The Reluctant Radical (2018), directed by Lindsey Grayzel
Reviewed by Rev. Tom Martinez
How does one live in a world gone mad when mainstream culture endorses the insanity? The Reluctant Radical, a documentary produced and directed by Lindsey Grayzel, explores this question in relation to the ecological crisis.
The film follows Ken Ward, a lifelong activist who took time off from his environmental work to help raise his son. During his down time he plunges into the literature on climate change, growing all the more alarmed as he ponders the fate of the world awaiting his child. The experience convinces him he needs to act.
I don’t want to say too much about the monkey-wrenching action Ward eventually engages in, since the outcome of the verdict carries a risk of serious prison time and infuses the drama with steadily building suspense. It opens with him on the day of the action, then moves back in time to some of Ward’s earlier exploits, interspersing his actions with court scenes and relevant biographical sketches.
We hear about Ward’s tenacious activism costing him friends and family. He’s been labeled bipolar and put on meds. It’s a sad commentary on the state of our culture that someone so deeply attuned to the suffering of the planet is literally labeled mentally ill.
And yet somehow Ward resists being swept away by the collective tide of denial and doggedly keeps getting in the way of oil’s unceasing flow. These actions create space for others who, as Ward notes, “in the normal course of action don’t get to tell people what they really think.” There’s a wonderful scene in which a prosecutor gives an impromptu press conference to announce he’s refusing to prosecute Ward for one of his actions because global warming does indeed present an urgent threat demanding immediate action. When he’s finished you hear an off-camera bystander exclaim, “Amen!”
This is part of the film’s appeal: regular people summing the courage to speak the truth. Ward himself comes off as a regular guy, albeit one who’s rather stubborn and well-grounded in scientific knowledge. But what really distinguishes him is his refusal to look away, and his willingness to do something, anything, that might wake people up.
At one point we find him standing at an Exxon gas station with a sign that reads, “EXXON MOBILE: UNPARALLED EVIL.” We watch as customers pull up and ask what’s wrong with Exxon. Ward explains how internal Exxon memos dating back thirty years reveal knowledge of human-induced climate change, which they then actively sought to cover up. There’s something refreshing in his bluntness and moral clarity. “That’s the main story here,” he says, “we’ve agreed to end civilization.”
This is a powerful story of a courageous activist whose dedication to the truth grows organically in the face of the storm. Throughout most of the film he’s taking action alone, a testament to the at-times solitary nature of an activist’s life. But by the time he’s blocking a locomotive carrying crude, he’s been joined by an enthusiastic troop of activists and you get the feeling he’s part of something much bigger, which is, after all, what a spiritually sensitive ecological awareness would have us remember.
I was reminded of this while listening to John Dear, a life-long practitioner of non-violent civil disobedience whose new book (They Will Inherit the Earth) seeks to bring together non-violent activism and the environmental movement. Dear celebrates indigenous activists like Berta Cáceres, whose activism in Honduras resulted in her assassination. “After her death,” Dear writes, “people took to the streets in Honduras and the United States, calling for an independent, international investigation” (They Will Inherit the Earth, p. 65). [That was two years ago and there was in fact an arrest just in the last few days.] Dear notes that some of those who rose up in protest of Ceres’ assassination held signs that read, “Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.”
In light of the life-and-death struggle going on in defiance of the exploitation of God’s creation, it would seem Ken Ward isn’t so crazy after all. Leaders and activists like Ken Ward, Berta Ceceres, Oscar Romero, and others have dared to see the face of the victims and heard the cries of God’s people and God’s creation. Some have been killed for the stands they’ve taken. Ken Ward is still facing legal consequences. What does all this mean for us during the season of Lent moving into Easter? What might it mean for us, too, to take up our cross?
Note: for more information about the writing and work of Fr. John Dear and the call for non-violent action in September 2019, please see this link.
Rev. Tom Martinez
Desert Palm UCC
Editor's note: Tom also facilitates the Earth Care Commission for Arizona Faith Network, and is the SWC rep to the UCC Council for Climate Justice.
Churches can host a screening of the film - Bring the Reluctant Radical to your community.