Dr Rowan Williams led prayers outside St Paul’s Cathedral on Palm Sunday. Credit: Vladimir Morozov

After Extinction Rebellion: why climate change protest is biblical

The Extinction Rebellion climate change protests in London have ended. 

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist, has been widely interviewed by the media and courted by politicians. Christians were among those demonstrating, with the umbrella group Christian Climate Action drawing support from former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams: ‘In the face of impending environmental crisis, we need to encourage one another to grow more fully into the joyful responsibility we are made for,’ he said. 

Greta Thunberg and other young people have been widely praised for their commitment to the cause. The campaigners’ tactics, though, haven’t been universally welcomed: they have blocked traffic, stopped trains and caused widespread disruption to the life of the city. Though protesters have been polite and good-humoured, more than 1,000 people have been arrested and police resources have been tied up. Some politicians have been bitterly critical of what they’ve done, at the same time as voicing support for their cause. 

What’s not in doubt, though, is that the protesters have succeeded in making far more people aware of the issue of climate change – and that their passion and commitment have been impressive.

Behind it all is an idea that we might think is quite biblical: that the earth is not ours to do with as we wish. We are responsible for how we treat it.

In the Bible, it’s stated again and again that the world belongs to God. ‘The earth is the LORD'S, and all it contains, the world, and those who dwell in it’ (Psalm 24.1); For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine’ (Psalm 50.10-11). In Old Testament laws about inheritance, God says: ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine’ – there’s an intergenerational responsibility. There are even laws against wantonly destroying trees in warfare (Deuteronomy 20.19-20).

Verses in Genesis where God gives human beings ‘dominion’ over the earth and commands them to ‘subdue’ it have sometimes been used to justify treating it purely as a resource, to which we can do whatever we like. But this is to misunderstand the Bible. In a society where people lived close to the soil and the most sophisticated piece of technology was a spade, staying safe and well-fed was a daily struggle. Now it’s different: a few machines can destroy a landscape forever in a few hours.

The earliest image we have of God is as a gardener. We are outside Eden, but the Bible story of Eden gives us a picture of how far we’ve fallen. Many people might have found Extinction Rebellion annoying, but it’s reminded us that to care for our world as a gardener would, making it beautiful and productive, is to fulfil God’s first commandment.

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