Desperate times require desperate actions, but is it enough to pray for change?, asks Joseph Kelly

For many, it was yet another step too far. The sight of Greenpeace protestors draping the front of the Prime Minister’s house in black, oily fabric caught the media attention it intended, but for many there was a line crossed. Whatever your views on any particular government policy, or on any individual, to breach one’s home breaks a uniquely British taboo and demonstrates if ever proof was needed that we are entering a time of fundamental change where to a new generation of protestors, old presumptions have little meaning or relevance.

For their part the Greenpeace climate activists who clambered onto the roof of Mr Sunak’s £2m mansion in Richmond, North Yorkshire argued that impending global catastrophe requires a drastic response, and they defended their actions by arguing that it was well known that Mr Sunak and his family were away at the time, and the protest was carried out after discussions at the property with Mr Sunak’s staff.

Government ministers were so shocked and dumbfounded at the blatant breach of prime ministerial security that an urgent enquiry has been ordered. Former home secretary Priti Patel has urged her successor Suella Braverman to launch a review immediately.

“This raises some very serious questions around how the home of a sitting Prime Minister has been accessed in this way, to the extent that political campaigners and activists have been able to trespass on his property and physically gain access,” said Mrs Patel.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith added: “It’s a pathetic stunt for them to try and do which shows the pathetic, childish, poisonous nature of these organisations.

“But also how is it that the security doesn’t seem to know how to protect the house of the Prime Minister – that’s a shocking discovery. There has to be an inquiry into what the hell was going on.”

No doubt leading public figures have been rattled deeply by the prospect of protestors breaking the unwritten rule that a person’s home is their sanctuary, but such actions are nothing new – indeed quite the contrary.

Some two decades ago direct activists in an increasingly frustrated and desperate animal rights movement decided to start targeting the homes of scientists involved in animal research. Only last year in the USA, some pro-life demonstrators also made the decision to gather outside the private homes of Supreme Court justices involved in the repeal of Roe v. Wade, to protest and hold candle-lit vigils. Here in the UK the actions of groups such as Just Stop Oil have become contentious and divisive, with frustrated members of the public increasingly taking direct physical action themselves to remove protestors block the movement of traffic.

Because we don’t encounter it personally that often, empathy for social protest can be somewhat limited. In essence the typical citizen is just trying to get on with their life as best as they can and by its very nature social protest is disruptive and jarring. Equally, we tend to assume that life is predominantly peaceful, and that protest is only occasional and generally targeted at a specific issue and segment of the population.

In fact over the past two centuries the United kingdom has seen more than 200 major public protest actions – from suffrage in the 19th and early 20th centuries, parliamentary reform from the Chartists to the present day, poverty, wages and working conditions, fuel prices, war, nuclear deterrence, human rights, immigration (both for and against), fathers’ rights, LGBTQ rights and most recently climate change. Many of these large scale and sustained protests have included direct action, contentious means and even fatal violence.

From a Catholic perspective we are always to encouraged to participate fully in the democratic process, but to adopt only peaceful means when we have a difference of opinion, or concerns about the democratic process. Guidance from the Bible is less than explicit: on the one hand we must submit to rulers and authorities (Titus 3). However, we should obey God rather than men, “expose evil,” and rebuke sinners (Eph. 5:11; Luke 17:3). But then, Jesus commands us to love and pray for those who persecute us (Mt. 5:44).

Most theologians attempt to reconcile the conflict between obedience to temporal authority and the call to follow the will of God by arguing that our civic leaders are given their authority by God, hence we can observe obedience to a civic power in the surety that they are only there thanks to God’s good grace.

The justification for this line of argument derives primarily from John 19:11, where Pilate is trying to reach a justification to free Jesus, but becomes frustrated by Our Lord’s silence.

“Don’t you realise I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” says Pilate, to which Jesus replies: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.

Unfortunately, one of the problems with removing scriptural quotations from their immediate context is that they can be used to justify arguments to which they were never intended to apply to. This also leads to the kind of quotational conflicts we’ve just cited.

How a Christian should respond when obligations of civic obedience crash into an unjust ruler or unrighteous political candidate is a vexing dilemma; personally, I’ve always put my faith in the final words of St Thomas More – a man who perhaps more than any other in history tried his resolute best to reconcile loyalty to civic governance with obedience to God’s laws.

On the morning of 6th July 1535, he climbed the scaffold at London’s Tower Hill, his disembowelment for treason have been commuted to a beheading in recognition of his faithful service to the Crown. At the request of a nervous King Henry VIII to keep his words as brief as possible, Sr Thomas told bystanders to pray for him in this world as he would pray for them in the next. He then departed this life with the final words: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

There is much in scripture that invokes Christians to lead peaceful, obedient lives and to respect the authority of those appointed to govern. It could even be argued that Jesus was at pains to avoid commentating on political issues and – much like Thomas More – did his best to avoid potentially dangerous conflicts with the civic authorities of the day.

As the Gospel of John tells us: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself (John 6:15). That’s all very well, but what should the correct Christian response be when civic authorities place their tanks on your lawn? In this inter-connected global era, it’s sadly no longer sufficient to cloister ourselves away and pray earnestly for enlightenment (though Thank God some fine Christian souls far better than me are still doing that on our behalf!).

In particular, the alarming deterioration of our global climate and the pollution of our atmosphere by fossil fuel use is of such urgency that we have to engage with the debate if our planet is to have any future. Of course God is privy to all things, but for me it’s a fatal misunderstanding of scripture to assume therefore that God will necessarily intervene to ensure what’s best for us. The Hexameron defines what God gave to us, but the lesson of Genesis is that in our arrogance we humans took over our temporal destiny, and therefore in this life we need to find our way back to a God who loves us, but who won’t necessarily intervene in our human destiny.

St Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest figure of 13th century Europe in the two preeminent sciences of the era, philosophy and theology, was at pains to point out that God’s morality may not be the same as our morality. He would certainly see the present hope that God will have to intervene to sort out our present climate crisis as a dangerous lapse into anthropomorphism – reducing God’s wisdom to the level of human concerns.

As we all seek urgent solutions to the problem of climate change in particular, it’s worth remembering God’s words to Adam: “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:17). Here is a clear admonition and a warning – in taking control of our destiny we will need to find our own way back to God.

If you haven’t read it already, I’d encourage you to read and study Pope Francis’ ground-breaking 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (On Care for our Common Home). For Francis, the journey through human life is fundamentally a search for God, but life is also “civic and political” and we must engage with this also.

“Social love moves us to devise larger strategies to halt environmental degradation and to encourage a “culture of care” which permeates all of society. When we feel that God is calling us to intervene with others in these social dynamics, we should realize that this too is part of our spirituality, which is an exercise of charity and, as such, matures and sanctifies us.” (V.231).

Of its very nature, religious belief has disruptive potential, especially when society moves in directions that deviate from moral standards, are sinful or threaten the common good of humanity. In such circumstances a resort to contentious tactics is not only justified, but may often be necessary to get those in positions of power to acknowledge the moral and wider social consequences of their actions.

To pray for common sense to prevail and the innate goodness of human nature to win through is a noble and necessary activity, but sometimes direct social action is also a moral obligation.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic publisher and theologian