposition.

“I believe that we have to work in solidarity across many forms of activism to counter the prevailing behaviours and expectations that normalise acceptance of injustice and inaction. Calling protest ‘extreme’ is a tool of the current Government to silence dissent and to limit radical imagining about the future. The Christian calling is to imagine a new heaven and a new earth.”

The proposed legislation sparked its own “Kill the Bill” protests after the Metropolitan Police broke up a vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, who had been kidnapped, raped, and killed days earlier. One of the Met’s officers, Wayne Couzens, has been convicted of her murder.

Natalie CollinsNatalie Collins’s banner from her protest at the Hillsong conference

The Bill is viewed as a direct response to the success of protests by Extinction Rebellion and the Black Lives Matter movement. Mike Royal, joint chief executive of the Cinnamon Network and a Pentecostal bishop with the Apostolic Pastoral Congress, attended some of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

He said: “The new policing Bill concerns me. It’s posturing by the current Home Secretary. I just hope the police take a common-sense approach when policing protests. The Government should avoid politicising the police service.”

For Bishop Royal, attending the BLM protests was an important act of solidarity. He said: “I wanted to stand with young people — black, brown, and white — who took to the streets to say enough is enough. They inspired me.

“But I also organised a ‘Ministers of Colour’ protest at Parliament Square in London, because I wanted the distinct voice of the Church to also be heard.”

Critics have raised concerns about some of the aims of the Black Lives Matter organisation. The UK BLM group list a series of demands, many of which are associated with left-wing politics. These include scrapping tuition fees and student debt, the introduction of rent controls, a reversal of all cuts made during austerity, an end to all British military operations abroad, and the scrapping of the Coronavirus Act.

This has drawn the ire of some Conservative MPs, who have criticised the England football team for taking the knee (Comment, 21 July 2020) before their Euro 2021 matches.

Bishop Royal says that this is a needless distraction from the spirit behind the movement. He said: “I hope Christians will commit to Black Lives Matter, the movement, and avoid the red herring of being concerned about Black Lives Matter, the organisation.

“I also hope they engage in the auditing of their churches and organisations to becoming more aware of racial justice, and how it impacts people and communities. If the footballers get the distinction, so can we.”

 

SOME Christians have taken an alternative approach to street protests and direct action, choosing a quieter method. Sarah Corbett set up the Craftivist Collective, and coined the term “Gentle Protest” to describe how they use craft as a tool for strategic activism.

It’s a form of protest that has attracted introverts, burnt-out activists, and craft-lovers, and has led to collaborations with museums and galleries.

Ms Corbett says: “There’s lots of different types of craftivism. For example, some craftivists make crocheted voodoo dolls of world leaders they do not agree with, which get more likes on Instagram than Craftivist Collective’s projects.

“But I wanted to take a more constructive and compassionate approach that isn’t divisive. Craft is the tool, but, for me, gentleness is the golden thread that makes my craftivism effective.

“Gentleness was an idea that really resonated with me: it wasn’t passive or weak, but was about being loving to others, being emotionally intelligent, strategic, thoughtful, careful (as in care for others and carefully executed). Gandhi wrote: ‘In a gentle way we can shake the world.’

“It was after I coined the term ‘Gentle Protest’ that I heard a sermon on the fruits of the spirit by my Vicar, and he happened to be focusing on the gentleness. I knew then that my phrase was the best fit personally and politically.”

Rather than make crafts with slogans such as “Make tea not war”, the Craftivist Collective prioritises strategy, craft serving the cause. Ms Corbett says: “We’re always protesting against something, but always with a focus on realistic solutions that are welcoming, not excluding.

“We’ll make bespoke gifts for powerholders encouraging them as critical friends, not aggressive enemies.

”And we offer ‘crafterthought questions’ for makers to use the comfort of the crafting process to ask themselves uncomfortable questions about how to improve their own behaviours and actions as well as act with kindness towards those we asking to take action.”

Corbett has been inspired by a former First Lady in the United States: “Eleanor Roosevelt was an introvert, who was very shy and withdrawn as a child, but used her position as First Lady to be courageous and campaign for human rights.”

Courage is a theme that, Fr Newell says, is essential for both protest and the Christian life: “There’s a saying that there will never be peace as long as we’re only prepared to strive for it with half a life or half a heart — because people will risk everything for war. I need to be at least as courageous as those who are willing to make war.

“If you’re going to be a Christian in this culture, you need great courage to live in the fullness of the gospel. One thing I hope people get from hearing about our protests is that they should have more courage to live out their faith, in whatever way that is. I’d be delighted with that.”

On the current issue of the climate crisis, he says: “I’d like to hope that, when people look back on this time, they will see that Christians were part of the movement — unlike when people look back on the Nazi era and ask, ‘Where were the Christians?’

“I hope they will at least be able to see that today’s Christians are working to make things better. I believe people will then see that God is alive, and worthy of people putting their trust and faith in him.”

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20 September 2021
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25 September 2021
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