Protest and Civil Disobedience

Protest and civil disobedience is very much a part of the fabric of American culture. Abolition. Women’s rights. Civil rights. This is one way we exercise our right of free speech, a right secured for every American in the adoption of the First Amendment to our Constitution. And while we are not without our very own historic protest events where violence was part of the message and the response to the message, non-violent civil disobedience is especially valued by Americans, as exemplified by the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the participants in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In the years following the 2008 economic meltdown, I watched with perplexity as Americans stayed home while citizens of other countries around the world took to the streets to defend their basic human rights in the face of the most cruel economic austerity policies passed by their conservative governments. In the United States there were occasional protests here and there, as issues heated and spiked tensions. In 2010 I was a humanities professor at a public university in Ohio and I attended a protest in the banking district of the city. To my surprise, it did not have the muscle I expected to see, and as I watched bank employees leave the building for lunch, what I saw on many of their faces ranged from banal amusement to glares of superiority and disgust. There was no sense of acknowledgment that they were recipients of an important message.

The protests of the last couple days give me hope for our divided nation. It gives me hope because I see people energized to respond to a human crisis. On the other hand, I am disgusted by the flip side of this motivation.

The flip side of what is motivating our protest is the disgusting cause of the crisis. A poorly vetted (if vetted at all) executive order signed by our president, Donald J. Trump. The executive order banned travel to the United States for 218 million Muslims from several Middle Eastern countries, none of which have a history of immigrants (or travelers) perpetrating violent acts on American soil. The vetting of the executive order should have included the head of the National Security Council and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Instead, Trump has given his Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor Steve Bannon and his White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus seats on the NSC, while dismissing the director of national intelligence and the chair of the joint cheifs of staff. From disgusting to deeply disturbing. The president does not listen to or even tolerate dissenting voices among his closest advisers.

The signing of this executive order gives the impression that it was done without the kind of circumspection that is demanded of its subject. We should all be reminded of the shallow understanding of the Bush administration who crafted propaganda to lead our country to war in Iraq. What they willfully refused to understand were the complexities of the relationships between Sunni and Shi’a cultures in the Middle East, and the powder keg they were rushing to ignite with a blow torch.

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid to protest and engage in civil disobedience, to stand up to shallow leadership that seeks to control us with fear.

From a Christian perspective we are commanded by Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (ch. 25) to embrace the refugee. And this is given in a context of an ethical imperative that has one eye on the present with the other eye on a future and final apocalyptic accounting that God will have with those who claim to have faith, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.” Matthew writes Jesus’s words:

34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ (RSV, Matt. 25.34-45)

We are also urged in the Johannine tradition to embrace God’s culture of love.

Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. (RSV, 1 John 4.7-8)

Fear is also explicitly spoken to as a vice to be overcome, not to be succumbed to, but to be overcome.

16 So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. 19 We love, because he first loved us. 20 If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot[a] love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (RSV, 1 John 4.16-21)

I am heartened and energized by my fellow Americans who are not afraid, and do not allow themselves to be manipulated by the talk of fear.

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