A Christmas Arrest for Climate Justice, December 2019

By Rev. John Dear

(Dec. 23, 2019)

Each Christmas, we celebrate the birthday of Jesus, whom Gandhi called the greatest person of nonviolence in history. Alas, he lamented, the only people who don’t seem to realize that Jesus was totally nonviolent are Christians.

According to the story, the nonviolent Jesus was born into poverty, a refugee, an immigrant, a homeless person; became a great peace and justice rabbi activist who marched to his capitol on a campaign of nonviolence; disrupted the status quo with civil disobedience; and was arrested and executed. When he was born, the story goes, the angels couldn’t contain themselves and announced the coming of “peace on earth.”

So Christmas is about celebrating and reclaiming the nonviolence of Jesus and doing our bit to welcome “peace on earth.” The oil companies, politicians, corporations, military and ruling elites have declared full scale war on Mother Earth, so Christmas is actually a time to speak out against “war on earth,” to redouble our efforts to welcome the Christmas gift of “peace on earth,” and to build up our own campaigns of nonviolence.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the nonviolent Jesus taught: “Blessed are the meek, they will inherit the earth.” The biblical word for active nonviolence was “meekness,” so Jesus is saying is: “Blessed are people who practice active creative nonviolence; they will be one with creation, with Mother Earth.” (I wrote about this in my recent book, They Will Inherit the Earth: Peace and Nonviolence in a time of War and Climate Change.)

Long ago we rejected Jesus’ way of nonviolence, and so we have not been one with Mother Earth. Instead we have waged war against one another and all of creation, and now hang on the brink of global war and catastrophic climate change.

In September, when Greta Thunberg stood before the United Nations, she declared that the world house is on fire, and we need to start acting accordingly. Longtime actor and activist Jane Fonda heard the call. She decided to leave her comfort zone, and literally moved from Beverly Hills to Washington, D.C. where with the help of others, she launched “Fire Drill Fridays” to kickstart a campaign of nonviolence to the U.S. Capitol to engage in weekly civil disobedience to mobilize political will to stop the insanity of our environmental destruction. (See www.firedrillfridays.com)

This past Friday, December 20th, I joined nearly a thousand people to march with Jane Fonda and rally at the U.S. Capitol for climate justice, and then sit in at the Hart Senate Office Building in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw the line and up the ante of our resistance.

We heard powerful speeches from leaders such as Civil Rights icon Dolores Huerta, Women’s Rights advocate Gloria Steinem, Buddhist leader Roshi Joan Halifax, Poor Peoples’ Campaign leader Rev. William Barber II, and Jane herself, who called for an army of people to take to the streets for climate justice.

We chanted slogans (“What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like!” “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!”). We sang (“This little light of mine,” “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around”). We held banners (“We want a Green New Deal now!).

Our message to the U.S. Senate was Greta’s: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now, is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And whether you like it or not, change is coming!”

Eventually, 138 of us were handcuffed in the rotunda of the Hart Office Building, booked and photographed, then loaded into paddy wagons and hauled off to an old police warehouse in Southwest D.C. There we sat in our handcuffs for the rest of the day, the men on one side, the woman on the other, meeting each other, sharing our experiences, and waiting our turn to be interviewed and eventually released, most of us late in the evening.

You could say it did no good. You could dismiss the whole thing cynically as an exercise in vainglory, or naivete, or even recklessness. You could even confess functional despair and say it’s all too late, nothing can be done—but then you would be doing exactly what the oil companies and their politicians want.

In fact, this is what democracy looks like. The only way positive social change comes about is through bottom up people power grassroots movements of creative nonviolence, from Jesus to the Abolitionists and the Suffragists to Gandhi and Dr. King, the Civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war movement to the thousands of nonviolent movements since then.

That’s what I’ve learned after forty years of work in various grassroots movements of nonviolence. That’s why I continue to organize Campaign Nonviolence, a national week of action every September when tens of thousands take to the streets against everything–from racism and sexism to war and poverty to nuclear weapons and fossil fuels to animal extinction and environmental destruction. (See www.campaignnonviolence.org) Together, we have more power than we realize. Together, we are learning, we can change the world. With nonviolence, Dr. King said, there is power.

Today, however, we need to go way beyond Gandhi and Dr. King, and build a global grassroots, bottom up, people power movement of active nonviolence on behalf of all creation the likes of which the world has never seen.

This is why Jane Fonda is right—regular, repeated, steadfast, serious yet joyful nonviolent rallies, marches and civil disobedience in Washington D.C. will help ignite the global movement of nonviolent transformation for a more just, peaceful and environmentally sustainable future. This is the most important work we can do, certainly the most meaningful, and we all need to act accordingly.

For me, though, it goes even deeper. Fire Drill Fridays was a spiritual experience, Christmas come early, a spiritual exercise in preparation for the Christmas gift of “peace on earth.” That’s what we were doing—exercising democracy, exercising nonviolence, exercising the truth, exercising our hearts in preparation for a better world.

May your Christmas and New Year be as blessed, and may we all take to the streets throughout the New Year for the coming of “peace on earth.”