A few days ago I blogged about how the recent waves of protest sweeping the Middle East, Europe and the States could have interesting implications for Christianity. However, that post made a pretty major assumption – that Christianity should be concerned with the protests in the first place. After all, while the Church has been involved in some of the major protest movements of the last few hundred years – the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights movements – it hasn’t always been on the right side, with plenty of Christians at the time believing that slavery was an integral part of society, or that black people should sit at the back of buses. It’s not really news to point out that religion gets corrupted when it gets too close to politics, to the social status quo – it’s a form of blasphemy to suggest that Jesus would have been an ardent supporter of Jim Crow.
The fact is, protest against social injustice runs through the Bible. The prophets, men and women inspired by God to act as His mouthpiece, to interpret the signs of the times, to receive visions and proclaim the will of the divine, spoke not only of abstract religious matters but also of social justice – in many ways the two were inseperable. Take Isaiah, who insisted that true religion, true worship, should be a blessing to oppressed communities: “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” We’re supposed to look out for each other.
Then you’ve got John the Baptist, who was arrested and executed for speaking out against the crimes of authority figures, not a million miles away from the story of Jesus, who really got himself on the political radar when he took pretty direct action against corrupt commercialism alienating people from the Temple and ultimately God. It’s unavoidable – anger at injustice, especially when that injustice hurts the poor and needy – is part of the Bible’s DNA. You’d think we’d be out protesting every day.
It’s not always that simple though. For at start, a lot of protests, even those with good and noble aims, end up degenerating into violence. Sure, this may often be down to those on the fringes of a movement, or agent provacoteurs, but the fact is that it happens more often than we’d like to admit. Now, the most famous Christian response to this is Martin Luther King championing non-violent resistance in the sixties; inspiring, yes, but not something I’d like to be in the middle of – not sure how much self-control I’d have in certain circumstances. How we react to something, especially when we’re under pressure, is a mark of our faith, not least because of the impact it has, not on our friends but on our enemies.
Because believe it or not, our enemies are people too, and in the gospels, justice is often restorative – it heals the perpetrator as well as providing justice for the victim. “Turn the other cheek” isn’t a command to passively accept everything that’s thrown at you, it’s a way of reasserting your own humanity while forcing our enemy to confront their own. A protest rooted in Christianity should always be interested in finding ways to make enemies into friends, looking at how best to communicate the grace of God to the opposition, or to those spectating from the sidelines.
Then there’s the danger of factionalism. Most protest movements in the West seem to be left vs right, but Christianity should be beyond this. The minute faith becomes so tied up with politics that they become indistinguishable is the minute something’s gone wrong – do we really think Jesus would be making a fuss about Obama’s birth certificate?
As I said in my last post, these are only a few ideas, and the heavy thinking has to be – probably is being – done by people way smarter than me. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts – what can Christianity bring to these protests, what does a protesting faith look like, and when should Christians think about backing away?
I’m a permanent agnostic, and your post brings up some interesting points. I think true Christianity (you know, the Jesus kind) is about peaceful protest, but kicking ass when need be. The most effective protests I’ve ever seen, from the lunch counter sit-ins to Gandhi’s work in India, are those which don’t involve vandalism or name-calling or stupid rhyming chants. They’re about passive resistance or civil disobedience. When enough people come together and sit down and say “We won’t do this anymore,” that’s when real change starts. They can’t arrest everyone after a while. Great post.
I agree completely; I wonder if we’re heading towards the ‘can’t arrest everyone’ stage as we speak. I just hope the situation in New York and elsewhere remains non-violent…