Should Christians protest?
Canon J John of the Philo Trust looks at whether protest has a place in Christian life…
2011 was a year of protests. Fuelled by global unrest, documented by smartphones and aired endlessly by YouTube and Twitter, protesting has gone global. This year of discontent raised a challenging and pressing question: as Christians, should we protest?
Traditionally, although there have been protests organised by Christians think of Martin Luther King), Christians have been negative about protesting. The recommended response to injustice has been to appeal to God through prayer and leave the matter with Him. Numerous biblical texts point this way (see for example Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 2:19; 1 Peter 3:9). Yet we need to remember that our world is different. No ancient government claimed to represent individuals in the way our modern Western democracies do, so protests made little impact and publicly protesting against the policies of Rome or Assyria was fairly pointless unless you wanted an immediate, public and brief encounter with the lions in the amphitheatre.
There is a case for Christian protesting today. Is our reluctance to protest really the outworking of a genuine prayerful godliness; or about a moral laziness and indifference? Apathy masquerading as piety is a poor show. More importantly, our governments actually expect some measure of protest. Increasingly it seems they create and announce policies with little thought and even less consultation and then - fingers crossed - impose them on the public. If they are met with strong objections, then the policies or laws are hastily withdrawn, redrafted and resubmitted. In a culture where only those who shout are heard, any failure to protest may be presumed consent or approval.
War has famously been described as the 'continuation of politics by other means' but that definition also applies to protest. As a Christian response to conflict has been formulated as the 'Principles of a Just War' I suggest that there are some similar principles which can be proposed for protest. After all, both war and protest are powerful forces that can easily tempt us to do wrong things. It's easy to get carried away when you are surrounded by the sound of marching feet, waving banners and the shouts of solidarity.
Let me cautiously suggest six principles for protest:
- We should protest on behalf of others rather than ourselves. Our duty to love our neighbours may involve us in protesting for them.
- All other means of influencing the governing powers should have been exhausted. Protest should always be a last resort.
- We must be assured that our protest will do more good than harm.
- There must be a clearly defined and widely understood aim for our protest. Without a firm goal it's all too easy for protest to degenerate into heated expressions of anger and dislike.
- The limits of any protest must be set beforehand. Christians can have nothing to do with words of hatred or - even worse - acts of violence.
- Any protest must have a reasonable chance of being successful. Turnout counts: if there are more press than protesters, those against whom we are protesting are likely to be comforted rather than challenged.
Finally, in all that we do, we should try to bring Christ into our protest. There is a widespread suspicion that Christian fellowships are no different from all those other communities that exist only for their own benefit. Protests are an opportunity to show that actually we do care for others. Protest can be pro-testimony.