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I have a duty to the truth — even if it puts me in prison

05 May 2023

Mark Coleman, writing from HMP Thameside, calls on Christians to take a public stand against new oil and gas projects

Insulate Britain

The Revd Mark Coleman at an Insulate Britain protest

The Revd Mark Coleman at an Insulate Britain protest

AT MY Crown Court trial in January, I was allowed to have three character witness statements read to the court. These were from my bishop, the former mayor of Rochdale, and an imam. Fortunately, each was positive about me. I particularly liked the imam’s comment that I had a “duty to the truth”.

At the start of the trial, I had sworn on the Bible to tell the whole truth. But the judge ruled that I was not allowed to talk about why I had sat on the road in the City of London in October 2021; so I could not tell the truth. At my sentencing, I told the judge I found that painful. I also told the judge I would break the law again until the demands of Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil were met.

“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked. I hope that my discipleship is a response to the truth I encounter in Jesus. I hope that it will be Jesus-shaped, marked by his love and self-sacrifice, honouring the image of God in every human. Surely, we are Christians in a context reading the signs of the time.

TODAY, in this emergency, the evidence is clear that government inaction on cutting carbon emissions has us on a pathway to ever more dangerous climate tipping-points. The Government, fully aware of the science, is facilitating the killing of millions of our fellow humans by the development of new oil and gas projects.

Scripture warns us of the danger of worshipping anything other than the one true God. We entrust the State with keeping us safe, and distance ourselves from the political. We get entranced with projects and institutions, unreasonably investing all our hopes in them. (Look at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and its many COP climate summits that have yet to solve the problem, or the convenient concept of far off Net Zero targets).

Exxon and Shell long ago had knowledge which indicated that the burning of oil would lead to deadly rising temperatures, but, staying true to company laws, they kept quiet about it. Their first responsibility was to the shareholders and profit, not the poor, who, in the years to come, would suffer most and die in the greatest numbers.

In a similar way, the law as I encountered it at the Inner London Crown Court, would not take account of our motivation, which was love; our method, which was non- violence; or the science, which I believe more than justified the disruptive protest. It was my hope that, by touching the hearts of the jury, we might be acquitted. Surely, the truth would set us free! In the mainstream media, where our newspapers are owned by billionaires with fossil-fuel interests, it is more convenient to demonise the messenger and avoid dealing with the message.

I’m often told that it is good that I stand up for what I “believe” in; it’s an important “issue” to be “passionate” about, people tell me. This is not about me, but about the survival of all of us and civilisation. While I do try to emit less carbon in my life, I would be avoiding my duty to the truth if I acted only as a private Christian and avoided my responsibility to the public and prophetic. As the problem is systemic, so will the solution be. Stopping the profit oil machine may yet save us.

IN THIS unique context, what does being a Christian look like? Many in our communities and congregations have a sense of what is wrong, and they are worried about the future. But they are also confused. There are many conflicting messages. Poor people cannot easily choose a green lifestyle. Black people in this country may not choose to be arrested. Protesters are demonised. Scientific reports are barely covered in the mainstream press.

How does the Church respond in this context? My local diocesan newsletter promoted a seminar, “Protecting your church from climate change.” We urgently need to stand up and resist. We are called to be disciples and respond to the truth.

In Christian Climate Action, Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, and Just Stop Oil, I meet many courageous committed people who are resisting non-violently all that is destroying this beautiful world, and exposing the inaction and hollowness of the UK Government. They inspire me in my own discipleship. I have found joy in responding to the truth and entering into civil resistance. It feels good to do all that I can do. I recognise how privileged I am to be able to act in this way; but, with the help of other Christians, we could make such a difference.

I am particularly motivated by the story of the Freedom Riders; but I was not permitted to tell that story to the jury in court. In 1961, hundreds of people, black and white, travelled to the Deep South of the United States in long-distance coaches, provoking the rage of the segregationists. Beaten and vilified, they were put into prison. After months of struggle, the government caved in, and social change came. We who follow Jesus are surely called to be at the forefront of protecting the life of those at risk, now and in the future.

MY SON posted a message on Twitter, inviting people to contact me in prison. It has been heartening to receive so many messages expressing gratitude, assuring prayers. I have felt very close to my fellow Insulate Britain prisoners, and supported by the communities who are resisting the new oil and gas projects.

Whoever you are in the Church, lay or ordained, in paid ministry or retired, you can be proud and joyful bearers of truth. A card from the Revd Sue Parfitt, a retired priest who has been arrested multiple times on behalf of Christian Climate Action, gives me the final thought in a verse of scripture: 2 Timothy 1.8: “Do not be ashamed, then, of witnessing to our Lord, nor be ashamed of me a prisoner for Christ’s sake.”

The Revd Mark Coleman, a retired priest from Rochdale, has been serving a five-week prison sentence in HMP Thameside. He is due to be released on Friday (5 May).


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