Uniting Church Minister: why I take part in civil disobedience

Why peaceful actions against coal mining at the Leard Forest?

Why peaceful actions against coal mining at the Leard Forest?


by Rev. John Brentnall

As a Christian minister, a father and grandfather I have a responsibility to do my bit to ensure that the environment in which my grandchildren and great grandchildren live, is bearable and sustainable.

I have taken part in two protests, and been arrested once, for the same reasons as most of the other protectors of the Leard Forest. I see the Whitehaven Coal mine as a destroyer of the environment at a number of levels and therefore as harming my neighbour.

The local environment

The new mine development and current mine expansion necessitates the destruction of approximately 70% of the Leard State Forest. Before our eyes we see the machines tearing down the last remnant of White Box grassy woodland, destroying the habitat of nearly of 500 species of flora and fauna, including approximately 28 endangered species.

Another concern is the potential impact on local agriculture, and the big issue here is the potential threat to that essential, life-giving commodity – water. The mine threatens to destroy or contaminate underground aquifers which, if affected, will severely damage the viability of agriculture in the region and the livelihoods of many farming families. Water used by the mines is likely to lower the water table by 2 to 7 metres.

Many farmers rely on their land as their superannuation, and so, losing the value of their land is not just losing a livelihood, but also their retirement nest egg.

In addition to that threat, the mine is sucking huge amounts of water from the Namoi River– water that is a scarce commodity in the first place, and all of which is needed to maintain the health of the river and provide water for irrigators.

Another concern is the thousands of tonnes of toxic dust that will be created by coalmine activity. This will be blown over the surrounding countryside, contaminating farmland and homes alike.

It worries me to see hundreds of trains, with 85 or more uncovered coal cars, rumbling through every town and village between here and Newcastle. They will be gently distributing millions of micro particles of coal dust to be shared by the lungs of the unfortunate citizens who live in proximity to the rail line.

The World Environment

I am against the development of any new coal mines because of the contribution that burning fossil fuels makes to global warming, climate change, and sea level rise. In the Leard Forest there could potentially be three coal mines, including the largest mine in Australia to date, currently being developed by Whitehaven Coal Limited.

The expansion is taking place at a time when the World Bank says, “The science is unequivocal that humans are the cause of global warming, and major changes are already being observed.” i

According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, “Between 60-80% of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are ‘unburnable’ if the world is to have a chance of not exceeding global warming of 2°C.” ii

Social and economic issues

The mine has involved the destruction of a number of indigenous sacred sites. Local Gomeroi Elders say that 7 of 11 sites have been bulldozed by Whitehaven already, and that they have been denied access to land over which they have native title in order to conduct traditional ceremonies.

Whitehaven Coal is emblematic of the far-too-close ties between the mining industry and government. Alan Jones has called the mining industry "the upper house of every government in Australia". The chairman of Whitehaven is Mark Vaile, former (National Party) Deputy Prime Minister.

The coal mining industry appears to have undue sway over politicians generally, and their approvals seem to be obtained without rigorous inspection of relevant documentation. Allegedly corrupt or incompetent politicians and public servants have allowed this development to proceed at great cost to the environment.

This mine was originally planned to be an underground mine and should never have been allowed to be changed to an open cut mine at the expense of the Leard Forest and the surrounding community.

Independent ecologists have made the assessment that the biodiversity offsets do not meet legislated requirements. It’s hard to see how they could if they ecologists are right in saying that there is basically no more White Box grassy woodland of similar significance to save.

There are other aspects of coal mining that concern me. For example:

• the way the mining industry as a whole, especially coal mining, is harming the Australian economy by driving up the price of the dollar;

• the way mining is distorting the local economy;

• the fact that the bulk of the profits go overseas;

• their contribution to society through taxation is quite low;

• a big proportion of royalties are returned by state governments in various forms of subsidies and

• the Commonwealth government subsidies which the mining industry as a whole receives.

My Christian faith

Underlying all of the above is my Christian faith. I believe that all Christians should be environmentalists and activists and I base this on precepts from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

I agree with K.C. Abraham that humans are part of nature but distinct from it. The difference is not superiority, it comes with the awareness of responsibility. Abraham sees Genesis 1:28-30 as problematic. A narrow interpretation of “dominion” gives a basis for ruthless exploitation of nature, but he says that it needs to be seen “through the prism of Jesus’ saving mission.” iii He quotes Moltmann in relation to Genesis 1:28, it is “not to subdue the earth – but free the earth through fellowship with it!” iv He says that the Bible emphasizes human responsibility for nature.

Genesis 2:15 and 3:17-19 highlight that humanity is called to be the gardener and tiller of the earth and have the task of keeping it fertile and productive. This emphasizes “care for” rather than exploitation and plundering of the earth.

Romans 8:13-28 tells us that the whole of creation and humanity “long and groan for perfection and liberation.” v Violence against creation caused by disobedience and greed will have to be redeemed in Christ.

Other verses from Scripture tell us about God’s attitude towards creation:

• God delights in the diversity of species and pronounces them good (Genesis 1:21);

• God values and cares for even the smallest of creatures (Matthew 10:29);

• Creation should be treated in a way that will allow it to be preserved and to regenerate (Deuteronomy 22:6-7);

• God sustains creation (Psalm 145:15-16, Matthew 6:26-30);

• God’s will was that all species should be preserved so that they could regenerate, (Genesis 6:19-20, 7:3b, 8:17c);

• God has covenanted not to destroy creation (Genesis 9:8-17).

Love of neighbour

“Love your neighbour as yourself” first appears in the Hebrew bible in Leviticus 19:18. Then it appears in the Gospels (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27) where Jesus affirms that it is one of the two greatest commandments. Paul says that it sums up all the other commandments (Romans 13:9) and James calls it the “royal law (James 2:8).

Sally McFague asks “What if we understood ones “self” not to stop at the edges of one’s own body, but to extend without limit to include everything that is? What if the “neighbour” is not only the person next door, but all of creation, everything that exists? What would it mean to love this neighbour as one loves oneself? vi

Like many other Christians, I interpret the word “neighbour” to include not just the people who live next door but all of humanity. Not just the ones who are alive now, but the ones in the generations to follow. I also include all living creatures and the environments in which they live, including the oceans and the forests. By protesting about what is happening to the Leard Forest, I am “loving my neighbour.”

Michael Northcott states, “When human life manifests those moral characteristics or virtues which are affirmed in the Torah, and reaffirmed in the ethics of Jesus - love for God and neighbour, fidelity, justice, prudence - then the land flourishes. When on the other hand injustice reigns and traditional communal obligations to God, family, ancestors, children and neighbours are disregarded, then, according to the Hebrew Bible, the land suffers.” vii

I am proud to be a member of the Uniting Church, which since its inception 37 years ago has taken seriously its role as an agent of care for creation and has issued a number of statements to that effect. One example, is the 2006 National Assembly call on church members to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions and to advocate for governments to implement policies to reduce Australia’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Last year the Synod of NSW/ACT issued a call to the State Government to protect agricultural land, water resources and high conservation value areas, including forests and wilderness areas, from coal and CSG mining. At the same meeting the Synod resolved to begin divesting its shares in fossil fuel companies, and since then the Victorian/Tasmanian Synod, the WA Synod and the national Assembly have done the same.

Earlier this year I joined the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change (ARRCC) which has members from the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and other faiths, as well as Christians, and that has helped me to realize that care for creation is a part of just about every religious faith.

The Issue of Non Violent Civil Disobedience

I have engaged in this activity twice in 2014 and this raises the question of compliance, as an ordained minister in the Uniting Church, with the Church’s Code of Ethics. However, the Code allows such action. Clause 6.2 of the Code states, “It is unethical for Ministers deliberately to break the law or encourage another to do so. The only exception would be in instances of political resistance or civil disobedience.” viii

The first Assembly in its Statement to the Nation in 1977 noted, “Finally we affirm that the first allegiance of Christians is God, under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass. We realise that sometimes this allegiance may bring us into conflict with the rulers of our day.” ix

Let me summarise by saying that I see this as a social justice issue as well as an ecological justice issue. It is a matter of justice for my neighbours – the people of Kiribati and Tuvalu, the farmers and residents of Maules Creek, and all other communities threatened by big, dirty coal, and the Koalas, frogs, birds and other creatures living in the Leard Forest.

As a Christian minister, a father and grandfather I have a responsibility to do my bit to ensure that the environment in which my grandchildren and great grandchildren live is bearable and sustainable.


i http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/climatechange/overview#1

ii http://www.carbontracker.org/site/wastedcapital#

iii Gill, A Textbook of Christian Ethics London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014, 410

iv Gill, A Textbook of Christian Ethics 410-411

v Gill, A Textbook of Christian Ethics 411

viSallie McFague, Blessed are the consumers, Climate Change And The Practice Of Restraint, Minneapolis: Fortress

Press, 2013, 51.

vii Michael S. Northcott, The Environment & Christian Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996, 109.

viii Code of Ethics, 2012 Edition, The Uniting Church in Australia, 10

ix http://unitingjustice.org.au/uniting-church-statements/key-assembly-statements/item/511-statement-to-the-nation