Time for Climate Activists to “Turn the Other Cheek” – by Greg Powell
Spirited Reflection – Sunday, February 23, 2014
Greg Powell is a Master of Divinity student and Anti-Oppression Committee Co-Chair at Emmanuel College in Toronto. Greg serves as the Community Builder at Bloor Street United Church and supports the Climate Justice Group at Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church. Greg previously worked for the Pembina Institute on climate change outreach and volunteered with the grassroots climate justice organization Step It Up Alberta.
Christians are a bunch of pushovers. Jesus clearly tells us, “if someone hits you, let them hit you again.” And so Christ-based movements to end gender-based violence, address the root causes of poverty, manifest climate justice, and reconcile indigenous-settler relations are inherently limited.
A contemporary reader of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount hears, “let your oppressor walk all over you” and so our movements fail. The claim that Jesus was one subversive dude might be lost on someone hearing an imperative to submit to brutality and oppression. At first blush, it might seem this Jesus dude has little to offer climate justice activists.
Walter Wink, however, in his approach to nonviolence, advocates for a completely different reading of “turn the other cheek.” In his analysis of this part of Jesus’ only sermon, turning the other cheek was a powerful, provocative way to subvert power and empire. A backhanded slap with the right hand upon a slave was permissible in the Roman Empire. On the contrary, a closed-handed strike and a left-handed attack were highly punishable, even when inflicted on a slave. A slave who turns the other cheek immediately puts their aggressor in a position of embarrassment because the aggressor could not accept the taunt to strike again without receiving their own punishment.
Most readers here know but it’s worth repeating: Jesus was indeed a highly subversive dude. And today’s climate activists have a lot to learn from him.
Persisting climate activists deserve a lot of props. By my judgment, there is no major, visible body of power anywhere in the world taking real, measurable action on the scale and timeframe we need to avoid climate disaster. And yet today’s climate activists march toward a vision of abundant life for all. To be honest, though, climate activism lacks the kind of subversion—the Jesus-style subversion—we need to turn this ship around.
Banner drops, crashing Stephen Harper’s Boards of Trade talks, non-violent arrestable sit-ins are critical in this struggle. Clever and well-planned as they are, they lack the subversion embedded in “turning the other cheek.”
I certainly do not have the answers. I believe divestment—using capitalism against itself—holds a lot of subversive potential and we should take heart in the GoFossilFree movement that grows daily. Churches should be joining this movement, and joining it quickly. I don’t know if divestment is sufficiently subversive, but the potential is certainly there. People of faith in Canada need to position themselves to support the opposition parties that are willing to take bold policy steps toward climate justice, and I see divestment as a clear statement of support for that boldness.
We shall not be pushed over. We may be arrested, pepper-sprayed, knocked around, and struck on the face. And we shall find ways to subvert these attacks—by “turning the other cheek” Jesus-style—so that all creatures might have abundant life.