Today I spoke with another Viet Nam veteran who was devastated by the reception he received upon returning home. Yes, I marched in the anti-war marches but I never spit at anyone and never called anyone a baby-killer.
The issue of protest in ugly seemingly non-Christian ways is with us today, fostered in part by a political dialogue that is often filled with name-calling and mocking. Yet the need for protest is as great as ever. Wars continue. Our environment gets more polluted. Our religions avoid accountability. Our leaders flaunt their ability to function by a different moral standard.
Yet we also see images of name-calling and mockery. We see abortion clinics get bombed. We see peaceful protesters mowed down by vehicles. We see people judged, condemned, even assaulted because their sexual orientation goes against so-called Biblical principles. We see migrants being accused of all manner of social ills.
Jesus was a radical who engaged in public protest in an effort to reform the Judaism of his time. He spoke out on behalf of the poor, the migrant, the outsider, encouraging us all to embrace the marginalized. His protests, especially against the establishment, got him killed.
So is there such a thing as Christian protest, i.e., a way of protesting that is consistent with principles of Christian living? A key Christian principle is to hate the sin while loving the sinner. This would be a cornerstone of Christian protest — to stay focused on the issue while not being side-tracked by personalities or by a less-than-Christian response from the other side. Christian protest would also need to be guided by a mutual effort to maintain respect and to listen. Only by listening can we establish meaningful dialogue.
And, yes, there is such a thing as righteous anger, modeled for us not only as Jesus tore up the Temple and threw out the merchants. He also modeled for us righteous anger when he confronted the powers that be. Yes, Jesus did call them names such as whitened sepulchers. He most especially challenged the powers as hypocrites who focused more on rules than on compassion. Some protest needs to be angry. The citizens of Flint MI for example are justifiably angry over the poisoning of their children by governments playing with their water supply. Government officials do indeed need to be confronted about their indifference and/or selfishness not only in Flint but in many other areas where the needs of the marginalized are ignored.
We must always balance our righteous anger by the command to love our enemy, probably Jesus’ greatest challenge. Yet if I allow my anger toward the enemy to consume me, then I am no better than protesters who name-call and assault in the name of so-called Christian principles.
When I worked at an abortion clinic in Texas I crossed a line of protestors almost every day. I did believe that violence could have occurred. The choice to work there was not much of a choice as no other place in the town would hire me. In any case, I came away from the experience realizing that life without love is not a gift, it is a sentence. At the same time, every year since then I have known that the precursors of babies who died there would be approximately the age of my own son if they had lived. Perhaps the best way to avoid being consumed by anger is to know how easily one might have been on the other side. I too might have had a termination of pregnancy if I did not have a partner who took food to my bed when I could not rise, took out the garbage, put money in my bank account and love in my heart. I wonder how many of the patients there had that.