In the thick of things, I found myself travelling with Peter (as per Luke chapter 22) and reflecting on activism and denial. As a species, we have been in denial for at least 40 years, probably much longer. We have ‘known’ we are living beyond our planetary means, that we are making it impossible for the myriad other species on whom we are utterly dependent (and so are both neighbour and self) to survive. Denial is psychological and spiritual, rational and unconscious, collective and political, so it seems to me that deep activism needs to interrogate and understand the nature of our denial, and challenge us to doubt, question, and un-know. Not unlike a journey of faithfulness. It should help us to recognize that our supposed power and the stories we have lived by are in need of radical overhaul.
55 And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. 56 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”57 But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.*
Peter is in the very thick of it, he has rushed in where fools fear to tread but is terrified and hopelessly ill-equipped. Filled with the need to be there, to be true, he is doing what he can, fulfilling his personal responsibility. He is so close his face is illuminated by the firelight, so close he can’t possibly see the scale of the consequences that are just around the corner or what will be required of him. ‘I don’t know him’ is literally true on this scale.
Affairs are now planet-sized, personal responsibility has taken on a new meaning which we struggle to understand. But surely the earth is too big to fail? Surely humans can’t have this big an effect? Earth probably is too big to fail (barring an asteroid) for at least a few billion more years. But ‘earth’ is not the last geological blink of an eye, the balmy, green cocoon that is all we agricultural, inter-glacial, story-making humans have ever known. We can’t ‘save the earth’, but we do need a monumental concerted effort on our part to maintain the Goldilocks-sphere created by millions of years of planetary evolution (rocks, water and atmosphere hand in hand with the forces of life) which has made it possible for we evolutionary latecomers to be here at all. We do need to learn to see on an immense scale.
58 A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied.
I imagine Peter feels he is getting a handle on the situation, even gaining a little confidence. Magical thinking begins to kick in – he’s got away with hiding in plain sight. And then he’s challenged again.
The hashtag #softclimatechangedenial gained traction during the Extinction Rebellion protests. It refers to the shifting of responsibility onto individuals, increasing fear and anxiety that we are not doing enough to green our own lifestyles. Of course we should take responsibility to live more lightly, not least because it speaks truth to power! But meanwhile, as our gaze is turned away and inward, twisting our own guilt and seeking self-comfort, government and corporations are let off the hook. So in a strange twist, through actually trying to be good, we reinforce our denial. We can see this reflected back at us in some of the patronising attitudes of politicians to young climate protesters, telling them to go back to school and get their recycling in order as befits their status, often followed by the injunction to let politicians get back to ‘business as usual’ and sorting things out. Or more insidiously, ‘you are very welcome to our parliament and we hope you enjoy listening to the debates’, emphasising that young people are passive, not actors in their own destiny. All of which neatly exploits the next level of magical thinking: surely we can fix it! (i.e. ‘Surely someone can fix it. I am so small, I don’t understand science, other people are better placed to do this.’) Well, yes and no. We can, technologically if not politically, rapidly achieve net carbon neutral globally. But we can’t continue to mine and farm and manufacture (some might say ‘steward’) the earth according to our accustomed extractive, agri-culture.
Business as usual is over. A huge re-imagining is required. And that means that individuals, communities and power structures all have an eyes-wide-open role to play. In Parliament Square, rebels projected David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change: The Facts’ onto the monolithic flank of Westminster Abbey, which duly reflected it back. But it was a police officer on rebellion-duty who facilitated the hearing of the message as she spoke quietly to an inebriated man ‘shh, people are trying to listen to this’. We must continue to find ways for our institutions to open their doors, receive the message, and be changed.
59 About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.” 60 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Surely he’s been found out now, called out for his ethnicity, for his deep belonging. Still he wriggles away, but at what cost? Rejection of the deepest source of his own identity. He has lost his beloved teacher and now he’s lost his own self as well. He must be feeling utterly bewildered and bereft.
Identity is now planet-sized: our narrow conception of being human is inextricably bound up with being earthlings, thoroughly incarnate. In failing to act on crises of climate and biodiversity, we deny our earthling status, which has repercussions for all other earthlings. Intellectually we know what is going on, as a species, we have all the information we need. At the deepest levels of identity and belonging we are bewildered, our stories are failing us.
Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 62 And he went outside and wept bitterly.
And after weeping bitterly he went out and rebuilt the world. I take encouragement from Peter-the-rock, who was able to get up again, denial and betrayal somehow integrated, his self-knowledge and faithfulness deeper and more authentic, his capacity for clear-sighted action hugely enhanced.
The cock crows, the time is now, the place is a planetary ‘here’. The ecological tipping point may or may not have passed us by, but surely we stand at an enormous psychological and ethical tipping point. We must be better ancestors or we may not be ancestors at all. A message (allegedly) from Banksy appeared on a wall at Marble Arch just after Easter Day: ‘From this moment despair ends, and tactics begin’. Tactics are hope made flesh. We can all take part in manifesting hope.
Meanwhile, more and more rebels are waking up and staying awake, watching, praying, and kicking up an Easter storm.
*All Biblical quotes from Luke chapter 22 (NIV)