A sermon based on Mark 14:32-46 and my experience of waiting with an XR protester for her to be arrested (originally written in October 2018).
Over recent years and months, I, like many people, have been getting more and more concerned about what is happening to our planet. It is under threat from so many different directions. Climate change arising from greenhouse gas emissions is the most obvious, but we have plastic pollution, depletion of natural environments to farm food, and aggressive use of pesticide, fertilizers and antibiotics as well. Unless we do something quickly the future for our planet looks incredibly bleak. A world without any flowers, without any animals, seems a distinct possibility.
My sense of grief has been growing along with my concern. I begin to realise that my children will inherit a world that is much less beautiful than the one that I was born into. Future generations may have to cope with even less. I’ll admit that this drives me to a certain amount of anger, but grief is my predominant emotion.
Driven by this my wife and I travelled down to London for two days last week to participate in the Extinction Rebellion protests. We camped in a make-shift campsite of perhaps 200 tents in Vauxhall Park Gardens. On the campsite I met some of the most wonderful people I am ever likely to meet. Everyone was so caring and kind. Food was cooked and shared regardless of people’s ability to pay. After dark there was almost complete silence in consideration of the local residents. It was almost impossible not to fall into conversation with fellow campers from all over the country, and of all ages from young students to retired doctors. We all owned and shared the same grief and we all held a passion to do something about it.
There are, of course different opinions about what that something is. What are the boundaries of legitimate protest when you fear our world will be destroyed but that those in power, whether economic or political, are failing to do anything about it? I don’t want to part of a group that causes disruption or acts illegally, it makes me with my origins in cosy middle-class suburbia, profoundly uncomfortable. Part of my support of XR is not necessarily that I agree with its response, but that I admire them in raising the question of how we should respond. How is it that we, in our political weakness, persuade those in power that they must act?
On Monday evening the Police brought in an order under Section 14 of the Public Order act banning all Extinction Rebellion protesters from anywhere in London. It is one of the most serious prohibitions on political protest that our country has ever seen. The following morning the police came to the campsite and told us we had to leave. The message was clear, if we did not pack up our tents and move on, then we would be arrested.
Most, like me, were unwilling to be arrested. About 20 people, however, saw this as the moment to stay put as a symbol that that there is a higher authority than the law of the land. If we have a law that permits some people to destroy our planet at the same time as preventing others from trying to stop them, then that law is immoral. As most of us packed up, small pockets of the tents of those who had chosen to remain were left. The police visited those remaining warning them again that, if they didn’t move on, they would be arrested. One tent, by chance, was left isolated from the other clusters. A woman sat on her own and waited.
I decided to go and sit with her, to support her until the police came. We chatted. She must have been a few years younger than me. She was married with children and worked in community development in a medium sized northern town. She was quite ordinary, except that she felt so passionately about what was happening to our planet that she was now willing to be arrested to give voice to that passion.
The police presence was already intimidating with dozens of officers in Hi-Viz jackets. A helicopter had been hovering low over the campsite for several hours. Eventually new police officers arrived who we knew were those who would perform the arrests. The tension rose. I’ve never done anything like that before, I didn’t want to be arrested, and didn’t know how risky and it was to remain sitting in conversation. Eventually the tension got to me and I felt I had to move away to ensure that this would be seen as her protest and not mine.
I felt awful. Although I hadn’t gone very far, I still felt that I was betraying her. Tears welled up. I watched from a distance. A little while later a group of 4 or 5 police officers came up to her. They gave her one last warning. She was escorted to the police vehicle walking with as much dignity as was possible with her hands hand-cuffed behind her back.
Coming back home, I feel compelled to tell this story. A lot of the hype around Extinction Rebellion is about mass actions. Individual stories can get lost. But I want to tell the story of this one woman who is so passionate about what is happening to our planet, but who feels so powerless that the only way that she is able to express that passion, is to allow herself to be arrested.
In praying about how to reflect on this here this evening I was drawn to the story of Jesus waiting to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus grieved for this world. We know how he paused on Palm Sunday to weep for Jerusalem before entering the city. His grief turned to anger in the Temple courtyard. His over-turning of the tables was disruptive but also symbolic. The powerful of this world understand their vulnerability to passionate symbolism and he was marked for arrest as a dangerous activist and threat to the political order.
In the chapter before the one we heard read earlier, Jesus confronts his disciples with solemn predictions of the destruction of the Temple and the implosion of everything that they held dear. His passion burns within him, but he is weak in relation to the powers of this world. The way he chooses to confront those powers is to offer up his vulnerability and allow himself to be arrested. He shares a last meal with his friends and then walks to the Garden to await that arrest.
In the Garden he expresses his grief again, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”, he says. He wants to find another way, he prays fervently to be presented with an alternative, but none is offered. He looks to his companions for support, they cannot even stay awake to keep vigil with him. Eventually the police come, he is taken away and the disciples flee into the dark.
Yet this is not the end. In some way that we will never understand, Jesus’ self-sacrificial willingness is transformative. Through offering his vulnerability as a protest against the powers of this world they are defeated. His passion, which we know as God’s Spirit, is liberated to infect others. The story is not over, the future is not inevitable, the grief will pass.
Let us pray that that transformative power can be mirrored in our current age. Let us pray that when the vulnerable speak passionately to those in power that their voices will be heard. Let us pray that we, as a society, and particularly those who have political and economic power within it, will listen to the prophetic voices of protest. Let us pray that our community will turn from the path of destruction to one of life and love and of living in harmony with each other and with nature. Let us pray that each of us can play our own part in bringing this transformation about.
Let us pray Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Note: Later the section 14 orders were declared unlawful and the police were forced to pay damages to all those who they had illegally arrested. I assume the woman that I sat with was included in this settlement.