Politics, Protest and Peace Part 2:
Vive la résistance!
Rev Dr Phil Wall
So last week, we dipped our toes into the political pool as we looked at the birth of the modern United States of America through the call of ‘no taxation without representation’. Well, you probably know that things came to a head over there in December 1773 when an entire shipment of Chinese tea owned by the British East India Company was destroyed in Boston Harbour. That was the protest that started the revolution that would change the world forever and from that point onward, the story of America has been punctuated by protests demanding freedom, justice and peace – the march on Washington, Stonewall riots and Vietnam protests to name a famous few…and film-lovers like me might want to check out the excellent new film on the latter –The Trial of the Chicago 7 – which opens up the debate on the purpose and potency of protest.
Of course, the people of Wales are no strangers to a placard and, whether donned in dresses in the nineteenth century or in miners’ boots in the 1980s, protest has been both shaper and symbol of Welsh identity, not least of all, within the non-conformist church. So, as people of protest, as churches who are often classified by past dissent – hence the term Protestant – when it comes to the enacting of our faith in the world of politics, is public protest a helpful way forward? If so, when, where and why do we protest? How do we discern when ‘to give Caesar what is Caesar’s’ and when to protest against the oppressive financial systems of the Empire, for example? Perhaps here might be a good time to ask that most over-asked and under-considered question – what would Jesus do? Well, let’s see just what Jesus did as we join him as his gang on their approach to Jerusalem;
What a day! Can you imagine the chat as the gang got back to Bethany that night?!
‘Alright Lazarus? Still feeling okay, then?!’
‘Well, I’d keep a social distance if I were you – I still whiff a bit if I’m honest. But otherwise, fine really. How about you? Good day in the city?’
‘Yeah…yeah. Jesus rode a donkey. Caused a bit of a stir, really. Then we popped by the Temple. The boss pushed over the moneychanger tables, chased out the sacrifice-sellers and did a spot of healing before taking a pop at the Chief priests and then erm…then we called it a day really as Pete was getting hungry. You?’
‘Think I might have seen a rock badger, y’know lads’.
‘Good for you Lazarus. Good for you!’
Or something like that! But however the disciples described the day later on, those protests in Jerusalem – the palm parade and the table turning – revealed more of God’s kingdom; brought Jesus’ death that bit closer and demonstrated something of Jesus’ attitude to protesting…and that’s what I’d like us to reflect on now as I suggest that there’s four elements of Jesus’ protesting practice from which we could learn today.
The first of these is that his protests were prayerful. Everything that Jesus did was suffused in prayer and his acts of protest were no different. In fact, before Jesus embarked on any significant act of public protest or even teaching, he took himself to the desert to spend time in prayer; to spend time with God; to spend time wrestling his own demons even. Throughout the gospels, we read of how Jesus retreated to places of quiet contemplation; times which allowed him to focus on the Father; to listen to the Spirit; and to be reminded of his divine calling. Matthew’s narrative tells us that Jesus’ actions in Jerusalem were not simply knee-jerk responses to the latest injustice. Rather, they were actions that were born from prayer – from a relationship with Our Father; from a desire that God’s will be done on Earth as in heaven.
Today, there is much to protest. Much injustice to address; inequality to fight; apathy to overcome but to do so I believe we must start with prayer – by reconnecting with the divine; catching a breath before we act; by remembering that if it’s only those without sin who can cast stones, then our hands should be empty. In other words, we might need to be reminded that the problem isn’t always out there but often in here. That isn’t to say that prayer won’t then lead to action – quite the contrary! – but that action anchored in prayer is less likely to be about us – about our need to signal our virtue or point to the sin in a certain group of people rather than in the systems of injustice in which we all sometimes participate. A prayerful protest might lead us to follow God’s will, not merely our own.
Moreover, a consequence of a prayerful protest is that it might well be a planned one. A Jesus protest is well planned. His entrance into Jerusalem wasn’t organized on the spur of the moment. It’s clear that Jesus read his scriptures, built relationships, knew the city layout and had arranged for the donkey and colt to be ridden. The Temple protest was also no accident but a pre-planned act of dissent complete with scriptural backing. He had thought through both the preparation for, and consequences of, his protests and they were all the more effective for it.
And Jesus isn’t unusual in protesting strategically. Let me ask – does the name Claudette Colvin mean anything to you? Probably not but in spring 1955 she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus and was arrested for it. Many others did the same and each time someone was arrested, the organizations in Montgomery would discuss whether it was the right moment to launch a campaign and it wasn’t until they came across Rosa Parks – a respectable, middle-aged, church-goer who could withstand a barrage of media scrutiny – that they felt the time was right. The civil rights protests were generally very strategically planned. It can be argued that we only remember King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech at the Washington memorial – at least the third rendition of the speech – because of the planning and finances that went into the sound system there! And boy was it worth it. There may, of course, be times when we are caught on the hoof – when the words or actions of a prejudiced preacher or pernicious politician might cause us to stand up, walk out, speak out in the moment but the more effective protests are likely to be those that have been prayed about and planned.
A Jesus protest is also prophetic. It’s one that exposes systems of oppression and reveals something of God’s call for justice in its very act. Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey was a parody of the power games of the Empire, lampooning the great military parades of Caesar and, with a nod to various Old Testament passages, revealing the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom in which an ass took the place of a stallion; a gang of tax collectors, unemployed fishermen and wild women took the place of the army; a wandering pacifist from Nazareth, the mighty leader! Then, when in the Temple, with further pointers back to Old Testament scripture, his actions revealed God’s judgment on a system that oppressed the poor and withheld access to God. The first protest was a joke, the second was anything but…yet both were prophetic. I wonder, then, how we can protest prophetically today. I wonder how our actions might reveal God’s kingdom of justice and joy through humour and anger today.
So…prayerful, planned, prophetic and finally, you’ll all be relieved to hear, Jesus’ way of protesting permeated his entire life. You’ll no doubt have heard the quote that ‘a candle is a protest at midnight. It is a non-conformist. It says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ’.’ Well Jesus’ very being was a protest – was the means by which God said ‘I beg to differ’.
When the world said that human life was cheap, nasty and evil, Jesus was born of Mary and God said ‘I beg to differ’. When religion said that access to God was restricted to the male, the able-bodied, the sexually and ethnically ‘pure’, Jesus listened to women, touched lepers, ate with prostitutes, shared good news with foreigners, and God said ‘I beg to differ’. When the Empire said that might was right; that true power was shown in military muscle and instruments of oppression, Jesus was nailed to the cross and God said ‘I beg to differ’. And when even his friends thought that hate had won; that death brought an end to all hope and to dreams of a better world, Jesus walked out the tomb and God said ‘I beg to differ’.
Jesus’ whole life, death and resurrection were a divine protest against an indifferent, violent, hurting world. His protesting permeated his life, his actions, his very being. ‘It’s no use walking anywhere to preach,’ St Francis once said, ‘Unless our walking is our preaching’. Well, it’s no use walking anywhere to protest, Jesus’ actions tell us, unless our walking is our protesting.
Maybe all of this gives you ideas of chaining yourself to railings (again?!). Maybe it inspires you to check out the debt-cancelling campaigns of Christian Aid and JPIT and to consider how we can protest for a fairer post-pandemic world. Or maybe a bit of craftivism is your thing. Whatever gifts we’ve been given and preferences we’ve developed, each of us is called to protest against the bad news of injustice, violence and despair and to live out God’s good news of justice, peace and sacred solidarity in how we pray, speak and act, shop, vote and rest in our daily living. For that, we’ll need God’s strength, wisdom and blessing…and so you might want to join me in praying the following Franciscan prayer:
May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our heart.
May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen
 For the more creative types amongst us, I highly recommend finding out more about Sarah Corbett and the Craftivist Collective. You can hear about her work and how her faith impacts her campaigning practice at https://www.greenbelt.org.uk/talks/activism-with-sarah-corbett/
Prayers of Intercession by Sue Walkling
God of Justice, Table-turning Christ,
We give you thanks for those who speak out on behalf of others;
for organisations who campaign to make a difference:
for Christian Aid
for Amnesty International
for the Black Lives Matter movement
for the Fairtrade movement
and the many other international, national and local charities
who work to improve the lives of others.
Help us to recognise the needs of those around us and respond in ways that value everyone. May all your people know they are loved by you.
Creative God, Christ the living Word,
We pray for organisations who campaign for the good of our planet.
We give you thanks for the work of:
The World Wildlife Fund
A Rocha and Eco Church
Help us to make wise decisions for the planet:
to shop for the world
to question and challenge those in authority.
Guide the leaders of the governments of the world to make just decisions which benefit the planet and all of creation.
Loving God, Christ God’s love made human,
We pray for our nations in times of uncertainty,
as COVID 19 takes hold in our communities again.
May care and respect for others shape the decisions we all make
as we adjust to the ever-changing situation.
Give peace of mind to those who are anxious
and comfort to those who mourn.
We pray for those we know who are in hospital or receiving treatment,
those recovering at home,
and for those coping with limiting conditions:
may they all know your healing touch.
May those who love and care for them know that they are cared for too.
Your kingdom is one of justice and equality, compassion and campaigning,
and we pray for that kingdom to come, saying together, ‘Our Father…’
We can make a difference – Stephen Fischbacker © Fischy Music 2006 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6eh2vA1Jh4
May we end this time together reminded that we are followers of the protestor from Nazareth; people unafraid to dream and to vision, to lament and to protest, to work and to pray until the Kingdom is come. Let us not be dismayed by the brokenness in the world for all things break. And all things can be mended. Not with time, as they say, but with grace and intention. So go. Love intentionally, recklessly, extravagantly. May God bless us this day as we try.