Protesting is practically a staple of modern society, but it has exploded in recent years. It seems that nearly every week there is news of some new protest. Many protests are peaceful, but an alarming number in the last few years have ended with burning cars, looted stores, smashed windows and terrified, injured bystanders. What may have started off as a peaceful, well-meaning demonstration ends in violence and chaos.
The number of protests and the increased news coverage of them has left many people numb to the demonstrations. Where once a protest was enough to capture the attention of the nation, now many people glance at the screen, wonder vaguely what the protest is about and then go back to checking their emails. Despite the fact that many people are seemingly burned out on protests, the increase in demonstrations does necessitate some soul searching for Christians. Should Christians make their own signs and join the crowd or should they stand back and stick with prayer?
Based on the life of Jesus, there is not necessarily anything wrong with Christians protesting. Though He was not leading the Apostles on marches through the streets of Jerusalem, Jesus was a revolutionary. He pushed back against the system in place and challenged those in power. His very existence was a threat to the status quo, and His rapidly growing group of followers cheerfully mirrored His peaceful defiance in the face of the powers that be.
Jesus as a revolutionary is not emphasized in the Bible in the way a modern reader would expect, but there is no denying what He was in ancient Israel. There are dozens of verses where Jesus calls out the Pharisees, the most popular and powerful Jewish sect in ancient Israel, for their hypocrisy. Jesus taught men and women side by side despite the fact that the two genders were kept carefully separate in ancient times. He had tax collectors and priests pray side by side, and He healed Jews and Gentiles alike. From an ancient perspective, practically every other action was another blow to the status quo. Jesus did not carry signs or chant slogans that became hashtags, but His life was a protest against the world He lived in.
The almost effortless way that Jesus was overturning the status quo was a threat to both powerful Jews and the Roman Empire. Ancient Judea was a powder keg that was perpetually teetering on the edge of war. From roughly 900 to 500 B.C., the Jews and Assyrians were locked in a state of on-again-off-again war. The Maccabean revolt in the 160’s B.C. ousted the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty through a vicious guerrilla war. In the century following Jesus’ death, Israel would rise up against Rome three separate times resulting in a massive loss of both Jewish and Roman civilian lives.
The first Jewish–Roman war would begin approximately 30 years after Jesus died, but the tensions were ratcheting up during His life. Rome was forever on the lookout for those who could rally the Jews to arms, and a Jewish king with a radical message, loyal following and a reputation for performing supernatural feats was a Roman’s nightmare given form. Jesus’ Jewish enemies were well aware of this, hence their attempt to trick Him by asking if Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. Though Jesus neatly sidestepped it, that was a heavily, brutally loaded question. Both “yes” and “no” could have tipped the scales into riots, revolt and revolution. By the time Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, His fate was sealed. The Bible tends to place more blame on the Jews than Roman officials, but history and the politics of the time make it clear that Rome could not afford to let Jesus live. Killing Him risked making Him a martyr, but He was far too dangerous to be left alive.
Jesus’ life makes it clear that Christians should not be afraid to stand up for what is right in God’s eyes, and protesting is certainly one way to do that. What Christian, after all, could forget the story of Jesus flipping tables in the Temple?
The trick with protesting as a Christian, however, is to be sure to protest in the right way for the right reason. Despite Jesus’ understandable fury in Matthew, He teaches Christians not to attack their enemies but to pray for them, and not to take an eye for an eye but to turn the other cheek. Christians have no place in protests that dissolve into looting, riots or violence. Christians do not belong in protests that block roads and keep ambulances, police vehicles and fire trucks from reaching the victims whose lives depend on a timely response. When Christians protest, it should be peacefully and legally.
Christians are also taught to pray for their enemies and love their neighbors. This means that Christians should avoid those rallies and protests where people shout abuse and call for violence against those that disagree with them. No one’s mind will be changed through insults, and real, lasting change is not won through threats and hate. When Christians protest they can be vehement and passionate, but they need to remember that they are as imperfect as the people whose actions, policies or beliefs they are protesting. As Jesus said, “let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.”
When protesting, it is also important that Christians be clear on what they are protesting and why. As news commentators, radio hosts and bloggers have snarkily commented, protesting has become America’s favorite hobby recently. Outrage has become fashionable, and people everywhere jump on various bandwagons regardless of whether or not they understand the issue at hand and the things at stake. Christians are called to love their neighbors and to be good stewards of the earth. They cannot do this if they join in with whatever movement is currently popular. This may mean bearing the cross of public scorn or broken friendships, but there is nothing Christlike about advocating for something when you do not understand the consequences of it. There are many policies, laws and actions that sound like wonderful ideas and have excellent intentions behind them. These same policies, however, often have unintended consequences that can do serious damage to other people. Before joining in a movement, Christians have a responsibility to think through how something will affect not only the people the policy is “supposed” to affect but also the rest of the nation, state or city. No one lives in a vacuum, and what effects one person will in some way affect another. Christians do no favors for anyone by ignoring those unintended consequences or not really thinking through or understanding what they claim to support or oppose.
In short, there is nothing un-Christian about protesting, but Christians do need to be careful to think about what they are supporting and why. Joining a movement because it is popular is no reason to take part in a protest. To do so is to be like the hypocrites who “disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting.” Protesting is not meant to be a way to look “enlightened” or “cool,” it is a serious tool meant to enact change or get the attention of powerful people who have refused to listen. Sadly, the overwhelming number of protests has diminished the importance and impact of those rallies that are truly seeking change instead of celebrity. Were Jesus to try and clear out the Temple today, His rebukes of the money changers would likely go unnoticed. Everyone else would already be yelling too loud to hear Him.