Date Published: 15th October 2019
Over the past week, The Extinction Rebellion has caused chaos in my city of London, as well as many cities round the world. The Extinction Rebellion brands itself as a “non-violent civil disobedience activist movement” with the aim to “peacefully occupy the centres of power and shut them down” in order to demand action on climate change and ecological issues.
In the UK, the Extinction Rebellion has 3 main demands1:
- The government must declare a climate “emergency”
- The UK must legally commit to reduction carbon emissions to net zero by 2025
- A citizens’ assembly must be formed to “oversee the changes”
Over the past week, protestors have blocked several major roads, glued themselves to various buildings, climbed onto planes, and occupied several major areas of London including the BBC’s broadcasting house, parliament and Trafalgar Square. According to the Metropolitan Police, there have been over 1400 arrests of protestors in the past two weeks, on grounds of public order offenses2.
The disruption in London has affected thousands of people. I was at the wedding of two close friends of mine in central London last Saturday, and the bridal party got caught by the Extinction Rebellion protests as they drove from the church to the reception, causing the entire bridal party to arrive late for the reception!
So should Christians support the Extinction Rebellion? In my Christian circles, opinion seems to be split down the middle. Many of my friends are vocally supportive (and some even part of) the Extinction Rebellion, for they see it as their God-given mandate to campaign for environment issues. But on the other hand, many Christian are deeply troubled by the idea of supporting the disruption and interruption of ordinary people’s lives in the name of political causes. As with most things in life, I think a balanced approach is the best one. As Christians we have clear mandates to both care for creation, and maintain order in society.
1. The Mandate of Creation Care
In some strands of evangelical Christianity, there is the establish view that caring for the environment in a fairly low priority for Christians, because on the final judgement day, God will burn up the current world and replace it with a new one. I am not convinced at all by this belief.
Firstly, the language of the New Creation is predominantly that of renewal, rather than obliteration and replacement. For example, Revelation 21:5 (ESV) reads: And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”.
In my experience, the most commonly quoted verse in favour of the “complete replacement” view of the New Creation is 2 Peter 3:10 which says:
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
Here is theologian Chris Wright commenting on this passage
Many people do misunderstand this text…. People imagine it means that the whole creation is going to be tossed into some great cosmic incinerator. But please look at the context of this whole chapter. What Peter was talking about was scoffers- people who were mocking the whole idea of a coming day of judgement… Peter says no, they forget something. There was a time of judgement, and he reminds them of the flood back in verse 6, that by waters the world of that time was deluged and destroyed, and it’s the same word he uses. And so, he adds [v7] “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.” What Peter is talking about here is yes, water then in the past destruction, but not the obliteration of the Earth, but the destruction of the ungodly society on it, and, in future, the judgement of fire which again, he sees, to be a purging, cleansing judgment. There will be judgement, but not obliteration. Rather he says in v 13: “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth”- the renewal of creation. The miraculous transformation of this creation.3
So firstly, the language of the initiation of the New Creation is that of renewal not obliteration and replacement. Secondly, we are mandated by God as a human race to steward and care for his creation.
Genesis 1:28 says:
God blessed them [mankind] and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
This mandate if repeated multiple times after the fall in Genesis 3. For example: Psalm 8:6-8 reads:
6 You made them [mankind] rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
7 all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
8 the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
We thus have a God-given responsibility to care for the world, the environment, and all living creatures, as God’s delegated stewards on Earth.
And thirdly, (and perhaps most powerfully) God pronounces severe judgement on people who destroy nature. In Revelation 11:18 we read:
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your people who revere your name,
both great and small—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.
And thus for these three reasons, I believe Christians have a God-given responsibility to act and advocate for the preservation and sustainability of our environment. And we certainly share these causes with the Extinction Rebellion.
2. The Mandate of Civil Order
However, there is another side to the Extinction Rebellion that needs consideration- their call for civil disobedience and disruption. As I go into more detail in my blog God and Politics, Christians have a biblical mandate to maintain an ordered society. Pauls writes in Romans 13:1-7
1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves… 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honour, then honour.
Paul commands the first century church to submit to the governing Romans authorities- to be civil citizens, maintaining structural societal order. Therefore, Christian should not break national laws or constabulary instructions (unless they command direct disobedience to God), and should not endeavour to create disorder or disruption in society. We should be model citizens in our secular society, out of reverence for the God who is over all authorities.
At present, the Extinction Rebellion appears unapologetic and unrepentant about the arrests of their protesters and the direct disobedience towards some police instructions, e.g. to not protest in Trafalgar Square today. For these reasons, I an uneasy about Christians joining the Rebellion, for it seems to run contrary to the biblical mandate of civil order.
Should Christians Support the Extinction Rebellion?
There is much that I commend about the Extinction Rebellion. And I, as a Christian, believe we have a strong, God-given mandate to care for our planet. However, we also have a mandate to maintain an ordered and civil society. And thus, although I agree with a lot of what Extinction Rebellion stands for, I disagree with their means. There are many other ways people can campaign and advocate for environmentalist policies, as well as changing their own lives to care for the planet. We all need to play our part, and there are many other avenues that need exploring4.
- Chris Wright, Sermon at All Souls Church, 5/2/17. Audio available at: https://www.allsouls.org/Media/AllMedia.aspx?show_media=181745&show_file=194061
- For more on Christianity and environmentalism, I recommend checking out Arocha, and a really great Christian environmental organisation. Their website is: https://arocha.org.uk/