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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

How to protest so that it works


So you spray Stonehenge with orange powder paint, or disrupt the graduation ceremony at your local university, or throw yourself in front of the King’s horse.  The question is “How do you protest?”


By all accounts protests are growing throughout the world: we are on an upward trend.  Even more so since 7th October. In fact, the number of protests each year has more than tripled between 2006 and 2020 according to one global study.


This week I have been praying each morning for six Iranian Christians, unjustly imprisoned by the Iranian authorities simply for their faith in Jesus.  .


Hamid Afzali

Nasrollah Mousavi,

Bijan Gholizadeh,

Iman Salehi

Zohrab Shahbazi


Whatever protest I could make or manage would, of course, not even dent the resolve of the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. I could protest for its own sake just to make me feel good, but realistically all I can do is raise public awareness of this injustice – what I am doing now. 


So why protest?


One of the most successful campaigners of our age, Martin Luther King, Jr, argued:  “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”


So as Christians we are called to protest injustice – but how? Should we disrupt, even threaten violence? 


There’s been some academic debate on what makes a protest effective. It seems that large protests are more effective than small ones, especially when there is a clear identifiable goal, one which can be readily implemented. 


More to the point, non-violent protests appear to be more potent than violent ones.


The key academic here is Erica Chenoweth of the Harvard Kennedy School.  Apparently she has convincingly shown that countries where resistance campaigns were nonviolent were ten times as likely to transition to democracy compared to countries where resistance turned violent—regardless of whether the campaign succeeded or failed in the short term.


Moreover, to protest in God’s name has a particular dynamic.

Here the Jewish historian Josephus relates one remarkable protest during the time of Jesus, just before his ministry began.  The Romans with their brutal legions were in control.  Violent resistance had proved futile.


So when Pontius Pilate was appointed Governor for the province of Judea, he decided to make a statement to show who was in control and so he arranged for images of Caesar to be placed under the cover of darkness in the temple at Jerusalem. The Jews were appalled at this sacrilege and so a group of their leaders went to Caesarea to urge Pilate to remove his standards.


Not surprisingly he refused and so they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights. There they remained until Pilate finally appeared, apparently to negotiate.


However, suddenly Roman soldiers in full armour appeared, surrounding the Jewish leaders some three-deep.  Pilate threatened “to cut them to pieces” unless they accepted the images of Caesar.  At this they fell to the ground and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law.


Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.


Nevertheless the Romans used their power in all kinds of ways to keep the Jewish people firmly under their control.  For example, their soldiers had the right to force citizens to carry their equipment for one mile. 


So Jesus teaches  “If anybody forces you to go a mile with him, do more—go two miles with him.” (Matthew 5:41).  Here he is showing an alternative to violence, one which would not only unsettle the soldier but even alarm him, for Roman law strictly forbade this second mile.


Here clearly Jesus places himself and his followers in the path of non-violence, even at some personal cost.  So at his arrest Jesus tells his disciples: “Put your sword back in its sheath. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)


In last week’s Times I read the obituary of the remarkable Methodist pastor, James Lawson, who inspired Martin Luther King in his effective deployment of non-violent protest in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. 


So Lawson, sounding like Jesus himself, warned volunteers to expect beatings, floggings and broken bones. As the Timesrecounts: “Using role-playing techniques, he taught them how to dress smartly for protests and be courteous; how to withstand the verbal abuse and physical violence of segregationists; what to do if beaten and imprisoned by racist police; and how to post observers, summon ambulances and plan escape routes. He also taught them to forgive their enemies.”


This resolve to eschew violence sprang from his Christian faith, his understanding of the way of the cross.  So during one protest march a white leather-jacketed motorcyclist spat on Lawson. Lawson asked him for a handkerchief. His astonished assailant gave him one. Lawson wiped himself clean, then engaged the man in a conversation about motorbikes.


“In that split second of confrontation,” one commentator observed, “Jim Lawson had not only conquered his ego, he had forced his enemy in some basic way to try and see him as a man.”


A masterclass in how to protest in Jesus’ name.


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