Recently, climate change activists shocked the public by seeming to damage great works of art by Van Gogh and Vermeer in order to make a statement about the oil industry. Something has to be done now to halt climate change, and their question is valid: do we care more about significant works of art or about the earth?
Which is more important? But were their methods effective for their cause, and more importantly, from the Christian perspective, were their methods acceptable to God? Is there ever a time when Christians can justify their involvement in aggressive forms of protest?
The Secular Thought
One psychological study concluded that there are actually three types of protest: peaceful, non-normative, and nonviolent non-normative.
Peaceful or “normative” behavior includes writing letters and choosing not to buy objectionable items; voting according to personal beliefs; putting up billboards; posting important questions about abortion and domestic abuse; giving money to charitable causes, which rescue people from sex slavery; volunteering to work with these causes.
A “non-normative” approach would include rioting, sending bombs to politicians, shouting threats, attacking people when they try to go into a clinic for a vaccine or an abortion or brandishing weapons in a grocery store to make a point about racism or police injustice.
A third possibility sits in the middle between these extremes. A “nonviolent nonnormative protest,” according to Eric Shuman’s study, is the most effective way to get a point across because it is “disruptive and thus demanding at least some sort of action while also being 'constructive' — participants saw the protesters as having goals of achieving something beneficial for their cause and not trying to harm their opponent.”
The two extremes have been successful on their own, with the non-violent approach gaining the most public support. But Shuman writes that sit-ins, refusing to pay fines, and other forms of non-violent non-compliance (sounds like civil disobedience) are the best ways to garner public support and also bring about change.
Some Godly Rebels
One article raises the question, “Is there ever a time when Christians should commit civil disobedience?” The answer is “yes” because sometimes, the law of the land goes against God’s direct commands. There are times when the ruling powers ask people to do things that are in direct opposition to God’s laws, which is when protest is important.
This writer points out that, following Pharaoh’s order to have all male babies killed, the midwives “feared God” and would not kill the baby boys. God’s law is higher than Pharaoh’s law, and God forbids murder.
Daniel, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego refused to worship the king because they worshiped only God. They kept the first commandment and put themselves at risk as a result.
Jesus protested commerce in the synagogue by overturning the table of moneylenders and vendors and “[driving] them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables” (John 2:15).
They were blaspheming God by using God’s holy place as a location for trade and on the holiest day, too: The Passover. His demonstration was more than a peaceful protest, but the point is that he was zealous for God.
Generally speaking, though, rebellion and rioting are not condoned by God. Paul urged his readers to obey the authorities, “for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (Romans 13:1).
Most of the time, it is inappropriate to disobey the government, for “whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves” (Romans 13:1–2).
Riots, even non-violent demonstrations, create a domino effect of trouble. There’s the rise of emotions when people are hemmed in by police, and then one shove leads to another, and then to punches, and finally to shots being fired.
When a street is blocked, ambulances can’t get through; passersby are jeered at and even attacked. Emotions run high, and problems arise.
But worst of all, God’s glory is seldom the object. The Christian should pursue the well-being of others to the glory of God, but not to the glory of self. Christ gave up his rights at the cross; he didn’t even speak up for himself.
When he drove out the money changers from the synagogue, Heather Adams suggests that he did so because they misused his Father’s house and to protest the gouging of faithful Jews who needed to purchase a sacrificial offering.
How Jews and Christians Brought about Change
Kirk Walden wrote that in the Roman Empire, “if a new baby caused any emotional or economic issues for a family, there was an easy solution. The couple took the baby out into the elements, dropped him or her off (usually, a her — as females weren’t deemed as economically advantageous back then) and went back home.”
Christians protested infanticide by rescuing the babies, not by blockading the local authorities, writing letters, or scrawling graffiti on the doors of magistrates. They performed practical, sacrificial, God-glorifying acts of love.
But there were times when it was necessary to speak up against religious authorities for dishonoring God. In the New Testament, Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds, “do and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Matthew 23:1-3).
He declared seven woes to the Pharisees who “travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15). He was protesting.
Paul wrote the church at Philippi that the way to convince others that the gospel is true, and to stop persecuting Christians, is to “let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ, so that [...] I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (Philippians 1:27-28).
His hope was that they would follow Christ’s teaching, not argue to “win.” The truth would be obvious through their way of life. Not only that, but the power of unity in Christ is to demonstrate the loving power of Christ even for one’s enemies.
Jesus spoke heavy but truthful words directly to those who needed to hear them. He was not concerned with winning an argument but with saving souls and obeying God.
Jesus was not afraid of rejection, not afraid of how the Pharisees would see him. God’s view of him and Jesus’ faith in God motivated the Son to lovingly confront the religious leaders in the hope that they would be changed.
Jesus picked heads of grain with the disciples on the Sabbath. He stood up for an adulteress and talked to marginalized women. He touched people who were untouchable, such as lepers and cripples. Jesus called people like Matthew the tax collector whom the other disciples and the crowds had good reason to dislike; he called this man friend and brother; a branch of the vine (John 15).
The manner of his life was a strong protest against a militaristic society, which solved problems with violence and against the violence of sin, out of which people sought to see their own desires fulfilled. But how does he change people now?
The Way Christ Brings about Change
Christ does a transforming, sanctifying work from the inside out. That sanctifying work leads to humility, and humility enables one to choose a side based on right or wrong, not on personal pride. The decision for what is right, when the topic is important enough to protest about, will become more important.
Bullying does not change hearts. When Jesus gets inside of us, by his Spirit, we grow more fruitful. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Jesus gets hold of us (if we let him) and makes us more patient to hear what others have to say, self-controlled to answer truthfully but with gentleness. He gives us joy when it is difficult to hold a God-honoring position against a topic.
Sometimes, because we are faithful to let him work inside of us, he motivates us to do something when we would have preferred to do nothing.
If we really love God, we will defend the rights of vulnerable people to be protected, fed, heard, and seen. Our protest is not against individuals but against systems and should never be violent.
What Does This Mean?
Christ called for unity: protest tends to disrupt that, even when groups of Christians both believe they are standing up for the gospel. Somehow, they wind up on opposing sides, creating unrest within the church, and promoting a corrupted picture of our faith.
Christian protest must, above all, glorify God both in its purpose and its methods, meaning no one should ever feel humiliated or threatened by the acts of believers protesting against certain things. The aim of their demonstrations should always reflect the holy work of Jesus Christ in his people.
True Christians protest and stand up for the marginalized, not to condone all of their choices, but to introduce them to the only belief that matters and convince them of the truth: that Christ alone saves. The gospel stands up for people.
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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