What do Greta Thunberg, Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have in common?
Swedish Climate Activist Greta Thunberg, age 16, addresses the United Nations, September 23, 2019.
When we witness how in quick succession a young girl from Sweden awakens first her own country, then Europe and now the US and the whole world to the climate crisis, we may wonder how she does it?
What is the secret behind her ability to rally a quarter of a million people in New York, the capitalistic center of the world, and millions in 185 countries worldwide joining in the largest climate protest in history? (This took place only last week on September 20, 2019.)
Surprisingly, part of the answer takes us back to Concord, Massachusetts, where transcendentalist and abolitionist Henry David Thoreau in 1849 demonstrated his defiance of a government that supported slavery, by going to jail. While incarcerated he formulated and later published his famous essay Civil Disobedience.
Thoreau, drawing on Socrates in the west, and Mencius in the East, formulated a civil disobedience concept which says that when the law of the land is in conflict with your higher consciousness, you have a duty to obey that higher law and be willing to accept for the consequences.
Around year 1900 Count Leo Tolstoy, a Russian novelist and philosopher, realized the value of civil disobedience in his own attempt to better the condition of the Russian serfs. Later a young Mohandas K. Gandhi, while studying law at Oxford University in England, became enthralled by the civil disobedience concepts. Upon his return to India he succeeded in applying its principles successfully and peacefully to liberate the Indian subcontinent from the crushing global power of the British Empire.
Back in the United States, Dr. Martin Luther King in his autobiography, Stride Toward Freedom, writes about his struggles for human rights in the south, and says, “During my student days I read Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience for the first time. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. This was my first intellectual contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance.”
Later Dr. King stated, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it.”
During the Nazi occupation of my home country Denmark, Henry David Thoreau became a virtual folk hero. The Danes developed numerous civil disobedience concepts to fight their occupier, such as resistance to a Nazi law requiring all Jews to wear a yellow star. The result was that soon all Danish citizens appeared in the streets wearing a yellow star, including their beloved King Christian. Then the law was nullified.
Greta Thunberg’s has adopted Thoreau’s civil disobedience concepts to call fro school strikes on Fridays. This raises ecological awareness and the hopes of a whole new generation. Her courage in following her higher conscience is inspiring a global adult audience as well - slowly awakening us from our materialistic slumber.
The timeliness of this wakeup call is abundantly clear when we see the mile-thick ice cap of Greenland and Antarctica melting and the Amazon Rainforests being reduced to ashes. At the same time, the wild, intoxicated Wall Street dance of greed continues unabated and dictatorial power structures pop up in country after country.
What Greta Thunberg reminds us not only that "our house is on fire" ecologically speaking. She also makes us realize that we will never have a free and enlightened State system until the State recognizes each individual as a higher and independent power and treats each person accordingly.
This youthful prophet leads by challenging us to recognize truth/
“We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis," she says. "And if solutions within the system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself?”
Often Greta’s statements are followed by this provocative needling question:
“Do you hear what I am saying?”
This question is one for us all to discern on and see how it resonates.
Do we really, really hear what Greta is saying? Do we?
Hans Hallundbaek is Director of the Hudson River Presbytery’s Interfaith Prison Partnership (IPP). He is the NGO representative to the United Nations for the International Prison Chaplains Association (IPCA) and Citizens United for the Return of Errants (CURE). He has served as an adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and as a volunteer teacher and chaplain at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. Hans holds his M-Div. and D-Min. from New York Theological Seminary, and has been published in several national magazines.