Soon I’ll be seventy years old. My decades as a Christian activist have taught me valuable lessons about protesting injustice. I’ve had to learn a lot of these things the hard way, but I’ve boiled a handful of “lessons” down to eleven common-sense and overlapping principles of protest, some of which are adapted from my book Free at Last?—all of which are based on familiar biblical truths.
As you seek to care for and walk alongside people who are planning to protest an issue, I encourage you, first, to be familiar with these principles of protest, and second, to communicate these points with the protesters. This is important, lest they be tempted to seek to respond prematurely or in vengeance.
11 principles to share with protesters
1. Seek the moral high ground.
Jesus demonstrated this, and Christian protesters should follow suit. He did not “judge by what he [saw] with his eyes, or decide by what he [heard] with his ears”; he judged “with righteousness” (Isa. 11:3b–4a). In other words, help your people understand that hearsay and first appearances are not reliable sources of information on which to base a protest.
The Christian activist, if he or she is consistent, will take the time to ascertain and sort out the facts. The Christian voice may not be the first heard, but will be the strongest voice heard—a prophetic voice.
Protesters may need to be reminded that we live in a universe created and ruled over by the infinite personal Creator, whose moral principles will always be fulfilled. Thus, the more protesters align with His moral principles, the more power they will have in addressing the wrongs against which they protest.
Without moral clarity, the point of the protest becomes bogged down, clouded, and confused.
2. Seek kingdom righteousness in the protest.
Protesters need to be convinced that the more righteous the protest, the more powerful the protest. The only basis for judging between good and evil is the character of God. That which conforms to God’s character is right, and that which goes against His character is wrong. Important aspects of right and wrong are righteousness and unrighteousness.
Thus, for the Christian activist, justice for the oppressed must be visualized and pursued through the lens of biblical standards of righteousness. One way to help protesters understand righteousness (from a biblical perspective) is to help them understand that righteousness is a relational term. It simply means “doing right by the other party in the relationship.” Two expressions of righteousness are (a) piety, doing right by God in a narrow sense—involving devotion and ceremony, and (b) justice, doing right by fellow human beings.
For the victims of injustice or oppression, justice equates to liberation from oppression, and empowerment to do the right thing. For the perpetrators of injustice and oppression, justice involves the swift and compassionate application of the legal consequences of their actions and omissions.
3. Avoid ad hominem arguments.
In today’s emotionally charged cultural context, ad hominem attacks (appealing to feelings or prejudices rather than intellect) are common. They are aimed at destroying the person who holds the opposing views, rather than dismantling the views themselves. Help protesters realize that this is violence. Ad hominem attacks distract the protester from the real issues, and lay the groundwork for the protest to be interpreted by others with counter intentions. In the end, the protesters may end up with a new tyranny as bad as or worse than the injustice they protested against.
We all want to be treated with dignity, compassion, and respect. It is all too easy for protesters to see the provocateurs of the protest as a dehumanized enemy. In the heat of tense moments, protesters have to constantly remind themselves, not only do their opponents bear God’s image just like they do, but they are sinners in need of grace—just like they are. By failing to act on this truth, or by engaging in ad hominem violence, or by not calling it sin when they see it occur around them, they forfeit the moral high ground.
Remind the protesters to focus any anger they have primarily on the grievance itself, not necessarily on the people behind the grievance.
4. Avoid being provocative beyond the offense of the grievance itself.
Encourage those who’ve been hurt by injustice to allow the grievance do the speaking. When people embellish the grievance with unnecessary provocation, it clouds the issue and is counterproductive. The cause of justice does not need the help of evils such as hatred and falsehood. Anger? Yes, but anger without sin (Eph. 4:26). Remind your congregation that the less anger is accompanied by evil, the more efficacious will be the anger. The more anger is accompanied by love, the more efficacious will be the anger.
So, make it clear that a protester must speak the truth in love, demonstrate the truth in love, dramatize the truth in love, chant the truth in love, SHOUT the truth in love, etc. In other words, be forceful, but he or she must do it in love—which is a powerful weapon indeed.
5. Let the Word of God do the heavy lifting.
The Word of God can be spoken without giving its chapter and verse, yet it has the same power either way. The Word is still the Word, whether it is quoted directly, paraphrased, dramatized, expressed in narratives, articulated in spoken word, rhymed in hip-hop, chanted in slogans, etc. Too many times the Christian community has been so uncreative with the Word that we fail to communicate it—often giving the impression that the Word is a set of tired and powerless clichés.
We have yet to tap into the wisdom and power available to us in the Word. The Word of God is the power that created this universe (John 1:1–3)—a reality so vast that we don’t know where it ends. The same “Word” also sustains the universe (Heb. 1:3). That being the case, it should not surprise us that the “Word” will accomplish what God desires and achieve the purpose for which it was sent. “It will not return … empty” (Isa. 55:11).
Exhort protesters with this word: when the Word of God is rightly and creatively applied to the art of protest, its effect will be tangible.
6. Justice does not equal revenge.
Many people cite “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” (Deut. 19:21 NCV) as a justification for revenge. On the contrary, this is a lex talionis—a law of limitation. In other words, “no more than an eye for an eye, no more than a tooth for tooth.”
Make it clear to the protesters you are ministering to that wise Christian activists help their co-belligerents take a stand of “non-vengeance”—leaving the vengeance to God because they know that God can and will do a far better job of revenge than we can imagine.
On the other hand, many cite Jesus’ words to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39) as a call to be timid. This twisted interpretation has contributed to the toxic perceptions of Christianity among our urban youth. On the contrary, “turn the other cheek” is a statement of “non-vengeance.” It is also a call to respond to an enemy in a way he or she least expects. Therefore, communicate to the protesters that if your enemy expects you to be mean, then be kind. On the other hand, if your enemy expects you to be timid, then be aggressive. That said, while “aggressive” means confrontational and forceful, be certain your people understand that, for the Christian activist, the use of force must not involve violence. Help them to see that doing so would violate their opponent’s God-given dignity as an image bearer.
Make it clear to the protesters that they should never let the one against whom they are protesting put them in a box; when the person tries, bust it open. As Christ’s ambassadors, they are called to be diplomats, not doormats.
7. Words have different meanings to different communities.
Help the protesters you’re ministering to understand that when they define the points of agreement with their co-belligerents, they must make sure that their shared words have the same meaning. When that is impossible, they must make sure that they understand what the other party means and that the other side understands what the protesters mean. On that basis, the protesters can make intelligent decisions whether or not, or how, to cooperate.
Encourage them that the more the co-belligerents understand how the protesters’ words and concepts fit into the protesters’ worldview, the more the co-belligerents will understand the protesters’ God-centered perspective. This will contribute to the protesters’ discipleship agenda.
On the other hand, for the protest to have its desired effect, encourage them to learn the language of their opponents. Communicating with your opponent is key—getting them to understand your message—not just speaking words to them. In our slogans, chants, rally cries, etc., it is wise to choose words their opponents understand that will confront the opponents with the truth—leaving them without the option of ignoring the issue at hand and the Ultimate Source of the truth the Christian protesters communicate. Help those you’re speaking to see how this too will contribute to their discipleship agenda.
8. Let the true narrative of the grievance be self-evident.
Integrity is key for Christian activists, so there’s no need to “juke” (manipulate) a narrative to make their point. Manipulating the narrative might seem to give the protest a short-term advantage, but it will ultimately undercut it, causing it to lose its power. The more a protest loses moral power, the easier it is for the opponent to explain it away as mere agitation or dismiss it as a nuisance.
Because the opponents bear God’s image and live in God’s world, they have a God-given sense of good and evil, and justice and injustice (Rom. 2:14–16). No matter how hard they try, they will never succeed in suppressing this truth (Rom. 1:18–20). Remind your people that the power is in the truth, not in deception; admit and affirm truth, even when it’s hard.
9. Tranquility does not equal peace.
I have observed that many in the dominant culture confuse these two. However, an unjust tranquility is an unstable and volatile sham that needs to be disrupted and demolished. This is why people protest.
True peace is more than tranquility; it is a state of being that leads to God’s original plan for human flourishing. Achieving true peace, in order that people may flourish, is one of the goals of protest. Remind those who wish to protest that they should be calling for a new reality that benefits everyone.
10. The protester’s prime directive is the Great Commission.
Everything we do should hasten the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). Therefore as we go, whether across the seas or across the tracks, whether to teach or to preach, whether to pray or to protest, etc., we should be making “disciples” (Matt. 28:18–20)—those who are learning to obey all things that Christ commands. A disciple can be an individual or a culture; however, a disciple is not necessarily a convert. Yet the more Christ’s commands are applied, the better the quality of life.
Advise the people you’re ministering to that when the protest goals are secondary to the Great Commission, protesters will make more progress than when the protest goals are primary. In fact, I saw the most fruit in the field when young Christian activists were engaged in prophetic discipleship—both to those they protested against and to those on the same side of the controversy.
Keep reminding protesters that unless accompanied by discipleship (teaching people to follow Christ’s commands), protesting is non-transformative and empty. It may change the status quo, but if the problems of flawed human nature are not diminished through transformation, they will come back and bite us—often nullifying what the protest is trying to accomplish. Perhaps we are where we are today because hearts in my generation were merely legislated, yet not transformed.
11. There is power in our God-centered perspective.
In my early days, I learned that it was difficult to fully fulfill the Great Commission under the leadership of those who leave out the most important purpose of the protest—the glory of God.
The Christian protesters’ God-centered reference point is the basis of their wisdom (Prov. 9:10). It is their God-given contribution to the cause for which they protest. Without this unique contribution, their voice merely becomes another run-of-the-mill addition to the cacophony, contributing to today’s cultural confusion.
Protesters can be “co-belligerents” with groups with a non-transcendent reference point, but it’s difficult to be allies. Protesters need to be reminded that non-Christian ideologies are simply not radical enough for the Christian activist. The Christian activist is looking for transformation of society, its systems, and individual hearts. For us, there’s nothing more radical than transformation.
Help protesters realize that their efforts are successful if, at the end of the protest, people on both sides of the controversy have a greater consciousness of the glory of God. It makes no difference whether this “consciousness” is embraced or suppressed, because the protesters have exposed the real issue to the light of truth.