BY RABBI DANIEL LICHMAN
Last Wednesday night I sat outside a central London police station ready to greet arrestees from the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest as they moved from captivity to freedom. It felt like an appropriate way to spend a Pesach night.
I have not, over the years, felt especially inspired by the cause of campaigning against climate change. Instead I have been drawn towards activist movements that have a clearer human-centred approach, rather than more abstract planet-centred one . Only, as contemporary scientific and geo-political reports show, I was wrong. Climate change is both a human-created crisis, one from which people in the Global South are already suffering disproportionately, and we in the Global North will soon suffer too. The planet will continue to exist, humanity might not.
The power of XR is that they have brought this understanding of the human experience to the centre of the campaign. They understand that halting climate change is not possible within the current political culture. It will require radical change in the ways that we perceive and interact with one another.
In my brief encounters with XR this Pesach, I have been moved by the way they are modelling, through the organisation of the rebellion, how human beings can interact with one another with love. XR have a big emphasis on wellbeing - care for oneself and one another. At their people assemblies, there is an understanding that everyone’s voice matters and should be heard with an open heart. Throughout the multiple XR groups, strangers from diverse backgrounds have found themselves coming together and listening in an open dialogue.
And the impact on those involved has been profound. I have heard the actions referred to as ‘sacred’. I heard one person describe how they now have hope in the future, and another state that they now have a purpose. Someone else described the activist spaces as ‘holy places.’ Yet another person spoke of ‘responding to the call of Nature.’
It makes sense to me that people are using religious language to describe their experience, because it is a theological problem that is being addressed. Being faced with a disastrous future is discussed in the theological field known as ‘eschatology’ which is concerned with the end of days for the world and death for the individual. When faced with an apocalyptic vision for the end of days a profound human response is to affirm Divinity (creation), to heed Her call (revelation) and to respond with messianic hope by affirming human life (love).
XR gets this. At the core of its actions is joy and open heartedness. Activists are encouraged to take the stand, and at the same time act with kindness to the police and oppositional members of the public. Outside the police station, I saw three strangers sharing their stories, hopes and fears, and becoming friends.
At our ‘Un-Seder’ evening organised by the Social Justice Team, two community members told us about how they were inspired by participating in a seder at the XR protest. It was a powerful experience to observe a Jewish ritual in public and to share our sacred stories with others.
As we were marking the start of the second yom tov of Pesach, seventh-day-Pesach - where we read the account of the splitting of the sea and how Miriam greeted those leaving captivity with life-affirming song and dance - this round of XR protests came to an end. The movement is now taking a break and activists are returning to their communities to consider the next steps.
This Pesach XR has inspired me to ask these four questions of our community:
1. How do we act together in response to the eschatological question of our time - the possible destruction of humanity?
2. How does our community offer the spiritual sustenance that is required for us to overcome fear and face the truth or of our times?
3. How can the way that we organise ourselves in our community enable us to practice a more people-connected society that will enable us to respond to this challenge?
4. How can our Torah and our davenning contribute to and deepen our activism in the world?
If you would like to join a group of us to discuss these questions as part of our Social Justice Team's work - please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.