We need more peaceful troublemakers

Jonathan Bartley
By Jonathan Bartley
15 Aug 2007

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of India's independence, which followed the campaigns of amongst others, Mahatma Gandhi. Not only did the civil disobedience he advocated help to bring about historic change, but if his peaceful protest methods had been followed more closely, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved.

The commemoration comes whilst Downing Street warns that any disruption from protestors at the Heathrow climate camp would be unacceptable.

But if the campaigners fulfil their commitment to take nonviolent direct action, they will follow in a noble tradition that has involved some of the greatest figures from history - including Jesus Christ.

Some have sought to write the activists off as troublemakers who will do little to change things. The argument is mounted that unless you vote, join political parties and engage with conventional systems, then you aren't really going to influence anything.

But numerous examples - from the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures to the suffragettes - suggest it sometimes requires people acting outside, and against established institutions, to bring about the lasting change required.

Peaceful troublemaking can be unpopular - even amongst sympathisers to a cause. One of Gandhi's major influences, Jesus, turned over then tables of local businessmen in the temple - the locus of religious, economic and political power. His action came just a few days before his death. Protest is tolerated provided it doesn't impact people's day-to-day lives.

And that is why direct action is considered necessary in the current situation. We may feel climate change should be addressed. We are reluctant to make the necessary sacrifices. What some might call a daring prophetic act can jolt us out of our apathy.

The global nature of the problem also provides a further justification. Gandhi used direct action to reach out to those who were previously excluded from the campaign for self-determination. Civil disobedience, almost by definition, is about the dienfranchised. It is about giving a voice to those who are excluded from the usual channels.

Those most impacted by climate change lie beyond our borders. Those on the other side of the globe will be most affected by the Weather of Mass Destruction we may be creating. Close to half of Bangladesh is currently underwater. But such people have no direct say in the decisions made here, that might determine whether they live or die.

Prophets can be without honour in their own land. But today's troublemakers can be tomorrow's saviours.

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With acknowledgements to the BBC. This article was originally delivered as a Thought for the Day on Radio 4’s Today programme.

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