Those of us working on environmental and social causes are finding it hard to celebrate Christmas this year, with Aleppo at the front of our minds and social, political and planetary destabilization all around. To find something to be grateful for we must go all the way back to the reason Christmas is celebrated in the first place. -On the day we commemorate Jesus' birth, whether you believe he was the son of God or not, there is a lot to admire about the life of historical Jesus relevant to social and environmental movements today.
Jesus was the ultimate non-conformist, as were Buddha and Muhammad. All of them rallied against their local prevailing belief systems and founded the three largest religions on Earth. Jesus' critics considered him scandalous because he surrounded himself with sinners and women. Author Lee Anna Starr claimed, of all founders of religions and religious sects, Jesus stands alone as the one who never encouraged the disparagement of women. In this way, Jesus' attitudes about women and patriarchy were pioneering, as were his views on caring for the poor and less fortunate.
One of Jesus' most controversial actions occurred around 30 AD shortly before his death when he caused a disturbance in the Temple in Jerusalem and accused authorities of thieving, naming poor widows as victims. This resulted in an embargo on commerce in the Temple, which ultimately contributed to Jesus' arrest and execution as a threat to public order. As Professor Marcus Borg said, "Historically, Jesus did not die "for the sins of the world" but rather "he was killed by the powers that ruled his world." Roman authorities and Temple elites saw Jesus' message as a threat to their political and economic stability and conspired together to stamp out the flames of that ideology.
We may presume the world has evolved so the brutal execution of one man or woman for their nonconformist ideas would be unlikely now, yet it continues all over the world. Last March, Goldman Environmental Prize Winner Berta Caceres was executed in her home in Honduras for her campaign to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River, making her the 120th human rights defender murdered in Honduras in the last 4 years.
Between 2010 and 2015, Global Witness reported over 767 people died in conflicts against extractive industries and poachers. Last year marked the highest annual death toll on record with 185 environmentalists murdered in 16 countries. These activists refused to conform to the idea of economic gain at the expense of everything else. In doing so, they mirrored the story of Jesus by paying the ultimate price for their efforts to protect the most vulnerable.
As social inequality and environmental devastation reach an all-time high, we desperately need more outspoken non-conformists to come forward. Half of global wealth is now retained by only 1% of the world's population, and many of our decision makers sit comfortably in that 1%. -US President-elect Donald Trump's 17 cabinet members collectively retain more wealth than one third of American households. Meanwhile, lead poisoning has become a national epidemic in the USA due to lax environmental regulations. Without human rights defenders working on behalf of the socially vulnerable, our systems will continue to benefit the privileged minority while the well-being of the majority and their progeny is cast aside.
If Jesus' non-conformity fails to inspire, we can take a cue from nature instead. The beauty we perceive in nature is due to its diversity and lack of conformity, yet we continue to drill, frack, extract, and pave over most of it. Last week, The Guardian reported rampant road building across the globe has divided the Earth's land into 600,000 fragments, most of which are too small to support significant wildlife. Mass migration of those fleeing climate and weather-related disasters is becoming the "new normal" as nature refuses to conform to our needs and we can only react and retreat in response.
Now more than ever, we need the attitude of a messiah to fight against the herd behavior keeping us trapped in broken economic, social and environmental systems. This Christmas, we commemorate the birth of a person who was not afraid to walk alone, to think alone, and to act alone in protecting the most vulnerable of society. If there is little else in the world to celebrate this season, at least there is a lesson in refusing to conform to the systems that benefit so few.
For more information on Human Rights Defenders, see Friends of the Earth International's HRD programme.
Dr. Cara Augustenborg is an Irish-American environmental scientist; climate lecturer at University College Dublin; and Chairperson of Friends of the Earth Ireland. She writes the award winning current affairs blog 'Verdant Yank' and was recently named 'one of the 20 most influential people shaping Ireland's response to climate change'. More at CaraAugustenborg.com.