My wrist was cuffed to the White House fence next to the wrist of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Our nation’s chief climate scientist James Hanson stood next to me; Daryl Hannah sat in front of us. A few feet away, also cuffed to the fence, Julian Bond stood next to Bill McKibben and Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Altogether, 48 of us from all over America obeyed our consciences. The days of safety and silence have ended. The time of pretending is over. Humanity will be held accountable for our desecration of creation. It is happening already.
And it was Ash Wednesday. When I mounted the platform to address the rally that preceded our civil disobedience, many were unaware that Lent was beginning. In the context of climate disruption, anyone who cares about creation can embrace the significance of Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of conscience, repentance, and conviction; a day when we take stock of our lives and our life together on the planet; a day when we confess our self-indulgent appetites, our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our obsession with consumption of every kind. For Christians, Ash Wednesday is a day to acknowledge that we are accountable to the God who gave us life and who entrusted the earth to our care.
Ash Wednesday is a good day to be arrested, I told the crowd. It’s a good day to realign our lives with God's desire to preserve this good creation. I invited any who wanted to receive ashes as a sign of their repentance to approach me on their way to White House.
Dozens did, including those who would soon be arrested, supporters, camera technicians, and journalists. The mood was this striking mix of sober, joyous, serious, grateful conviction.
As we slowly approached the White House fence, President Obama’s State of the Union address from the night before echoed in my mind:
“If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
One such action to protect future generations – an action the President has the power to take – is to stop Keystone XL pipeline. For a moment, while I held the cold iron of the White House fence with my left hand, it seemed simple. Such an action by President Obama would give hope to the world, and would be regarded by future generations as a hinge on which history would swing towards hope.
We cheered the name of each person as they were cut from the fence, given a new set of plastic cuffs and escorted to the police transport vehicles. I greeted two of the police I met in August 2011 when 1,253 of us were arrested, and 63 of us spent three days in jail. We remembered our friendly conversation.
Hope became tangible for me during the two hours I spent jammed in the police transportation vehicle, hands cuffed behind me, shoulders aching, and wrists in pain. Hope emerged – as it so often does – from conversation. To my right was writer and now full-time activist Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. We had been arrested together in August 2011.
To my right sat Julian Bond, whose first civil disobedience action was in 1960 at a lunch counter in Georgia. Two hours is a long time.
Hope grew as I began to take in Julian’s resolute courage and realized that it was less than 50 years between his first arrest and Obama’s first election. Much has changed in that time. Julian reminded me that the single most important ingredient in social change is persistence. Hope grew.
Hope is what the church provided the Civil Rights movement in 1960. Hope is what the church can and must provide the climate movement today. Hope. Whatever energy churches are now giving to preserve their buildings or to maintain their institutions – that energy must be redirected so that the big challenge – the challenge in which all others are contained – the challenge of climate change can be confronted.
Only our hope will provide the courage and vision to redirect our energy. Ash Wednesday is only the beginning. A dark journey lies before us. The promise of resurrection hope illuminates the darkness. If we stop too soon, it doesn’t end well – God is crucified yet again. Our hope and certainty is that neither darkness nor death is the end of the story. God has done God’s part. Now it’s up to us.
When I emerged from the confinement of the transport vehicle and stretched my legs, my soul was aglow from conversation laced with hope. I believe the church can underwrite the hope humanity needs to change our ways. I believe the climate movement has the resolute courage, persistence, and creativity to reframe this crisis so that our generation – and President Obama – will embrace the opportunity we now face.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, and former Executive Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He provides national leadership as a climate activist for the United Church of Christ.