October 30, 2016

Putting the 'Protest' Back Into 'Protestant'

"... I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference."
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was thinking about Standing Rock when I started writing this. But it could be said about Black Lives Matter and so many other protest movements.

If you are not up to speed on what's going on at Standing Rock, read this and this.

This week, many of my sisters and brothers in Christ--both lay and clergy, will stand with Native Americans in protest against the violation of their sacred grounds. I will not be there but will be praying for and with them.

It seems simple to me, attempted genocide of Native American peoples is glaring sin of our nation's past. Give the descendants of those we attempted to erase this one dignity. It pales in comparison.

Years ago, I was involved in protests along the border between San Diego and Tijuana. Our coalition of religious leaders and environmentalists were convinced we could stop construction of a new border wall between our two cities. We failed. The new wall went up.

For a long time this made me cynic. Protest? Why bother? Why protest at all! An aspect of young adult culture has–for generations–been about protesting. But what good does it accomplish?

I've come to a few basic conclusions about why protest is important and should be anticipated with every generation.

First, let me say that I'm a proponent of nonviolent protest. What we have seen, time and again, is that a show of force by authorities has often been what insights violent protest. History ought to have helped us get a little more creative at addressing protest. Sadly, brute force seems to remain the main tactic those we select to serve and protect the citizenry. That ought to be more deeply examined. We're smarter than this.

Most important for Christians, protest often serves as a reminder that citizenship cannot trump our baptism. We are first and foremost members of Christ's kingdom coming. It requires more of us than mental ascent to esoteric ideas. It requires our bodies, our lives.

Jesus refusing to answer Herod was protest. In protest, Jesus' earliest followers called him "Lord" which was a title reserved for Caesar. Time and again, the apostles were arrested for defying the authority of officials. Luther posting his thesis was protest (early pamphleteer?). European Anabaptists re-baptizing adults and refusing to baptize infants was protest. Integrated gatherings of American Pentecostals at Azusa St. was protest.

It's in our spiritual DNA to place our bodies in protest to the actions of the State which defy our greatest commands: the love God with every fiber of our being and treat our neighbor with love and dignity.

Protests tend to expose the violence of the powers and the weakness of such violence. When violence is used against nonviolent protesters, it typically exposes an agenda alternative to the flourishing of those people the State is intended to protect. We are reminded that human systems, no matter how democratic and free, are flawed. The work of building a better world does not stop.

Additionally, protests mark time and places. We will remember Standing Rock, Selma and Ferguson, Tiananmen and Tahrir Squares, because of what happened at a particular time, in a particular place in history.

Lastly, as I mentioned above, we shouldn't be surprised by protest in every generation. Particularly young adults. Of course, young people are always found at the center of protest! It is embodied political engagement. It is a way to find a voice when previously voiceless. Protests are a means by which young adults can find their voice in shaping culture. Artists, musicians, politicians and faith leaders have often found their path through participating in protest movements.

We shouldn't be surprised. And when violence, or the threat of violence is our response, shame on us. It is at that juncture when your opinion to a particular protest agenda might need to be secondary to your support of resistance against powers that would presume that people ought not to have a voice.