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Christian climate protests

The Extinction Rebellion climate protesters in London have been joined by many professing Christians, including some clergy who have carried out baptisms, got themselves arrested, and generally shown solidarity with the activists and claimed God’s blessing on their actions.

The Bishop of Colchester, Roger Morris, joined people in prayer and worship, led protesters in a Eucharist and said, ‘When our very existence is threatened by our insatiable exploitation of this precious earth, we have to speak up and we have to take action.’ 

One of the people being baptised was Holly-Anna Petersen, a member of Christian Climate Action who said that she wanted to reaffirm her vows at the protest as a public ‘outworking of her faith’. She said:

‘Being here, making a stand for God’s creation, is part of my worship. Jesus was the ultimate rebel, whose bravery in speaking out against injustice led not only to his arrest, but his death. Being here on the streets, sharing community and standing up to oppressive powers, feels very much like the early church.’

Does this description of the early church stack up? Those first Christians faced genuinely oppressive powers. Do you think Emperor Nero would have tolerated giant effigies of himself being paraded around the streets of Rome? I don’t think so.

Secondly, the early church did not ‘stand up’ to the oppressive powers of their day (who were doing far worse things than environmental damage) by organising mass protests. No, they submitted to the authorities and got on with telling people about Jesus. They only rebelled when the state directly prohibited obedience to God, especially when it came to preaching the gospel.

But leaving aside the poor theology and church history, is there something we as Christians ought to be doing? Climate change is without doubt a very serious issue. It is not sufficient for us to simply hide behind the promise God gave Noah after the flood – that he would never again allow catastrophic environmental events as long ‘as the earth endures’ (Gen 8:22). Our world might still be just about habitable even after we have perpetrated vast amounts of damage but in doing so we would not be keeping God’s command to take care of the planet.

So, each of us should adopt ways in which we express our personal desire to be good stewards of the earth and, as much as we can understand the issues, make representations to government and to companies about what we believe they should be doing, and make changes to our own habits where we can. The questions about what the solutions to our climate crisis should be are complex, both economically and scientifically, but that should not put us off trying to work them out. And we certainly should not be encouraging irresponsible consumerism.

So how should we conduct ourselves on this issue? Should we throw in our lot with the anti-capitalist protesters? Should we chain ourselves to a piece of public property to cause maximum disruption or glue ourselves to some cursed form of transport. Are capitalism and corporations all evil at their root?

The current protests have a kind of religious dimension – there is the threat of imminent judgement (extinction) unless we repent, and salvation is promised if we all live differently in order to rescue the planet. But it’s not Christian it’s practically pagan.

Christians need to make sure that we don’t get caught up in this new-age, quasi-religious fervour and start confusing it with the gospel. Salvation does not come through being carbon neutral; we will never be green enough to face a holy God. We might have common cause with other religions in seeking to protect the environment but our biblical faith is not the same as theirs and we certainly do not consider ‘mother earth’ to be sacred, as some Christian groups have been suggesting.

We also need to consider the mode of current protests and whether they really fit with New Testament teaching on respect for those in authority.

And even if you decide that protesting in this way is permissible, what about protesting about other atrocities? Our twenty-six voting bishops recently absented themselves from the House of Lord’s vote to impose abortion on Northern Ireland. None of them seems to be standing up against false religion and heresy, or for the right to take an assembly in a Church of England school and state that Christ is the only way to God. I see none of these climate-protesting Christian leaders being arrested for refusing to pander to the current totalitarian calls for recognising and encouraging ‘transgender and non-binary’ children to mutilate their bodies and mess up their minds.

Our greatest priority in these days of crisis is to pray for our broken world, one in which so many are unprepared for the greatest challenge the world has ever faced – the return of Jesus Christ. It is an event that will lead to something far worse than environmental extinction for those who persist in rebelling against God’s good word. Let us make sure our warnings about this are heard loudest and longest.

(See also Stuart’s post on this recently)


  1. James Mc | 17 Oct, 2019

    A few thoughts off the top of my head:

    1. You refer to the Romans “…who were doing far worse things than environmental damage”. Now, lining up crucified victims for hundreds of miles along the Appian way and setting them on fire to light the way is so immediately and intuitively revolting that arguing against it would seem like madness, so I won’t. Nevertheless, I think it does expose one of the most frustrating things about climate change – that it so abstract. Explaining how a failure to recycle plastic bottles will lead to devastating floods in Asia is somewhat like that butterfly causing hurricanes in chaos theory.

    But if climate change causes a 10th of the damage that it seems to be capable of, the Roman Empire is positively tame by comparison.

    Thinking of immediate moral actions at the expense of far-reaching consequences is dangerous here.

    2. You mention, with reference to the Noah narrative, that God promises “that he would never again allow catastrophic environmental events as long ‘as the earth endures’ (Gen 8:22).”

    Now, the phrasing there is troubling. God promises that “seed and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will not cease.“ I don’t think that is the same as saying that we won’t have catastrophic environmental events. Tsunamis, Typhoons, Earthquakes, volcanoes, mud-slides, droughts, etc are all catastrophic environmental events. I was going to include plagues and diseases too, but couldn’t work out if that would result in an argument about semantics. The point is that I don’t think a generation goes by without facing multiple catastrophic environmental events. The question of scale is difficult to argue, but if (on percentage terms) climate change kills as many people as the spanish flu did (3% of the world’s population), it will kill 210,000,000 people. The scariest climate change figures I’ve seen estimate the percentage would be nearer to 7%. That’s horrifying, but I don’t think it’s particularly difficult to square that with the biblical narrative.

    3. I agree that using terms like “oppressive” to describe poor recycling policies is unwise/misleading, but if you take it as a reference to “capitalism as it exists, warts and all” then it’s hard to deny.

    4. There is, it seems to me, a risk of “what about-ism” in the last couple of paragraphs. You raise a number of issues that I think all Christians should be concerned about, but it doesn’t seem relevant to determining how appropriate the present concern for climate change is.

    5. I’m absolutely not in favour of violent protests. I’m not denying virtue signalling is a real factor. I think the tone of protests perpetuates the awful polarisation that we’ve suffered so much in the last few years, and it’s not clear that it has the power to do anywhere near as much good as it purportedly aims at. None of that is to dismiss the motives of all involved, but it’s enough to say I’m not persuaded it’s necessarily helping.

    I don’t think our faith calls for unconditional support of these protests. I just think the core of their argument might be treated a bit too dismissively here.

    Whatever the case, I’m really grateful that you put this kind of stuff out there. Much as I might disagree with parts of the post, it’s much better to have this kind of conversation in the open.

  2. Graham Nicholls | 18 Oct, 2019

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments
    About comparison with the Romans, I know it’s not quite the same but I think that is morally worse in outcome to kill people than to damage the environment. I think it is also not the same intention. All of us are polluting the environment in some way every day, just by living and breathing but we are not intending global damage. For murder, the solution is to stop killing but for the environment the solutions are more subtle – unless we decide to stop breathing, stop using electricity etc.
    About my reference to Noah you are correct, my wording was poor, I should have said God promises not to send a worldwide annihilating environmental catastrophe. I might change it!
    I agree you cannot argue that environmental protest is essentially wrong because there are more important things to protest about, but I think in proportion there are worse things we are doing as a society that rebel against the image of God and it is a shame that Christian leaders are not known for public protest. Has any high-profile Christian leader, especially those connected with the XR protests spoke out against abortion recently? I don’t think so. But also these protest are basically anti-capitalist and new age religious and so associating closely with them might be unwise.
    Your final comment that I might be treating the Christian climate protestors argument too dismissively. Apologies if it came off in that way. I was trying to argue that we should have a view on this topic and consider carefully our own consumerism and lobby government and corporations. But I don’t think the economically realistic scientific solutions are a simple choice or policy.
    Again, thanks so much for engaging.

  3. James McAdams | 18 Oct, 2019

    Thanks for the reply – I tried to say above that I agree on the moral issue, which is what led to my awkward rambling about the abstractness of climate change.

    If a parent wilfully breaks their kids leg, they have committed a greater evil than a parent that fails to vaccinate against measles – or, less than that, puts them on a terrible diet and overfeeds them. But the amount of damage in the long term could well level out, or exceed it (though that’s tremendously difficult to quantify).

    I think it’s daft to treat the latter like the former, but I do think it’s morally necessary for anyone that knows the risks to seek changes of some form, and if the latter case is more endemic than the former then it might be more urgent to tackle, even if it is a lesser evil (or if evil is the wrong category). My view here is obviously quite removed from many of the protesters who do want to make it more immediately and directly “moral” in nature, such that your criticisms/concerns about the arguments being employed are entirely merited.

    I just want to make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  4. David Stanford | 23 Oct, 2019

    Out of interest, what would be the primary evidence in your view that ‘climate change is without doubt a very serious issue’?

    • Graham Nicholls | 23 Oct, 2019

      Great question. I would suggest it is serious in that if proven to be advancing it may be a threat to life and if proven to be caused humans it become an issue of stewardship. If neither, it is a serious issue as most people think it is either or both of those=

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