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Calling All Climate Activists: “Go Out and Get Yourself in Some Holy Trouble“

Activists on strike shut off the flow of tar sands oil across the US last week, and a movement leader calls for faith-based direct action.

A handful of climate activists turned off the flow of Canadian tar sands oil through pipelines in Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, and Washington on Tuesday, Oct. 11. Five who cut chains and turned pipeline valves and five more supporters were arrested. They face a range of charges, including criminal trespass, sabotage, burglary, and criminal mischief.

That morning in Seattle, Jay O’Hara was working the phones, calling the pipeline companies 15 minutes in advance to warn them of the shutdown. It was not his first experience of a bold climate action involving personal risk. In 2013, O’Hara and his friend Ken Ward anchored their small boat, the “Henry David T,” in the path of a 40,000-ton barge taking coal to a plant in Massachusetts in what has famously been called the “lobster-boat blockade.” A district attorney subsequently dropped the most serious charges against the pair, recognizing that their civil disobedience was motivated by the necessity to halt global warming.

Necessity was also behind last Tuesday’s pipeline shutdown by activist group Climate Direct Action, O’Hara said, pointing to research that shows we cannot remain under the Paris agreement’s global warming limit of 2 degrees Celsius if we burn the fossil fuel reserves we already have.

The success of the lobster-boat blockade and his work on climate action, from lobbying in DC to working with transformational student groups and making a pipeline pilgrimage, has made O’Hara stand out as one of the young leaders of the climate movement. However, he wouldn’t use that description himself; he expresses discomfort with ego-driven action or scenarios where he’s treated as a hero.

But as a co-founder of the Climate Disobedience Center, O’Hara works in the highly visible area of direct action that dramatically confronts the corporate and governmental interests behind global warming. It’s an area of the movement that can ask a lot of participants, but one many see as crucial.

For guidance and sustenance in the work, O’Hara draws on his deep Quaker faith. At a faith and climate action conference in Seattle the weekend before the pipeline action, he spoke of his faith as a way to proceed at “this time of hopelessness and crisis.” Climate change, he said, is simply too large a problem and the necessity for radical change is too pressing for the solution to come from traditional thinking. In an interview with YES! Magazine, O’Hara expanded on what he means by faith — and the value of what he calls “holy trouble.”


Valerie Schloredt: I’m talking to you as an atheist, but one who feels affinity for the people of faith at this conference who are acting out of deep conviction, who are acting authentically.

Jay O’Hara: Depending on whose god you’re talking about, I’m an atheist. I don’t know whether there is something out there. All I know is that I experience something.

What I love about Quakerism is that the words you use to describe it don’t matter.

From the beginning, Quakerism was universalistic. Early Quakers in the 1650s could meet people who were Muslim or who were Native American, and find the same motivating spirit underlying their actions, and be like, “Oh that, we call it Jesus, but whatevs.”

There is a thing, whether it comes in the form of a whisper, or a nudge, or a curiosity, or an inclination, that is internal rather than external, that is generative rather than consumptive.

How does acting on that internal voice for climate action work in our society, where there is so much denial?

Our first job is to stop talking and start acting. I think one of the things that has held the movement back is the big green NGOs saying that the world is ending, and not acting like it. People can smell the bullshit, and they think, “Well, they’re not acting freaked out, they must be trying just to fundraise off of it. So why should we pay attention to that? A bunch of hypocrites!”

Suffering. I think that is the crucial thing. Willingness to suffer generates empathy: “Wow, if this person is so convinced in their heart that they have to stand in front of that train, maybe even risk their life, it must be really serious.”

I don’t think our problem with denial in the United States is a problem with Republicans and right-wing climate deniers. The problem with denial is White liberals and middle-of-the road Democrats who have not internalized the severity and magnitude of the problem. And that’s our biggest block. It’s eerily reminiscent of what Dr. King talks about in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” when he says that the biggest hindrance to civil rights might not be the Ku Klux Klan or the White councilman, but the White moderate who says they agree with the goals, but says “slow down, calm down, you’re not being reasonable.”

The denier population is only 25 percent of the population. We don’t need to convince 100 percent, we only need 50 percent to agree with us. Research says that a nonviolent revolution only requires 4 percent or so of the population, because once you move those people to the furthest level of commitment, people on the next layer move a little further out. Who cares about the deniers? They’re not the problem — we’re the problem.

I think what’s actually going on is that because we are White, because we are educated, we have been told that our voice matters. When we open our mouths, people will listen because we are important. We’ve been told and acculturated to believe we are important — which is not true, because in reality, the forces in power do not listen and do not care. As much as I love a lot of things that Quakers did in the first half of the 20th century, I think the phrase that was popularized then, “speak truth to power,” is fundamentally flawed. Power doesn’t give a shit. Like Frederick Douglass said, power concedes nothing without a fight.

Someone in the audience today asked what they could do to help the work of the Center for Climate Disobedience, and you answered, “Go out and get yourself in some holy trouble, and we’ll help you.” What does that phrase “holy trouble” mean to you?

Living in accordance with the truth, as you know it in your heart. When you do that, it tends to invite opposition. My faith is that there is some unifying force that binds us all in unity together. And when we listen to that voice, it tends to lead in the direction of forgiveness and forbearance.

So the “holy trouble” part is that when we start living in that way, authentically, the empire gets really nervous because there is nothing more frightening to the powers that want control and domination than people who are liberated, because they can’t be controlled. Inevitably that will invite trouble, and it’s holy because it moves from that place of the liberating encounter with the god of freedom. That spirit moving out powerfully into the world is not a linear change strategy; it’s an exponential change strategy. It pushes and pushes and builds pressure. It’s like a fault line; it looks like nothing is happening, and then all of a sudden it goes.

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