Is Protest Patriotic?   Leave a comment

Can a patriot be a protestor? That is, is there anything intrinsic about protesting that prevents a true patriot from doing it?  The answer seems simple enough. Eventually, it seems, some injustice will make it impossible for many who really love their country to sit quietly on the sidelines. An unjust war, obscene inequality, rampant downward mobility of the middle class, lack of accountability in business and corruption in national politics – these are just a few of the possible reasons given for such protest today. The treatment of Jews, American Indians, women, blacks and other ethnic minorities, an unfair draft, unjust laws, the pillaging of our planet – and many like things have been reasons in the past. Image

A common objection is that one can always educate, vote, and work within the appointed processes for change. Nothing says you must fill the streets, or sit down at the lunch counter, or ride in the front of the bus. But sometimes such protesting is education, sometimes it’s voting with your body, and sometimes it’s what people do when they feel that working within the appointed processes for change no longer work. (How would we remove the 1% from their stranglehold on our country by the conventional processes? They’re not going to go quietly or easily. And maybe by camping in the parks and taking to the streets in greater and greater numbers, and winning back homes for those who have been driven out of them – maybe these things and others like them won’t be effective, but maybe they will, and maybe we want to try. By these methods the 99% may be awakened and come together. If that happens, anything will be possible.)

Former Republican candidate Herman Cain is reported to have said that the Occupy Wall Street protesters are un-American and against Capitalism. (It’s not clear whether he means to say there is a causal relationship – i.e, that they are un-American because they are against Capitalism, or whether he just dislikes all the protesting and thinks they are un-American for that reason.) Either way, he couldn’t be more wrong, as Peter Brandon Bayer has shown in his article

“… a thriving democracy depends on continual informed debate. Protest acquaints us with viewpoints contrary to the prevailing opinion, prompting us to examine the strengths and weaknesses of national policies.

“In the celebrated 1969 opinion, Tinker vs. Des Moines School District, the Supreme Court struck down the School District’s ban prohibiting students from wearing black arm bands to denounce the Vietnam War. Although acknowledging that wearing arm bands is both controversial and an arguable breach of school decorum, the justices rejoined, ”Any departure from absolute regimentation may cause trouble. Any variation from the majority’s opinion may inspire fear. . . . But our Constitution says we must take this risk . . . and our history says that is the sort of hazardous freedom – this kind of openness – that is the basis of our national strength.’.”


There is also a distinctly Jude-Christian perspective on the issue. In the Old Testament, Daniel refused to go against his own conscience when commanded by the king (Daniel 6:1-28), and suffers the consequences of his action. (The fact that God delivers him makes it clear to the reader that his actions were noble.) In the New Testament (John 2:13-17), we see Jesus himself protesting corruption at the temple. He makes a real scene – brandishing a whip (“street theater”), shouting an indictment of the powers that be, and spilling money all over the place by overturning tables. Almost all of the apostles of Jesus were martyred for their faith – refusing to renounce their faith and conform to the demands of the political leaders of their day – the ultimate protest.

There is also a theological piece. As the implications of the creation story unfold in Scripture, we learn two great truths about man as man. One, that since he is fallen from his original pristine state, man is capable of great wrong (Romans 3:10-18), and that indeed, everything he does is touched by his fallenness. We can expect therefore, for instance that he will sometimes look out only for his own interests, and use whatever means available to him to exploit or enslave others to enrich himself. Others will need protection from such men. God declares that he is against them, and looks to his people – in Israel and later in the church, to protect the poor and vulnerable on His behalf. (James 1:27 passim.) This means much more than protesting on their behalf, but certainly includes it.  Returning to what we know about man, there is the second thing – that he is made in the image of God – the “imago dei.” (Genesis 1:26-28) There is a sense that, certainly in his creation, but even after his fall, man uniquely reflects the nature of God in some essential ways. (Theologians have debated for centuries just what this means, but the core idea is indisputable.) For our purposes this means that man can be noble, magnanimous – and self-sacrificing. It means that he can and will sometimes be found acting in the interests of others – even at his own great expense. This also means much more than protesting, but again certainly includes it.

I’d like to finish my comments by returning to the story of the “cleansing of the temple” by Jesus (John 2:13-25). Imagine the story, not from our perspective centuries later, but from that of the disciples who were there. I would guess that they were thinking, “What is he doing?”, “We don’t need this bad publicity!”, or “I’m really uncomfortable with this.”, or “Is this really the best approach?” They seldom understood him or what he was about, and I think we give them undeserved credit if we think they felt otherwise on that day.

And, isn’t this the response many have towards acts of protest today? Democracy (which intrinsically includes protest) is often frustrating, confusing, and messy. But … this is what democracy looks like.

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