God’s creation is in danger; and to call upon the powers of the world to heal it, God’s people are prepared to go to jail.
Perhaps most famously in our recent history, the startling sight of a religious leader in jail was embodied in the willingness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to go to jail more than 20 times in order to embody his religious commitment to racial justice, peace, and nonviolence.
As we approach the Holy Week of Christianity and Passover, we should be aware that this tradition goes back thousands of years. The movement of ancient Israelites seeking freedom from a lethal Pharaoh began even before Moses, when two midwives – the Bible carefully records their names, Shifra and Puah – refused to murder the boy-babies of the Israelites as Pharaoh had commanded. The recollection of that moment is the first recorded instance of nonviolent civil disobedience.
When that cruel and arrogant Pharaoh, addicted to his own power, refused freedom to his nation’s slaves, his arrogance forced the Earth itself to arise in what we call the Plagues – ecological disasters like undrinkable water, swarms of frogs and locusts, the climate calamity of unprecedented hailstorms.
Passover has kept alive and lively the memory of that uprising. So it is not surprising that the Gospels record that just before the week of Passover, Jesus led a protest against the behavior of the Roman Empire, its local authorities, and a Temple he and his followers thought had become corrupted from its sacred purpose.
To protest against the Empire of his era, Jesus chose a time that was both appropriate and dangerous, since Passover celebrates the fall of Pharaoh. His challenge resulted in his arrest and imprisonment, and then his torture and execution.
Both Judaism and Christianity can trace their origins to acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Indeed, for several centuries of Imperial Rome, the very persistence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were collective acts of civil disobedience.
Today, religious folk face modern plagues imposed upon our countries and our planet by a new kind of Pharaoh. All of God’s creation — both humankind and the web of life upon our planet — are endangered by the over-burning of fossil fuels. Private behavior and public policy continue on the fossil path even as the world’s scientists warn us that the increase of carbon dioxide and methane in our atmosphere is heating, scorching our planet.
Their warnings are borne out in the multiplication of “extreme weather events” – Superstorm Sandy, drastic droughts in the American corn belt, ruinous floods in Pakistan, the melting of the Arctic ice, forest fires in Russia and Australia, the hottest year in the continental United States in all our history.
And so some religious folk, convinced that the climate crisis is a moral issue, are preparing to do nonviolent civil disobedience in defense of God’s creation. Holding high the green Palms of Jesus’ life-choosing protest against a deadly Empire, holding high the Matzah that became the bread of freedom because there was no time to let the bread rise when God’s Voice said to birth freedom in great haste, holding high the Globe that reminds us that on behalf of God, in our generation we ourselves “hold the whole world in our hands” – religious folk today will follow in the great Passover/ Holy Week tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience.
They – we – will challenge a president, a Congress, and corporate leaders to take the courageous actions that the Creation needs: End the high-methane, high-CO2 practices of Tar Sands mining, fracking for unnatural gas, drilling for oil in the fragile Arctic and the high seas, and create a rising fee on carbon production that will step by step move us into the more just and compassionate world of sustainable, renewable energy.
To that sacred end, Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” may well find its heirs in letters from religiously and spiritually and morally rooted people, from the jails of Washington, D.C., Alberta, Pennsylvania, Texas, and a hundred other places.
God’s Earth is crying out; God’s people must respond.
The Rev. Dr. Jim Antal is the Minister and President of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. He has been arrested twice in front of the White House protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., is director of The Shalom Center and has been arrested in the U.S. Capitol calling for vigorous action on the climate crisis. For information on a religiously rooted risk-arrest climate action at the White House on March 21, see http://www.interfaithactiononclimatechange.org/