Protesting the Protests of the Protest

protest (prō-test), n., an organized public demonstration expressing strong objection to a policy or course of action adopted by those in authority.

I was going to stay out of this; there are way too many talking heads out here already. But then I read yesterday morning that the pastor of FBC Dallas felt the need to weigh in.

These players ought to be thanking God that they live in a country where they’re not only free to earn millions of dollars every year, but they’re also free from the worry of being shot in the head for taking the knee like they would be in North Korea.

The obvious response is that the pastor should be thanking God that he lives in a country where he’s not only paid millions1 of dollars every year, but he’s also free from the worry of having his head cut off for preaching Christianity like he would be in an ISIS-controlled area.

I didn’t say it was necessarily a good response, just the obvious one.

There are a lot of things wrong with his remarks, starting with the thinly veiled threat of violence behind them, continuing with the tone-deafness of someone making a lot of money implying that there’s something wrong with other people making a lot of money, and ending with the fact that it completely misses the point of both a protest and living in a free country.

Why do protests happen? Because someone encounters a policy, a statement, a “course of action” per the definition above, they disagree with and want to see changed.
What is the purpose (goal) of a protest? To change the policy.
How does a protest meet that goal? By enlisting others who feel the way the protesters do about whatever it is they’re protesting.
What are the markers of a “good” protest, i.e. one that succeeds at its goal? One that others can be sympathetic to, and, as important, one that others can see.

Under those tenants, if you don’t like the color the library painted the walls, and you hold a silent protest in your living room, it’s not going to be a successful protest. Even if there are a sufficient number of people who also don’t like the color of the walls, who feel strongly enough about it they would protest, and who want the same color you do, they’re never going to find out about your protest, and consequently your protest will die in your living room.

Thus, if a protest is going to be successful, it needs eyeballs. How do you get eyeballs on your protest? You do it at a time and place that will attract a lot of eyeballs. Those eyeballs can be direct, i.e. present physically, or they can be “virtual,” where the eyeballs are watching video (or stills) of the protest live or delayed or even listening to audio.2 Luther nailed those 95 theses on the door of that Wittenberg church3 for the same reason college kids in the 60’s invited TV cameras to their sit-ins — eyeballs. Without eyeballs, a protest by definition can’t be successful.

Understanding that, it sounds a little disingenuous to me for people to say, “it’s OK to protest, just don’t do it …,” where “…” might be a place or a date or a time or all three. If I’m staging a protest about an issue I believe is important enough, I’m absolutely going to do it at the “wrong” time, on the “wrong” date, and at the “wrong” place, because that is what is going to attract the eyeballs! Anyone yelling or complaining that it was “wrong” are, again, missing the point; they fundamentally don’t understand how a protest works.

Of course, lots of things can cause a disturbance in the protest force. If you protest the color of the local library walls at the governor’s inauguration, you’re probably not going to garner much sympathy. Even if some agreed with you, the weight of the “wrongness” of the time/place far outweighs the weight of the thing being protested. (You might, of course, disagree, because you feel very strongly about those chartreuse walls.)

But the “wrong” place is sometimes the right place, because sometimes the point is to expose our mis-placed priorities. Tony Compolo spoke in a lot of churches back in the 90’s about justice issues. From many a pulpit, he said:

I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a crap.4 What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said “crap”5 than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.

Is the pulpit the “wrong” place to be cussing? Maybe.6 But if the goal is to show how misplaced our priorities are, it might be exactly the right place. Which is worse, saying “crap” or 30K kids a day dying from starvation? Which one should get us worked up more? Which one should we get angry about? There are occasions and issues that rise to a level where a shock is needed to force us out of our lethargy.

You might remember someone else who disrupted church for a protest. He even got a little violent, upending tables and forcing people out of the building. You can read more about it in the Bible: Matt 21:12–13, Mark 11:15–18, and Luke 19:45–47. “Oh, but that was completely valid!” Yes, with the benefit of hindsight, but had we been a Jewish man in the temple that day, our thinking would have been very different.7

The media and the masses (and the President, and the aforementioned pastor) have all focused on the minor issue instead of the major one. (No one remembers that Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem for three weeks before anyone noticed him, and even then it was an accident.) What is the major issue? What was Colin protesting?

I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.

This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.

Someone with influence, advocating for people with little to no influence, in a visible but (in my opinion) respectful way. If only we lived in North Korea, where terrible things like that don’t happen.

We don’t. We live in the United States of America. A (supposedly) free country. Where we have the freedom to speak out against things we don’t like. Where we have the freedom to disagree with the government, and elect a new one if we disagree strongly enough. Where we have the freedom, and in my view the obligation, to point out where we as a country are falling down in our responsibilities to our fellow citizens. Where we have the freedom to disagree.

Whether we agree with Mr. Kaepernick and the others or not (and don’t make the mistake of thinking you know whether I do just by reading this), we have to recognize their right to do what they’re doing. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to agree with it. But free speech is only free if others can say things we don’t like or agree with.8

Let’s talk about the important things. Instead of “crap,” let’s talk about starving kids. Instead of kneeling, let’s talk about race relations. Instead of talking about ad hominem attacks by a sitting President, let’s talk about his neglect of three-and-a-half million American citizens after a hurricane destroyed their island.

Let’s talk about how grateful we all are to live in a free country. And let’s act like we understand what that means.

  1. A slight exaggeration. Or maybe not.
  2. Let’s not get sidetracked by how eyeballs are listening to audio.
  3. I know—he almost certainly didn’t do that. But he wrote them down and they got distributed and however it happened, those theses got in front of a bunch of eyeballs.
  4. He didn’t say “crap.”
  5. He didn’t say “crap” here, either.
  6. Although Mark Driscoll built a pretty good-sized church doing it. That didn’t end well, but it wasn’t because of his cussing.
  7. We might have been thinking Mr. Compolo’s word.
  8. Otherwise I’d have thrown Bill Maher out of the country years ago.

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