Carrying the Living King Back to the White House

By Steve Clemens 08-31-2011

Rose Berger from Sojourners magazine spoke to the hundreds of us gathered in Lafayette Park just before we processed to the fence surrounding the White House. She mentioned the irony of building a monument to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by the powerful political forces who disregarded or dismissed his message during his lifetime -- we only honor him after he is safely dead. How ironic also that the dedication of the monument was postponed by the most recent example of significant climate change. Will evidence of climate change begin to also signal political change?

Rose called on us to take up the banner of the Living Spirit of Dr. King within ourselves and allow it to inspire us as we risked arrest by calling on President Obama to take a clear stand to help protect our environment and begin to make a U-turn from the climate change path we are traveling as a nation and culture. We are part of a two-week vigil and civil disobedience action calling the president to deny permission for building the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from the environmentally devastating tar sands/oil shale development in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Texas.

Dr. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who has done yeoman's work on the issue of climate change for years (and original proponent of the 350 parts per million threshold), joined us saying he "wanted to get arrested with the religious folk." Certainly not all (or most?) of the 138 persons arrested for their nonviolent presence at the White House on Monday identify themselves as "religious." During our nonviolence training the evening before our arrests, Rose Berger admitted that many of us carry scars and deep wounds that have been inflicted on us by religious leaders over the decades, and she asked the others joining the action at the White House to be patient with us as we try to model what is best in our religious traditions -- compassion and care for the weak and marginalized.

The blasts from the shofar, the ram's horn used by Jews in worship for centuries was loud and clear as we moved from a time of worship and reflection to a period of action. One of the rabbis leading us told we non-Jews that tonight marks a month-long period of reflection before the Jewish high holy days -- and then those two rabbis walked across Pennsylvania Avenue with us to spend part of that reflection time in the custody of the police -- nonviolently, of course.

Before we left the park, Bill McKibben, the primary organizer and instigator of this two-week presence in front of the White House told us he had just talked to his wife in Vermont, hearing her reports of the tremendous devastation from Hurricane Irene from his home state. He told us that while we are paying attention to the floods and droughts which affect those we know, these climate change related wake-up calls are happening every day around our planet. Now is the time to act.

I don't pretend to be an expert on climate science or environmental justice; I'll leave that heavy lifting to McKibben, Hansen, and others. I do know we all need to pay attention and take seriously the changes in our lifestyles we will need to embrace. We can't expect our president to take political risks unless we are willing to model changes in our own lives.

But what is the connection to Dr. King other than the commitment to be nonviolent? As several speakers noted this weekend and today: climate change disproportionately affects the poor. Not only do they have less "cushion" to ameliorate the extreme swings between hot and cold, drought and flood, they also find the recent budget cuts fall more heavily on them while at the same time the military budget continues to rise -- something Dr. King spoke about frequently the year before he was martyred. I plan to visit the new memorial while here in D.C., while remembering to celebrate all the living memorials breaking out in nonviolent witness around our world.

Steve Clemens is a member of the Community of St. Martin, an ecumenical Christian faith community committed to nonviolence and inclusiveness in Minneapolis. He has been active in nonviolent witness since 1969 and lived for 16 years (1975-90) as a Resident Partner at the Koinonia community in southwest GA. He has been a friend of Jim Wallis and many other Sojourners folk since the first issue of Post-American came out in 1971. He blogs at Mennonista.

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