F&A Series: ‘The Religion of Extinction Rebellion’

Dr. Stefan Skrimshire is an Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, whose expertise is in political theology, eco-theology and environmental ethics. He is a member of the Leeds Centre for Religion and Public Life. Follow him on Twitter: @skrimfish

Few can deny the impact that Extinction Rebellion (XR) have made on political life in the UK and abroad. XR has galvanized the biggest acts of environmental direct action in history. Since April 2019, with the first of their international ‘rebellions’ – coordinated mass civil disobedience in London and major cities worldwide, attracting thousands of arrests – the climate and ecological crisis was pushed back up the political agenda. Successive local and national governments have declared a ‘climate emergency’.

But XR is at a crossroads. As the dust settles on its second, far less successful rebellion last October (the “difficult second album problem”) problems with its strategy and messaging are coming to light and prompting some soul searching: on its silence about climate justice; its alienation of London workers; its racial and class under-representation. Activists are beginning to realize that its struggle is far more than the simplistic goal of “the survival of humanity”. It is about confronting some of our most deeply held beliefs, fears, and lifestyles as a society.

Within this soul-searching, activists would do well to reflect on a little discussed aspect of XR: the role that religious and spiritual practices have played from the start. A significant number of co-founders expressed their dream for XR as spiritually motivated – typically coming from traditions of new age, neo-pagan, and what Bron Taylor has called “Dark Green Religion.”[1] XR’s emerging traditions show traces of these origins. For instance, there is a “Regen (regeneration) Working Group”, ostensibly to ensure mental and physical wellbeing of activists (the resistance to “burnout”), but also, as one coordinator put it, to help “(deal) with your own darker feelings about what is happening to our world”. There are strong references to the Buddhist activist Joanna Macy, who’s Work that Reconnects workshops taught activists to process ecological grief in order to liberate action for the Earth. The use of ceremonies has become prominent. Both London rebellions were book-ended by opening and closing ceremonies that, whilst sometimes dominated by a neo-pagan rhetoric and aesthetic, invited contributions from other faith traditions. XR also follows a growing trend towards ceremonial performances of death and mourning: funeral processions, grief marches, requiems for lost species, die-ins, and other forms of ritual lament.

A number of faith groups (including Jews, Christians, Buddhists and Muslims) have found a welcome home for their own rituals in such an environment. At times the performances of both direct action and religious observance have found a shared, sometimes overlapping space. The April rebellion presented a unique example of this, particularly for Jewish and Christian activists for whom the protest coincided with Pesach (passover) and Holy Week. Liturgies from different Christian denominations were adapted to the theme of ecological crisis, and were held in the middle of the street, at the heart of the protests: an extinction-themed Stations of the Cross; a Maundy Thursday ‘footwashing for rebels’; daily Eucharistic celebrations; a baptism. Theologies of sacrifice, death, suffering, exile and pilgrimage, despair, and hope were explored in ritual observance and discussion.

In my interviews with them, Christian activists expressed surprise at how welcome some of these liturgical interventions were within these secular spaces of protest. If done sensitively and using inclusive language, they found, certain prayers seemed to inhabit a common ground with the feelings and emotions that activists were already processing – a “place of vulnerability”, as one XR vicar put it in relation to Eucharist offered at the site at Trafalgar Square. There were also some striking moments of disconnect. At the October rebellion, a recital of the Book of Revelation by XR priests and bishops which (coincidentally) occupied the same space as an XR Youth ‘die-in’ was criticised. There seems to have been a failure to contextualize and translate complex theological P1080318symbolism into the public, hybrid space it occupied. There is also mixed feeling about the way that religious faith is now being integrated within the wider organization. The plan for the ‘Faith Bridge’ in October was for Lambeth Bridge, once occupied by activists, to become a dedicated space for worship and discussion for any faith group. But some faith activists saw it as a bid to contain the overtly religious activities away from the more ‘serious’ direct action sites. Meanwhile, religious activists I spoke to felt torn between spending their time at religious events, and taking part in direct action.

As XR considers its next phase, there are important questions for its religious members to consider. What is the nature of these emerging, hybrid spaces of liturgy and protest? Are they themselves producing a new form of embodied protest, or diverting attention from it? How are ‘orthodox’ uses of church traditions mapping onto the more experimental and hybrid spiritualities? There may be lessons to learn from the 2011 anti-capitalist protests of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy London Stock Exchange (later moved to St Paul’s Cathedral), where contested spaces of church and state became the sites of interchanging debate, protest, and worship. Some Christian theologians (notably Catherine Pickstock and William Cavanaugh) have argued for a broad interpretation of ‘liturgy’ (litos ergos – ‘public work’) that links the work of the church to any number of ‘secular’ rituals and embodied performances that produce an alternative imaginary to that of the state. Writing of anti-torture activism in Chile, Cavanaugh compared the Eucharist to acts of political witness. He describes both as counter-cultural acts of remembrance against a culture of forgetting and disappearance. Perhaps liturgical experiments at extinction protests are looking for something similar. Alongside the imperative to take action, and to ‘tell the truth’, it seems there is a burning need to bear witness, to remember, to call to mind both that which is lost now and that which will be lost, and to ritually enact a different vision of the future. Christian, and other faith traditions are being sought to give shape to that need. Though these experiments might not always get it right, I don’t see this appeal to the liturgical disappearing from the protest generation that XR has kick-started.

[1] Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion (UCPress, 2010)

Written By: Dr. Stefan Skrimshire

Feature and In-Text Image Credit: Dr. Stefan Skrimshire