Like a lot of the banners say, I don’t want to be here – I really don’t. I’m a natural rule-follower, the kind of cyclist who tuts when other cyclists jump red lights. I’m deeply conflict-avoidant (until I get really wound up). More than any of this, I just find it all a bit embarrassing. So why at 9am on a Monday morning, having taken two days off work, am I tremblingly stepping out into traffic in an attempt to block off Lambeth Bridge?
As everyone now knows, the science is clear: and I’m guessing that everyone involved in Extinction Rebellion feels, like me, they’ve done everything they can – changed their lifestyles, pressured their MPs and local councillors, given to projects on the frontline of climate change research and action, spoken to others about it. But none of it has been enough. We need real, systemic change, and we need our governments to step up and act, fast. Climate change is already here, and is already having devastating consequences on the world’s poorest. I could barely sleep the night that Hurricane Dorian sat over Grand Bahama, wreaking havoc, causing damage that it’ll take decades to recover from. And things are going to get much, much worse.
Faith, of course, complicates everything further. I believe in a God of love and justice and ultimate hope. But I do not believe in a God who steps in with a magic wand. I think of the Old Testament prophets and the message they brought that no one wanted to hear. I’m neither a Bible scholar nor a theologian, but to me the climate crisis is a deeply spiritual one and a profound illustration of ‘sin’ – both personal and corporate – and our failure to love others as we love ourselves. I seem to flip between the poles of wanting to hope and knowing that, on our current trajectory, there are no grounds for optimism.
Ultimately, it’s faith, though, that has brought me here. When I found out that Christian Climate Action was going to be one of many faith groups alongside Extinction Rebellion South West planning to block off Lambeth Bridge and make it a ‘faith bridge’, I knew I needed to be involved. Whatever my fundamental reservations about XR – Does it alienate people? Is it ultimately helpful? Aren’t the criticisms that it’s too white and middle class and, indeed, colonialist, correct? – I knew I needed to be with a bunch of other folk to stand in solidarity and to pray.
The ultimate worthless gesture from a secular viewpoint, perhaps. But the NVDA training organised by CCA I went to just a week before convinced me of its importance. Simply to be around people thinking and feeling the same thing, and motivated by a deep love of neighbour, was profoundly moving and encouraging. And although on one level I know I need to avoid centring my feelings, on another, to continue to face this hideousness and all that it’s going to demand from us I know I’ll need more strength than I have.
That same day I went to see The Farewell, a gorgeously bittersweet Chinese American family drama about having to keep a devastating secret, and at the same time put a smiling face on things: a perfect illustration of how I’ve felt about climate change over the years. No one wants to hear that their way of life is not just unsustainable, it’s deeply selfish. No one wants to hear that people are already starving and that things are going to get worse. This, at last, is an opportunity to tell the truth – to each other, and to the capital, even if in a very limited and faltering way.
In the end the faith bridge was never really established – though Lambeth Bridge was blocked off for most of the day – and on the Tuesday we moved to Trafalgar Square. I didn’t do the lengthy praying that I was hoping to do. At times it was hugely uncomfortable: not just the embarrassment of it all, or the rain, or the occasional abuse (though this was vastly and surprisingly outnumbered by the shows of support from passersby as well as cyclists and motorists), but how difficult it was to find out what was going on, feeling a bit aimless, useless. But in among it all we sang, we prayed, we had interesting conversations with police officers, we upheld one another. I somehow missed Eucharist whenever it happened but I took part in a public reaffirmation of baptism vows and allegiance to Jesus in the face of climate breakdown, in a paddling pool in Trafalgar Square. I don’t believe these thing were only symbols; I trust that they did something both to me and to the others there with me, and the consequences of those actions will continue to ripple out. Most of all I got the chance to stand alongside people who are awake to what’s going on and who are doing something about it, and who understand the extra level of tension that Christian faith brings to it all. And back in the office I had the longest and most natural conversation about my faith I’ve ever had in the workplace, simply because a curious colleague had clicked on the link I’d just about been brave enough to include in my out of office message.
Yes, the whole thing has been embarrassing – deeply embarrassing. I hate drawing attention to myself in this kind of way, when I can’t actually explain myself. I just have to accept whatever it is that people want to assume about me, from the bemused tourists as we reaffirmed our baptism vows to the van drivers screaming obscenities, telling us to get jobs. But I’m used to being the least cool person in the room: I’ve been a Christian my entire life.
Who knows what we will have achieved, if anything. I only know that Christians are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful. And I think about Bonhoeffer, writing to his nephew in 1942:
” … all this gives me confidence that here there is a common ground, a common task, a common hope, indeed something that transcends the gap between generations. When we ponder this, then our own short personal life becomes relatively insignificant; we begin to think about greater periods of time and greater tasks. Right now you belong to a community that … is actively living through one of the great turning points of history. You yourself can do hardly anything about the broad course of things. You probably often feel utterly unnecessary, out of place, bearing all sorts of personal worry and struggle. So what other wishes should I have for you today than that you learn not to take these small personal things, desires and hardships, too seriously, but rather to understand yourself in your place and within the possibilities given to you as a link in the long procession of these generations … “
Street theatre and blocking off roads may just be another reason for people to sneer. But it is my hope that all of us who are working against climate breakdown, surely the greatest task of our day, will be links in the long procession of God’s love and justice for the whole world.