The Yes and No of Protest: When Symbols Don’t Align With Our Reality

Much gets said about protest, some people like protesting and fill their lives with it, some have extremely negative feelings and argue it’s a waste of time and something Christians should not do.

I’d like to briefly discuss what it means to be focused on the “Yes” of Protest as a Christian community that gives a reference point to what we are protesting.  In this post I will not address whether it is acceptable for Christians to protest, but what it means to protest.

Oxford American Dictionary on Protest:

verb |pr??test; pr???test; ?pr???test|

1 [ intrans. ] express an objection to what someone has said or done : she wouldn’t let him pay, and he didn’t protest.

• publicly demonstrate strong objection to a policy or course of action adopted by those in authority : doctors and patients protested against plans to cut services at the hospital. 

Christianity and the No of Protest: Protest As We’ve Seen It

For those of us who participate in protests of one kind or another, we tend to practice this by way of wearing buttons “War is not the Answer,” t-shirts that state “Amazon Sucks,” and attending rally’s with handmade posters that say things like, “Love has no Borders,” while we sing songs that carry the tune of our activism.

But these ways tend to focus on the “No!” of protest.

When we pile into the streets to proclaim what the state has done is wrong, or get arrested under charges of civil disobedience, we believe we are fulfilling the law of God. And maybe we are, but it’s only a shadow of it.

God is not bound up in the “No!” of life, and a Christian life that builds it’s morality and practices on the “No!” of God is short sited and misses that character and call God has place on the church.

One main problem with this form of protest and morality is that it is disconnected from the life of the people for whom the protest is being made.  It is protest defined by the individual self rallying with other like-minded individuals, often times with little connection to the people for who our “cause” is directed.

Finally, when we protest in this manner we often have nothing to call people to, because we are focused in calling people away from something.

One example of this is the recent protest over rights for Hotel Workers here in LA. It’s true that there were major justice issues involved with the lack of rights the hotel workers faced and I do think that it was good to stand with them in protest. The problem lays within the fact that many of the people standing with the hotel workers didn’t actually know any of the hotel workers, there were no relational connections between protester and the oppressed.

In this way protesting becomes an event, like a rock concert, that people attend to cheer for the group or cause and then head home never to see those people again.  I agree that it’s important to see protest as a symbol of something better, and symbolism is a strong and good thing in the Christian church but it should never take the place of the real.   The tension of the symbolic and the real must be continually held together. 

What we need are people who stand in protest with others out of love and relationship with these people.

Christianity and the Yes of Protest: Protest as it ought to be

Protest should be birthed out of friendship with those who are oppressed, if it is not, protest is no better than a liberalized version of an old tent-revival. An event, where people come and see, hear spoken words, but remain disconnected with the life-changing community of God.   This is the “Yes!” of protest, that it’s connected to a reality of life embodied by a group of people who say, “this is what we mean by justice,”  or “this is what we mean by peace,” and “here is a glimpse of the love of Christ.”

Something that struck me about Shane Claiborne’s book was that he never shares how he got involved in all those protests he talks about.  And then it dawned on me, most of the “protests” he’s involved with are because they deal directly with people his church and who they regularly have  contact with.  If a church is interested in caring for the poor, it’s not enough stand in front of city hall and say “No!” to the government, nor is it even enough to feed them once a week and have a fifteen minute conversation with them while they eat.  These acts in themselves are devoid of meaning if they do not reflect the actual life and mission of the church.   At best these acts are reminders to others and ourselves of what we believe and ought to be living like they are not the totality of our activism; if anything they are “activisms.”

Our focus then must be on the “Yes!” of the Gospel, we welcome in the stranger, befriend him or her, and let them become a part of our community. We show that the rich and poor can worship together, and live together in harmony.  We exemplify what it means share with others.  This way when we call others to do the same, they know what we mean. 

Out of these relationships, needs will be presented, and areas for which we will need to say “No!”

Symbols that do not point to a reality embodied within a group of
people, confuse the point they try to make. And so we must begin with a
person, not an ideal, and when occasion calls us to take up the t-shirt
and the button, and be arrested, as Shane’s group has been so many
times, it’s not just because we like the idea of there being justice
but because our community is really showing how justice can be lived.  This is why Claiborne’s community, and other’s like it, is an example for us.

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8 responses to “The Yes and No of Protest: When Symbols Don’t Align With Our Reality”

  1. Quakers talk — at least the activist types I know — say — let your lives speak. And I feel guilty about not being on this march or that activity. And maybe I could be more out there. But then, there’s non-Quaker Karl Barth, who was all for lives taht sepak, but he also said, that social work in the church that tried to be preaching ended up being lousy proclamation and poorer social work for it. Social work content to be socila work is better social work, and ends up proclaiming from the rooftops by simply being what it is. I heard Karl Barth’s wisdom in what yous aid here.

  2. David, thanks for the comment and thanks for mentioning the Barth connection, something I had actually considered doing. My secret is that I am auditing a class on Barth this quarter and last week we talked about Barth’s being kicked out of Bonn because of what he was doing and saying concerning Hitler and the German church. I was equally impressed to learn that in Switzerland, Barth not only continued to Protest “No!” via his writings, but he Protested “Yes!” by letting Jews on the run live in his house and he gave money to organizations inside Germany that were helping to protect the Jewish people. Learning this was one catalyst for the post.
    I wish Barth had been a Quaker!

  3. I like your distinction about “yes” and “no” protest. I think this is probably what has bothered me the most about a lot of protests (although I do believe they can have some positive effect to the broader society) is that it does seem to be about people who have their own political agenda and those directly effected. There seems to be a desire by some radical groups to proselytize while outwardly proclaiming that they are concerned for the oppressed. Maybe they are, but it still strikes me as having a hidden agenda.

    The most effective protests in the U.S. seemed to be the that included those directly involved – the black Civil Right Movement and the student movement against the Vietnam War. The immigration rights marches seem to have that feel, too???

    Marching and protesting is easy. So is commenting on someone’s blog about how everyone else is taking the easy way out by marching and protesting {ahem}.

    Would I let Jews escaping the camps stay at my home?

  4. I like the notion of protest growing out of life as lived. The 1960s model of protesting in the form of standing by the roadside waving signs and chanting slogans is only effective in two cases. The most effective case is where you can muster millions of people, demonstrating that the leadership is truly out of touch with the general population. The second effective use is where there is no media attention to the fact of opposition to some policy (such as the war in VietNam), and protesting is done in a way to draw attention and exposure.

    The second type of protest is far more common, but also far less useful today. The internet has reduced the need for the second type of protest, because it is now possible to get the word out even over the censorship of the big-money media. In addition, drawing attention via the professional news spinners is an invitation to allow them to distort the presentation to suit their own ends. It isn’t Walter Cronkite just reacting to what he sees any more; now its Bill O’Reilly telling people what to think about the careully selected snippets he chooses to show them.

    We need a different model for protest today, and I look to this emerging church group as a likely place for something new to appear.

  5. David P, Thanks for the comment. I haven’t really heard of or seen much of the second type. Do you have any concrete example? I think it’s probably because as you says it’s less useful today. I am interested in hearing more about this mode of protest.

    It’s intersting how the media powers can often spin stuff, even against what protestors are trying to accomplish, and how blogs have often been used as a form of activism against the media giants.

  6. Wess–you asked about examples of small protests that are designed to get attention. I live in a state capital, and I drive past the capital building about 3 days per week, so I may see more protests than one typically does. It seems as if there are a couple of protests per week, at least when the circus is in town–er, the legislature is in session. Frequently there are a dozen or so people waving signs and chanting something inane about land use planning (against, usually), or pollution (also mostly against). At least once a year a couple dozen bikers show up to complain about helmet laws.

    Last week there were about 15 nice teenagers with signs about Iraq–somebody flashed a peace sign at me as I drove by, so I’m guessing they were against the war. There was a smallish group of people reading from Bibles through bullhorns the week before, but their signs were too small to read and the bullhorns distorted their voices beyond my ability to understand.

    The only time there seems to be much life is if one of the TV stations sends a film crew, then things get pretty animated until they turn off the cameras.

    The only protest I have seen–since the 60s anyway–that mustered a large group was when the Hispanics decided to show how large a factor they have become in the Willamette Valley. There were thousands of people on the streets that day. I thought that was pretty effective, at least in the way of opening peoples eyes. I’m not sure if they made more friends or more enemies, but they did get people’s attention.

  7. […] In keeping with the conversation at bay, MacIntyre’s words on protest are fitting. In his seminal work “After Virtue” he focuses on arguing how and why the “Enlightenment project” failed. Essentially it is because the modern period has stripped away from humanity any social context in which to couch morality and instead focused solely on the individual (this in no way does justice to MacIntyre’s work). […]

  8. Wess, if you haven’t seen this by Kirk at Street Corner Society, then I hope you will check it out:
    … in the System as well as in heaven…

    Maybe this would have been better as a comment on your post about Transforming the Powers (which I’m still hoping maybe Robin got me for my birthday later this week. I put it on my list as soon as I saw it when we were at your house in August! 🙂

    — Chris M.