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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