This time last year I was hard at work editing the book Time to Act, about Christians taking direct action for the climate. Among my own contributions was a chapter summarising Martin Luther King’s thoughts on civil disobedience, drawn in large part from his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
There are so many powerful ideas in that letter, but I was reminded of this one that’s cited in a book I’m reading at the moment (Diversifying Power by Jennie Stephens), where King describes his disappointment with moderates. It’s worth quoting the section in full:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
That remains highly relevant to the race debate. There are many people who are far more concerned about the disorder of protests or toppled statues than they are about the injustices that provoke those actions. What King describes as ‘negative peace’ is very much the order of the day when Britain’s politicians mention Black Lives Matter.
It also resonates for me with climate change. As a thought experiment, perhaps we could rewrite it for a climate context:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the climate moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the greatest stumbling block to a sustainable future is not the coal lobbyist or the climate denier, but the climate moderate, who is more devoted to ‘business as usual’ than to climate safety; who prefers the shallow metric of economic growth to the hard work of true progress; who constantly says ‘I agree that climate breakdown must be averted, but not at the expense of our way of life’; who believes that there is more time than there really is, since they themselves have not suffered the effects of a changing climate.”
Shallow engagement from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
As I say, I offer that re-write as an experiment rather than a reflection of my own opinions, but does it ring true? I certainly find myself frustrated at the complete mismatch between what we say we believe as a culture, and what we actually do. So many people will tick ‘very concerned’ in a survey when asked how they feel about climate change, but then do almost nothing about it. Or our actions are disjointed and contradictory, like vegans who buy meat for their pets.
Looking back at the struggles of the past, such as civil rights, those who were alive at the time can reflect on what they contributed. Were they active, or at least interested? Or did they ignore it because it didn’t concern them?
For my generation, swap in climate change and the same questions will apply. Our children and grandchildren will want to know what we did. Were we bystanders to the climate crisis, moderates who contributed nothing but their worries? Or did we roll our sleeves up and do what we could?