Thursday, May 17, 2012

Protest vs. Non-Resistance and Passivity

Bethany Blankley, my former colleague at the New York School of the Bible, argues that the churches’ protest against their unfair and discriminatory expulsion from renting space on Sundays from the New York City schools was “unbiblical”:

  • “Protesting in any form, as a Christ-follower is misguided and unbiblical.”
To prove her case, she appeals to the example of Jesus:

  • Instead of responding in outrage over this [murder of Jews], Jesus spoke about the need for everyone to repent and follow him (Luke 13:1-3).
Although it is clear that our individual relationship with God and need for repentance must take precedence over our fruitful involvement with others and with society, I think that Blankley has overstepped the evidence. While Jesus’ silence on the broader issue of justice is worthy of note, it is a stretch to argue that we must all keep silent on all social justice issues.

  • On another occasion, when asked if the iniquitous Roman taxation was lawful, Jesus made no reference to whether or not an occupying nation should tax its subjects. Instead, he spoke about the demands of God upon His subjects. He said, "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Luke 20:25).
An argument from Jesus’ silence is notoriously weak. Perhaps Jesus was silent for other reasons. Perhaps He understood that protesting against Rome’s unfair taxes would lead to a bloody and unprofitable uprising, which finally did occur in 66AD. Or perhaps He deemed that His fledgling church needed first to be established in the basics – better for now to render to “Caesar the things that are Caesar's.”

What is lacking in Blankley’s argumentation are explicit biblical teachings against protesting. However, her next example of Jesus’ passivity in this area comes closest:

  • Jesus addressed the issue of resenting authority in his Sermon on the Mount. Under occupation, a Roman soldier had the right to ask any Jew to carry his pack for one mile. Jesus' commentary on this was, "if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles." Then he added, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:40, 44)…Jesus' mindset went beyond the present circumstance to a higher law revealing that a Christ-follower's life is directed by the commands of God. His disciples taught the same, saying, "as much as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men" (Romans 12:18, 14:19; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Pet. 3:11).
We all agree that our Lord has called us to love and pray for our enemies. However, what does it mean to “live peaceably with all men?” Does it mean to never protest how others may treat you or even their own family? Does it never mean to expose sin and hypocrisy (Eph. 5:11)? Does it mean that we can never correct our children or a teacher her students? Does it mean we can never press charges against a burglar or a rapist? Does it mean that we must allow our wives to be raped in front of us without raising a finger or a word in protest? Or does living “peaceably with all men" require that we confront the evil-doer and bring charges against the rapist for the sake of the peace of our community? If we have failed to bring charges and the rapist struck again, wouldn’t this dishonor our Lord in the eyes of our community?

In contrast to Blankley’s position, Jesus’ ministry contained many words of protest and denunciation. He was highly confrontational. Just look at His many denunciations of the religious leadership (Matthew 23)!

However, Blankley makes an insupportable distinction between protesting against religious and political leaders, claiming that protesting against the religious leaders is okay:

  • There is not one instance in all of the accounts of Jesus' life where he came into conflict with Roman authorities… Jesus did denounce the religious leaders of his day, but he did not denounce political leaders.
This might be so, but it wasn’t the Roman authorities with whom He had contact. It wasn’t the Roman authorities who were following Him and contradicting Him at every turn.

Furthermore, Blankley’s distinction that we can denounce the religious leaders but not the political leaders seems quite arbitrary, and it is upon this distinction that her entire argument rests. According to this distinction, if the NYC authorities were religious and not political, the churches could protest. But if they are religious, then the church can’t protest. But aren’t political leaders governed by values – religious sentiments?

Such an arbitrary distinction cannot be maintained biblically. For one thing, religious leaders also exercised political power. Besides, Mosaic laws required obedience towards religious leaders as well.

Exposing sin was central to Jesus’ ministry, and “exposing” is little different from “protesting.” There was no one immune to His critical light. Jesus even corrected Roman Pilate, who had been angered by His silence:

  • "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." (John 19:10-11)
Although Jesus assigned the “greater sin” to the religious leadership, He wouldn’t grant Pilate a clean slate either, reminding Him that He too was bound by the laws of God.   

Almost the entire focus of the Hebrew Prophets was a matter of exposing sin – protesting against it – in hope that this might lead Israel to repentance. They never made a distinction between the political and the religious leadership. They all had to repent!

Similarly, Jesus exposed the sin of the political-religious leaders who wanted to murder Him:
  • Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders, who had come for him, "Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs? Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour--when darkness reigns." (Luke 22:52-53)
We too must expose the “hour when darkness reigns," whether in the City of New York or in our churches.

Meanwhile, I would agree with Blankley that this prophetic endeavor should not be accompanied by outbursts of anger but by praises to God, who works all things together for good, and also by prayers for those with whom we disagree.

However, Blankley wrongly wants us to choose between trusting God and doing something ourselves about the injustice:

  • If a Christian believes that God is in control, then he/she will submit to the ruling authorities and proclaim his/her faith by obeying God to be at peace with all men. A Christian will not sign petitions, but petition their father in heaven through prayer.
Blankley is saying that if you trust God, you will submit to the authorities and do absolutely nothing. You will not go to the police; you will not press charges against the rapist; you will not cry out about the injustices, genocide, slavery, or even the Holocaust. However, our Lord requires us to take responsibility for our neighbor and to cry out on his behalf (Amos 5:14-15; Isaiah 1:16-17) as we place our trust completely in Him. Mysteriously, these two strategies go together (Phil. 2:12-13; 1 Cor. 15:10).

However, Blankley rightly places the emphasis on trusting God:

  • Many Christians wrongly assume that the only way a situation can be put right is by political or social means, but this is not biblical teaching. God is in control and is active in the affairs of men and nations. The Christian worldview teaches that God removes rulers and puts them in power – both good and evil – for his purposes (Daniel 2:21; 4:17). All political leaders are appointed by God and nothing is beyond his control.
While God is definitely in control – He has even established our days (Psalm 139) and our lives for us (Eph. 2:10) – this doesn’t mean that we don’t have a role in our lives and in this world. Even though Paul assures us that we are “His workmanship,” this doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility of praying, meditating on Scripture, walking in love, or even protesting. Somehow, God works through our freewill choices and obedience. To dismiss one of these truths is to try to fly a plane with one wing.

Even though God has a plan for our lives, it doesn’t allow us to “put God to the test” by failing to live prudently, as Jesus had corrected Satan (Matthew 4:3-4).

Protest has long had a place among the children of God. Knowing that Haman was putting the finishing touches on his plan for the destruction of the Jews, the Jewish Queen Esther risked her life to come before her husband and king:

  • "If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life--this is my petition. And spare my people--this is my request. For I and my people have been sold for destruction and slaughter and annihilation. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king." (Esther 7:3-4)
It was this protest, by the grace of God, that saved the Jewish people. Perhaps it is time for us to speak up as well!

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