At most of the protests in which I have been involved, starting with nuclear testing and El Salvador (and this year moving into climate change, gun control, police violence and immigration), I have often been asked the same question, “Is this protest doing any good?”
This better do some good
I suppose all protesters have to ask that question, at some, level, at least because they had to leave work or miss lunch, most of them, to add their voice to the cries of outrage. And “work” generally cares about itself, not justice, so who knows what it might do to them? So “This better do some good!”
I think “Is this effective?” or “Will this work?” is a typical empire question when asked in the United States. Especially here, people think they have the right and the power to make things happen, to remake the world according to their desires, to effect progress. So, especially here, all public discourse has to do with power — and most private discourse does, too, unfortunately (at least I know a lot of people who are in a perpetual power struggle). Work harder, work smarter, but get something done. Get what you deserve. Control things. Manage situations. Protect your future; it depends on your choices now.
We all seem to think we are in charge of the world and our own destiny. By extension, a protest is generally about exerting enough power to get the government/corporations to change.
Sometimes it works. During my lifetime I have seen pressure influence the government to change. For instance, the government stopped nuclear weapons testing at Mercury, NV in the 90’s after arresting 15,740 protesters (me included). Social action works often enough to keep hopeful, infuriated people in Hong Kong in the streets for weeks. I feel compelled to raise my voice quite often, myself. But there always seems to be some further travesty to shout about, doesn’t there?
Being effective is a secondary benefit
But being effective is not my main interest. My hope does not rest in getting Moscow Mitch McConnell to do the right thing nor rest in Mitch getting canned by Amy McGrath. Obviously, our protests about nuclear weapons have not stopped Putin, Trump and unknown numbers of Iranians and Israelis from plotting a nuclear solution to various problems (like hurricanes!).
People power accomplishes some great things, but it is amazing how often the evil powers beat the people at the game of domination. People who protest and organize to get power are often discouraged. If they think Jesus is all about dominating the worldly powers or is just as preoccupied with exercising power as they are, they quickly get sorely disappointed with God for refusing to play the power game at all.
Of course, Jesus has miraculous power…
But here is the main thing Jesus shows us about how to get justice and equal rights:
You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. – Galatians 5:13
In the “empire,” people are constantly jockeying for the best deal for themselves. They become experts in the law in order to protect themselves and fight against people who steal their freedom and their wealth (or the possibility of wealth). Here the freedom to be autonomous is a paramount value and the only ethic is “Do no harm,” which includes harm to identity. Equality under the law is the main thing people hope in and what they protest about.
But I don’t protest just because I want to get the government to do good. I protest as a prophecy because the grace of Jesus gives me the freedom to BE good. I’m not just trying to get something; I AM someone. I don’t hope to get freedom from some evil power; I have already been given freedom by God. I don’t use that freedom for myself, like I formerly used whatever small freedom I felt I had before I rose with Jesus, in order to get more power; I use it to serve. Like Jesus, I use my freedom to become like a slave to others, bound to love. I think that is what Paul’s teaching is all about, and I wish it were a more common teaching today among his people.
Service, given freely, will make us equal
People thought Jesus was a fool. Paul is quite aware he is a fool, as far as the rulers of his age are concerned. People still think getting out on the streets as a witness to the goodness and freedom of Jesus is foolishness. What does it get done? How can it give the protestor a proper share of the domination? Many people find it fruitless. Why not forget about the whole mess and frantically become as powerful as possible, carve out a piece of the capitalist pie as a hedge against whatever terrible thing is coming instead of trying to change things?
Here are my two reasons to show God’s goodness in the face of the corruption of the world:
Being a slave to all is good in itself. Don’t get me wrong, I think demanding equal rights under the law is a good thing. It is very hard for a traumatized person to feel free enough to serve anything but their self-interest. And the powers that be around here have created the huge injustice of income stratification and privilege hoarding to overlay their traditional racism and rapacious capitalism in the U.S. We’ve got to say “NO,” and loudly. But the freedom of walking into daily life free of its clutches, only constrained by the love that fills us and dominates our reactions is more precious than anything the “administration” can accomplish.
But what’s more, serving one another is the actual great equalizer. Being the family of God in service like our brother Jesus makes us all one in love – at least that’s what He’s hoping. Even when people get so-called “equal rights,” for which Americans think they are famous, even the light of the world, they still face discrimination every day and then a Trump regularly shows up to make it all worse. Does fighting for and waiting for equal rights make anyone free? Does going into denial and pretending Jesus makes me free in some otherworldy way make me free? — more than the former, perhaps. But I think what really makes us free is what Paul says: “Use your freedom to serve” or “choose the slavery of love.” That makes us all equal in character and purpose and gives us the experience of being free we crave.
I have rediscovered this truth repeatedly over my sojourn many times. One of the places it first became clear to me was in Nevada when I trespassed in the nuclear test site on behalf of the world and got “arrested.” Actually, I was just detained by bored policemen, handcuffed with plastic bands and put in a chainlink cage for a little while because they did not really want to bother with a bunch of people clogging up the courts with their righteousness. Strangely enough, we accomplished something. But more, I accomplished being free. I faced my fear of the power: too little power on my part, too much power on the government’s part. Neither power made that much difference, but faith acting in love just WAS different. Being a locked up “slave” of the state for a while has been educational ever since.
Our common service, mutually compelled by the love of Christ makes us equal. Hopefully the world will come to resemble that truth. But I’m not waiting for a miracle that already happened; I want to live it now. According to Paul, we are free to live it now in Christ, and no other power on earth can give that freedom or take it away.