Christians learn the art of non-violent protest

Ecumenical workshop focuses on changing "flawed" responses to violence.

Participants at a recent workshop making the non-violent hand gesture

PHOTO: Stephen Cauchi

By Stephen Cauchi

April 12 2017Christians of all backgrounds gathered in Melbourne’s Chinatown last month to learn the delicate art of non-violent protesting, including a simulated sit-in of a politician’s office.

And it was clear at the meeting that the proposed Carmichael coal mine in Galilee Basin, Queensland – which would be the biggest coal mine in Australia and one of the biggest in the world – will be the next major battleground for protestors, both religious and secular.

Anglicans, Catholics, Quakers and others met at a hall run by Urban Seed, a not-for-profit ecumenical organisation led by Baptist minister and former World Vision chief executive Tim Costello, to attend the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) workshop.

The one-day workshop was led by Simon Reeves, former peace advocate with non-violence educators Pace e Bene, and Coburg Baptist minister Simon Moyle.

“What we’re doing today is wonderful and hopeful, even revolutionary,” said Mr Reeves. “Non-violence can be a very powerful way of addressing problems in the world.”

Mr Reeves said the view that violence could solve problems was a “great illusion”. But despite that, people were indoctrinated into a school of violence “pretty much from the day we were born”.

He told the dozens of attendees that the ways people usually dealt with violence were flawed.

Avoiding or accommodating violence meant that violence kept perpetuating, he said, while countering violence with violence led to escalation and perpetuation.

“The litmus test of nonviolence is when people walk away as friends,” he said. He said there were nearly 200 forms of non-violent action, including strikes, consumer boycotts, hunger strikes, tree sit-ins, church sanctuary for refugees – even lysistratic nonaction (withholding sex).

Attendees were also briefed as to the greatest fears and concerns for non-violent protestors, especially those willing to be arrested. These included loss of employment, refusal of visas for overseas travel, trauma, injury, jail and impact on family and friends.

“All of these things have costs and we have to be willing to bear those costs,” said Revd Moyle. “But probably the biggest questions for people are the legal [ones].” Attendees were advised that before any ARRCC non-violent protest, protestors would receive legal advice on any charges they might receive.

Ben Pennings, the spokesman for the Galilee blockade movement opposing the Carmichael mine, told the group that nonviolent protests were planned against the “insane” project. If built, the mine “would be the biggest coal complex on the planet,” said Mr Pennings. The project’s start has been held up by court action, but “it was not likely” the action would succeed.

The workshop concluded with a simulated non-violent protest of a politician’s office. Mr Reeves and Revd Moyle role-played police officers.

Tom Allen, 23, from Merri Creek Anglican Church in Clifton Hill, told TMA he wanted to upgrade his protesting skills.

“I feel like I’ve done enough protesting at rallies,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be too much of a response to protest rallies no matter how big they are.

“I’m at a stage where taking direct action is a bit more of a logical step. You feel like you’ve exhausted the other options available to you.”

Mr Allen said he had protested for a number of causes including rights for refugees, climate change, opposing the Iraq war, and divesting from banks or funds that invest in unethical areas.

An honours graduate in international studies from RMIT, Mr Allen said that his faith complemented his desire to protest.

“When things don’t seem to be working or going anywhere, it motivates me to know that God is on the side of justice. You can read that in passages like Micah 6:8 and in passages where God says sacrifices and offerings are no good unless you’re walking humbly with God and acting justly.

“That’s really motivating.”

Writer and former academic Katherine Phelps, 53, said she wanted to be a “protestor” and not just an “activist”.

A Presbyterian-turned-Quaker, Ms Phelps said her activism had included attending marches, writing musicals about topical themes, setting up a local economic trading system and writing policy for the Australian Democrats.

Some marches she had participated in had worked, she said, others had not.

The 1991 march opposing the Gulf War was “one of the most uplifting marches I’ve ever been in,” she said. “The feeling in the crowd was triumphant, it was amazing.”

Ms Phelps said she believed climate change led to environmental damage, which in turn led to national poverty among many nations. Poverty, in turn, was a cause of war, she said.

Locally, the ban on the homeless sleeping in Melbourne’s CBD was “appalling”, she said.

Non-practising Catholic Tony Gleeson, 64, said he participated in many protests, with climate change his main area of concern.

A former high school English teacher, Mr Gleeson said he would get into arguments with fellow teachers.

“I’d suggest a teacher who wasn’t in their room turn off the light and fans when they weren’t there, but I was regarded as crazy,” he said.

“As an English teacher, I was told I shouldn’t be talking to the kids about climate change.”

Compared to the risk of global warming, “it didn’t really matter at this point in history whether a kid knew the difference between a noun and a verb.”

“Days like today are so crucial because if it’s the same lot of usual suspects that go to protests they won’t have any influence.”

Mr Gleeson said the support network at a protest – the ones assisting with media, first-aid, transport, legal work and other duties – were “invaluable” and “critical”.

He said he had a positive experience of police at protests.

“My experience has been the police are happy, there’s interaction, they understand why we’re there. There’s no violence and they say, we know why you’re here.”