by Craig S. Keener, originally published on his blog.
One of my recent posts showed the local protest march in which my wife and I participated, and which our teenage daughter helped organize. One honest question has come up so often in response that I want to address it here.
Would Jesus have attended such a march, some have asked? Marching in parades aside, some feel that marching for racial justice, for the unborn or for other specific causes that suggest protest are inconsistent with proper Christian meekness. (I am assuming that those asking the question are also pacifists, since violence, and especially lethal violence, seems much less meek than nonviolent protests.) So, in consultation with my daughter Keren, I offer the following considerations.
First, it may be helpful to note the purpose of marching. Marching commands public attention in the way that individual voices often cannot. It also provides solidarity for the hurting and fearful. It lets them know that they are not alone; for the sake of the unity of the church that has too long been divided by race, now is an opportunity for non-black Christians to stand with our African-American brothers and sisters.
Most of us alive today missed marching with the Civil Rights Movement. That movement restored voting access and other legal rights denied to African-Americans in much of the U.S. Protests today are not about Jim Crow laws but they nevertheless offer an important statement. They send a message that helps define what we as a society will accept as moral behavior regarding racial injustice. Most racism today goes unseen by most whites, but I have witnessed both direct actions of racism and the intergenerational consequences of past racism. You may not get to march against legal segregation, but if you complain about having missed your chance to do so, now is your next-best chance to stand in solidarity with protesters against racism. (Let’s pray it’s the last time we need a chance, though changing hearts and values is normally a long-term process.)
Second, before further answering directly, let me respond to an objection sometimes raised. Sometimes those who protest protesting associate it with violence, looting, or different values of some other marchers; but in most locations, that association risks changing the subject. As Dr. King taught us, one can protest nonviolently. (Granted, it is less safe than sitting at home, since one cannot always predict everyone else’s behavior.) Ours was a nonviolent and nonpartisan march. Locally, there was cooperation between police and protesters. (That might be more complicated in some locations, but it was not the behavior of local police that we were protesting. In the most blatant case of white supremacist symbols that surfaced in our area, the police investigated. They were on our side.)
During my doctoral work, I heard various reports of African-Americans being beaten by police officers (especially in LA). Many whites dismissed such claims—until the beating of Rodney King was captured on videotape. But when that videotape went public in 1991, I joined a protest march from a local historically Black university in North Carolina. Had violence ensued from the other side, my plan was to raise my Bible and cry, “For Jesus and the kingdom!” and keep advancing until I was gunned or beaten down. But I would not have engaged in any act of violence. (This is not suggesting that police are the sources of most violence then or today. But in cases such as Rodney King’s or George Floyd’s, abuse of power is clear. If King or Floyd were prisoners of war, their treatment would violate Geneva Conventions.)
Thank God for earlier civil rights marches
Third, I thank God for protests raising a public, corporate voice. Otherwise, I would sort of be in prison today. You say, “How would you be in prison? What did you do?” Civil rights marches in the 1960s helped bring about civil rights legislation, nullifying Jim Crow laws. I’m currently a professor in Kentucky, where interracial marriage was illegal from 1792 until 1967 or (on all the books) 1974. (I was only seven years old in 1967 and really wasn’t ready to get married yet anyway. But I’m married now: and my wife is black whereas I am white.)
There was once a potential multi-year prison sentence for interracial marriage here. And no way would I divorce or separate from my wife! (To be technical, the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision that legalized marriage rested on the Fourteenth Amendment, which was passed in 1868. But it’s no coincidence that this decision followed on the heels of other cultural shifts that had been delayed since the end of Reconstruction.)
Had such laws still been in place, realistically I simply would have kept teaching in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where it was not illegal. Nor have we encountered any known prejudice in this town against our marriage. But under laws before the civil rights marches, our marriage would have been illegal in much of the U.S. So I take this one personally! Thank God for the civil rights marchers.
Not all settings are the same
Fourth, the setting matters. Sometimes street protests achieve productive change, such as the recent change of government for the better in the Sudan. Mahatma Gandhi led nonviolent protests against the British empire and succeeded in achieving India’s independence as a nation. Sometimes protests don’t achieve the desired change, such as in Tiananmen Square. Cultures and situations differ. Context matters, and it is not always predictable.
My first week lecturing in Nigeria in 1998, Sani Abacha was the nation’s president and de facto dictator. Although the media could not report very much, a lot of people were being killed for speaking out. I was staying on a local campus, and one morning toward the end of my first week there, I was rudely awakened by the sound of tear gas cannisters and assault rifles, as students chased from their hostels.
Somehow that night I ended up in a meeting with some community leaders (because somebody who knew somebody who knew me invited there, for reasons yet unknown to me). Some were insisting that the only way to challenge this repression was to gather publicly in the streets in mass protests. I asked if they knew about events on the campus that morning. None of them did; Abacha’s government controlled what information got out.
Only two of us in the meeting opposed the idea of public protests. The other reticent person was trying to work within the system to reform it. As a guest who had been there for less than a week, I admitted that I really hadn’t earned the right to speak. Nevertheless, I expressed my reticence anyway; I feared that protesters would be gunned down en masse. But the consensus of the room otherwise was that, while such protests were a last resort, it had come to the point where the last resort was the only resort left. God, however, answered many prayers of his children; that week, Abacha died (a bit suspiciously), and street violence was averted.
The situation in the U.S. right now is different from any of the above situations. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution explicitly states the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
“Peaceable assembly” in public places is not merely legal in the United States; it is a constitutional right. It is strange that some people in the U.S. who think that the bloody Revolutionary War was an acceptable protest against injustice or inequality nevertheless feel uncomfortable with peaceful protests against killing unarmed black persons today. Most arguments used against protest marches today (protesting is disrespectful or out of order) were the same arguments used to keep most whites, including most white evangelicals, on the sidelines during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Raising voices for justice
So fifth, because “peaceable assembly” and petitioning for redress of grievances is a lawful and conventional way to express free speech in the U.S., it is simply one means of raising our voice against injustice. And this brings us back to the original question: would Jesus protest? Like the prophets before him, Jesus did raise his voice against injustices. The prophets protested the oppression of widows and foreigners by people with more power (e.g., Deut 27:19; Jer 7:6; Ezek 22:7; Mal 3:5).
Jesus also denounced leaders who (especially under the guise of piety) oppressed widows (Mark 12:40), taking advantage of those with less power. He demanded that those with resources share with those who had less (Mark 10:21; Luke 12:33; 14:13, 33), a practice continued by his followers (Acts 11:29; 24:17; Gal 2:10), especially in times of true revival (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-35). His early followers raised their voices against injustice (Jms 5:1-6; Rev 18:9-20) and valued guarding the interests of those with the least power (1 Thess 5:14).
As a small minority (less than one-tenth of one percent of the Roman empire), first-century believers admittedly prioritized caring for fellow believers (Rom 12:13; 2 Cor 8—9), but their concerns extended further (Rom 12:17-18; Gal 6:10). Raising protests in the Roman empire was potentially very dangerous, and minority interests were easily crushed. In such settings, wisdom suggests that believers with limited resources devote those resources to accomplishing good rather than rushing into suicidal settings that would not do such good. In some parts of the world today, believers are small minorities and suffer even for sharing their faith.
But in societies such as the U.S., we can raise our voices freely for justice. Citizens are expected, as acts of duty,to participate in the political process with well-reasoned input and voices. Marching is already a conventional way of raising and multiplying our voice in this culture. Here it is actually legal—in contrast to Jesus still more vocally overturning tables in the temple (thereby precipitating his arrest and execution a few days later).
I’m sorry—did I neglect to mention earlier that Jesus protested wrongdoing more dramatically, rather than less dramatically, than a peaceful protest march? Scholars debate whether he protested injustice or impiety, or both (not only the New Testament, but the Dead Sea Scrolls, later rabbis, and many passages in Josephus suggest that many aristocratic priests were exploiting and oppressing others). But what seems clear is that he challenged the social status quo, and not with a merely passive voice. And when Jesus did it, it wasn’t even legal!
A Christian Riot
In 1991, when news broke of Rodney King’s beating, due to the obvious video footage, I was helping to lead a Bible study in an African-American Christian group on our university campus. Or at least, we had been planning to do a Bible study. But everybody’s mind was on something else. Some students felt torn between being Christians and having a riot.
“Let’s have a Christian riot,” I suggested.
“How can you have a Christian riot?” one student reasonably protested. I had to concede that her objection summarized our dilemma rather well.
But nonviolent protest for biblically clear matters of justice, of the sort that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his ministerial colleagues encouraged? How could biblical Christians in our culture not appreciate that?
That’s not saying that you have to march. Some of you don’t even live near anywhere where a march could happen. It is to say: please at least be supportive of those of us who do march! Or if you disagree with us, at least do not buy into caricatures and stereotypes that some others peddle about protesters. We weren’t looting or burning. We marched, gathered on public property peacefully, and lifted our hearts in prayer and song for justice and restoration in our land.
Craig S. Keener (who consulted on this post with his wise daughter Keren Keener) is coauthor with Glenn J. Usry of Black Man’s Religion (IVP, 1996) and Defending Black Faith (IVP, 1997).
Cover photo by Clay Blanks, Unsplash.