From Pews to Punk Rock Shows, This Anarchist Plaintiff finds Hope in Community
This sermon was delivered by Juliana v. U.S. plaintiff Kiran, 21, as a guest preacher at the Alki United Church of Christ in Seattle, WA on February 18. It is an excerpt from his contribution to an anthology of climate activist perspective to be published through the UCC Church.
I took a theology class last year from a professor who was not only a radical theologian but also a veteran of the anti-nuke movement. Despite his obvious passion for the world, he claimed burnout. According to him, the anti-nuke movement failed because they didn’t achieve their goals: to end the production and possession of nuclear armaments. After seeing so many of his peers “grow up,” lose their interests in political change, and become the apathetic middle class they once rejected, my professor had a generally pessimistic outlook on change.
In one class discussion, I professed to being a staunch existentialist, even a nihilist — I was curious to see where that conversation would go. My professor, knowing of my work in the environmental movement, stopped me immediately to ask what I meant by that. He assumed that I saw a “greater good” to my work and was confused as to why I dedicated so much time and energy to something if I didn’t see an ultimate purpose to it. But I don’t think I will save anything. Call me a pessimist, I think we just might lose. Climate change is happening right now, and the current power structures give little to no opportunity for necessary change. And that’s irrelevant to why I’m fighting. I don’t know if there’s a God out there, I don’t know if there’s a greater good, I don’t know if there is a knowable Truth, I don’t even know if my life has a purpose. But there are two things I do know. I need to find purpose, and I need community to embody it. I’m not here to win, I’m here to fight.
My professor paused and then responded, "I wish I had your perspective when I was your age, I don’t think I would have burned out.”
I’m not trying to assert that my perspective here is "better" than any others. In fact, I don’t think it is. However, it’s crucial for me to be honest because I think we need a diversity of activist philosophies if we are ever going to have a diversity of activists. And that’s why a twenty-one-year-old anarchist punk is preaching a sermon at the United Church of Christ. I may not have found God, but I did find church. What do I mean by that? Do I go to church? Not anymore — the music was too slow and there was never enough wine. What I did find growing up as a preacher’s kid in the UCC was the value of having an activist community. Once I realized that, I knew I could never do without.
When I moved to Seattle for college, I had to find new activists. Initially, that meant my peers. The first thing I noticed when I started organizing with students was that a common way to get to know someone was to share first protest stories. Everyone had a moment when they went to their first march, or had that radicalizing professor who inspired them to get out on the streets, or simply the moment when it occurred to them that racism was still an issue. Nearly everyone, that is, except me. Having grown up in the activist community of the UCC in Eugene, Oregon, organizing has always been my way of life. There was never a question of whether or not to be a part of a social movement because that was an integral part of my community. The question I faced as I entered my teens was simply what I wanted to dedicate myself to bettering. I remember a middle school Halloween dance when I dressed up as “global warming.” I had decided climate change was the most all-encompassing issue, and definitely the scariest. Perfect material for a Halloween costume, right? Apparently not. Not only did everyone ask me what I was supposed to be, nobody got it.
You’re probably wondering what it is I’ve been up to. My first activist group outside of the religious community was the Cascadia Forest Defenders, a radical environmental direct action group I joined in high school. Not long after I started working with them, I was asked if I wanted to sign on as a co-plaintiff in Juliana v. United States, the federal climate change lawsuit supported by Our Children’s Trust. In the spring of my senior year of high school I got an email from an old friend, Kelsey Juliana, who was already a plaintiff on the case: “I know you’re interested in climate change issues, would you like to sue the government?”
What a strange idea, I thought. Why not? In the lawsuit, 20 other youth from around the country and I argue that the federal government’s actions to support the fossil fuel industry and aggravate climate change is a violation of our constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property. We aren’t asking for compensation, but rather a court order for a science-based climate recovery plan. This means implementing climate science into climate policy, a no-brainer but unfortunately unprecedented in the United States. Also, our success would mean asserting a stable climate system as a constitutional right. We have successfully overcome numerous hurdles and are waiting for trial. This “strange idea” I signed on to almost three years ago is not so strange anymore. As you may have already noticed, I haven’t been able to convince myself that the struggles we face will be solved. Discovering a philosophy behind my activism has been more a journey of learning to live despite that our work may never reverse or even slow the effects of climate change. However, being a part of this case has given me a glimpse of the potential for a more purposeful now. There are brilliant people who continue to dedicate their lives to finding new and innovative ways to challenge the powers that be, and that’s our only chance.
And I’m already talking about people again. If I have any hope, it’s because of people. Since high school, I’ve been involved in numerous activist groups in the Pacific Northwest, focused primarily but not exclusively on climate issues. I find myself protesting gentrification, white supremacy, and everything in between. It’s always about the issues, of course, but the community that forms around the issues is what keeps me going. And that community is so much wider than the city I live in. As a child, family vacations almost always involved my mother wanting to visit a local church. I used to think, perhaps she just loves churches. As I began to discover my own community, though, I realized that it was more than that. When I go to new places, I go to punk shows. They may be hard to find, they may not be recommended tourist destinations, but no matter where I am in the world I know I can find passionate like-minded community in those spaces. If you let stickered basements, beer, and punk rock replace sanctuaries, coffee, and hymns, you can see how much I take after my mother.
Traveling in Europe this past year I couldn’t stop thinking about this. I spent a term studying in Sweden, and within my first week I found a punk show. The friends I made there caught me up on issues facing Sweden, from white supremacy to navigating the heavily-taxed beer (make it yourself!). More than that, I knew I was in a safe space, free from racism or judgment of who I am. I was invited to Norway by Greenpeace Nordic to present on Juliana v. United States and found activists and anarchist houses to spend my time in where I learned about Norwegian issues and strategies as well. From the punk bars in the UK to the Hambach Forest Occupation in Germany, I was always welcomed because the community I dedicate myself to back home has a foundation that is so much bigger than the Pacific Northwest. Be it anarchism or Christianity, they may be different things but they can serve the same purpose.
Often when talking to others about organizing I get the questions, “What gives you hope?” “Don’t you sometimes feel like giving up?” To that I answer, no matter how hopeless the future looks I will not give up. History makes a few things clear: there have always been issues, no one person has ever fixed them, and things are getting better just as much as they’re getting worse. With every decade comes a new host of problems, and while the sources may be the same, the solutions are often vastly different. Climate change may not be solved in my lifetime, and definitely not by me, but that’s not the point.
I took a little trip down memory lane this week to my Sunday School days and read a bit from Mark 8. Jesus is telling the disciples that things are going to be rough: suffering, rejection, death. Peter is not pleased by this update on the campaign strategy, so Jesus sees fit to explain a little more.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
I don’t interpret this as Jesus saying we gotta die for an old book. This resonates with me because I think he was talking about the sacrifices that come when you dedicate your life to a movement. Sometimes you spend the whole day in meetings and still don’t have a realistic action plan. Sometimes you organize a meeting to plan student-led direct action and freshmen show up just to ask you for drugs. Sometimes you spend the whole day in jail only to realize you’ve started a string of exasperating court dates for the next year. Sometimes a white supremacist shoots your comrade at a protest in front of your eyes.
But Jesus says, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” It’s not all going to be easy, in fact it probably never will. But that’s not what it’s about. By sacrificing our lives through dedication, we are saving ourselves from a life of meaninglessness, a life without passion. For Jesus that’s a life without the divine — I see that as a life without true community. Whatever that means to you, a saved life is not simply being alive, a saved life is a life worth living. Yes, there is the chance that we will suffer, even die. It is even more likely that we will lose. But we have a choice. We can let our narcissism envelop us and not work for anything we don’t think we can fix, or we can join movements with passion rather than expectations, and give our all simply because that is our found purpose. When enough of us give our all to the same purpose, I know we can drive change. That is how we can save our lives. Who knows, maybe this lawsuit brought by 20 youth and I really can be instrumental in reversing climate change. From Moses to Malcolm X, everyone is a link in the chain. Few links ever see the end, but every link is essential. Some call that faith, and perhaps it is. Faith, hope, whatever you call it, personally I can’t trust anything as big as society or the cosmos. But I can trust my friends, the links that surround me and remind me every day of the chain going hundreds of years into the past and hundreds of years into the future.