The following piece is cross-posted from Eco-Justice Notes, a free, weekly commentary by Reverend Peter Sawtell, Executive Director of Eco-Justice Ministries and 350 leader in Denver, Colorado, USA. This week’s note re-surfaced some beautiful, powerful stories from the 350 movement, and offers some great wisdom as well. 

Saying “no” can be a very positive thing. The strategy of resistance uses a principled rejection of what is profoundly wrong to point toward a better reality.

One dramatic image of eco-justice resistance has inspired people around the planet. It comes from the day of action on global warming organized by on October 24, 2009. On that day, in thousands of settings from almost every country, people gathered to witness for the health of the planet, and to call for a reduction of global CO2 to the “safe” level of 350 parts per million. From each of those gatherings, photos were submitted documenting the passion and variety of the grassroots movement.

Many of those pictures were moving and informative, but one stood out above all the rest. My friend Will Bates, on the staff of, named it as his favorite photo of them all. Will wrote:

On the morning of October 24, 2009, as people rallied in thousands of cities across the planet, a young woman named Ola walked alone to the center of Babylon, Iraq, took a deep breath, and unfurled a 350 banner, joining a worldwide call for climate action.

Ola had worked for weeks to try and convince her friends to join her, but in Iraq, taking action on climate change is a risk few are willing to take. Ola’s was one the smallest actions that day, but one of the most powerful.

In tumultuous Iraq, a woman takes a solitary stand against the culture of oil that bankrolls her country. This is an act of resistance, not political activism. Ola’s isolated statement wasn’t about specific changes to Iraq’s energy policy. It was a moral witness that the warping of Earth’s climate system is wrong, and that a restoration of balance is essential.

Ola stood — alone in Babylon, and with multitudes in a global day of action — in a witness of hope. Her act of resistance was empowering for her, and for multitudes. Because of the clarity of her resistance, chose her story of witness to be the centerpiece of a short video calling people into action in 2010. (Take a minute to read her story and see the video!)

And continue reading here…

On a superficial level, resistance might be seen as a “not in my backyard” rejection of what is personally undesirable, where people fight to maintain their own comfort and privilege. The resistance that I celebrate today is a deeply grounded rejection of what is profoundly wrong, and a witness in support of what is genuinely right. It acts on behalf of broader communities, with “NOPE” (not on planet Earth) instead of NIMBY.

+     +     +     +     +

Theologian Mary C. Grey is one of many scholars who write about resistance as a spiritual discipline. In “The Outrageous Pursuit of Hope: Prophetic Dreams for the Twenty-First Century“, she has a wonderful section on “Resistance is the secret of joy.” (The wording of that heading implies a reference to Alice Walker’s novel, “Possessing the Secret of Joy.”) Grey names three threads that necessarily run through a culture of resistance.

  • “The first thread is that of anger. … Holy anger is a blazing sense of outrage — this simply should not be!” Anger breaks through passivity and apathy and drives us to act for justice.
  • “Second … resistance springs from the centrality of compassion. This compassion is more than a feeling, or emotion.” It is our compassion for all those who suffer that calls us to work for positive healing.
  • The third thread she calls “dangerously remembering” the histories of both freedom and oppression, of good things which have been and the powers that destroy it. “And this is where the theme of prophetic laments appears. There is no adequate response to remembered sorrow until the grieving has been given full expression. And I mean community-based, responsible and ceremonial grieving, not only the abandoned individual, isolated in grief.”

Grey writes about resistance as one element of a theologically profound hope — a hope that is grounded in a deeply-held affirmation of what is true and good. “The point about a spirituality of resistance is that we already live from a different vision. And this is what is so energizing.” She makes many of the same points in a brief article that is available on-line in Tikkun, “Green Faith and the Recovery of Joy“.

Grey gives succinct voice to themes that often show up in other religious writings.

  • Roger Gottlieb (“A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth“) deals at length with the need to break through avoidance and denial, so that we can engage the world with passion, anger and compassion.
  • Preaching professor Christine Smith (“Preaching as Weeping, Confession, and Resistance: Radical Responses to Radical Evil“) looks to sermons as a liturgical way to guide congregations into the emotional depth of confession, and on into resistance.
  • Walter Brueggemann (“The Prophetic Imagination“) affirms the importance of both compassion and lament. “Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.” “Real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve because that is the most visceral announcement that things are not right. … And as long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no real grieving and no serious criticism.”

+     +     +     +     +

Resistance should be a theme written into the DNA of Protestant congregations. It was Martin Luther who resisted the practices and doctrines of a distorted church, and who announced (as Ola might have in Babylon), “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

I know that it can be difficult for most congregations to get involved in political activism. Taking stands on legislation and public policy stirs up conflict, and can degenerate into partisan squabbles about short-term goals and strategies.

It may be easier, and much more faithful, for churches to engage in acts of witness and resistance. When Eco-Justice Ministries took the lead in organizing the 350Denver actions in 2009, we reached out to churches with a message of public witness instead of political activism. We framed the 350 movement as one of resistance — saying a principled “no” to the continuing ruin inflicted by greenhouse gasses, and lifting up the positive vision of a safe and sustainable Earth.

Resistance is at the heart of the Christian faith. We celebrate it in the exodus and the prophets, in the unique witness of Jesus, the writings of Paul, and the encouragement of Revelation. Resistance that can breaks though our denial and grief is a discipline of faith and hope.

How can your church strengthen the three threads of a spirituality of resistance: holy anger, global compassion, and rituals of grief? How can your church be bold in a public witness of resistance against what is profoundly wrong in today’s world?


Peter Sawtell 
Executive Director 
Eco-Justice Ministries

For more climate movement news, follow 350 on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram