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Civil Protests and Theological Ethics

Key words: ecology; environmental protection; civil protests; civil society; political participation; theological ethics

In the Czech Republic, we have encountered in recent weeks a phenomenon that is not new but by its intensity and regularity is surprising and is in any case significant. For more than a month, every Monday or Tuesday, thousands of people have been demonstrating in Prague and many other cities against the decision of the Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to nominate as a new minister of justice Marie Benešová. A large part of the public sees behind this decision of the Prime Minister his effort to pressurise public prosecutors in order to prevent any prosecution against him (he is suspected of having misused EU development funds for one project). There are also other protest activities: On May 3, 2019, the second student strike for climate protection was held in Prague. The Czech students joined the movement Fridays for Future, which was set in motion by young Swedish student Greta Thunberg and which many thousands of young people joined in many countries of the world. About 1.4 million people from around the world participated in the Global Climate Strike for Future on March 15, 2019. As is known, the aim of the students is to rouse politicians from the attitude of indifference in the environmental and ecological field, and to move politicians towards better and ethically more responsible fulfillment of environmental commitments.

Both events express some paradoxical development at least in Czech society: On the one hand, participation in traditional, institutionalized processes of political participation decreases; on the other hand, there is an apparent increase in new forms of political participation in the form of civil protests. On the one hand, the number of members in political parties and in traditional associations with political interests decreases; on the other hand, citizens’ engagement in civic initiatives and associations is increasing. On the one hand, there is a skepticism about institutionalized policy in the Czech Republic; on the other hand, the number of civil initiatives (e.g. against political corruption) and protest movements is increasing. The dynamism within civil society cannot be overlooked. Apart from some skepticism about institutionalized and party politics, we are witnessing a kind of counter-movements phenomenon and new interest in politics. Nevertheless, this interest in politics has a specific form.

Recently, political sciences have been paying attention to the growing number of “critical citizens”. Critical citizens are described as “a group of people who feel closely committed to democratic values”, yet are “dissatisfied with the existing structures of democratic governance and, among other things, demand changes through protests.” (Gary S. Schaal/Claudia Ritzi) They talk about some transformation of democracy and political participation “from citizen-voter to active citizen.”

In this context, an ethical reflection on the ethos of the public sector and active citizenship as well as an ethical reflection on these processes seem to be current burning challenges for theological ethics. Civil society is the primary place of democracy, because it is through meetings and contact with others in the public space that one experiences oneself as a political person. From this civic dynamism, society draws its energy. Civil society is the place where moral forces are mobilized, it is the engine of democracy. It is a space of communication and reflection in which social problems and challenges are articulated and discussed. It is a space in which social issues are clarified and subsequently “transferred” into the system of political decision-making.

The fact that the role of civil society is crucial for environmental issues is probably clear. We can even say that its role and its significance appear on this topic very explicitly because a close connection between the individual-ethical level of personal responsibility and the political level is evident. It is true that the ecological issue needs a solution primarily at the political level and the key part of reforms must come from politics (so to say, ‘from above’, top-down). But political solutions in a democratic society cannot do without broad public support and without the support of individual citizens’ lifestyles (bottom-up), as Pope Francis underlines with emphasis in the encyclical Laudato si’ (cf. LS 211). That is why it is essential to change minds not only within politics and among political actors but also within society as such. Initiatives of young people who create actually – together with churches and scientists – an unexpected alliance concerning ecology and environmental protection, as renowned German climatologist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber recently said, can be an important contribution to protect, fulfil and guarantee the rights of future generations. These initiatives can be an important contribution to the transformation of mentality on the path to ecological-social transformation (to the issue “ecological-social transformation” cf. the last volume of German theological-ethical periodical Amosinternational). It is a challenge for theological ethics to accompany this process actively and in a differentiated way.