Why protesting injustice is a fundamentally Christian act

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” (Gen 4:9–11)

In yet another iteration of state-sanctioned police brutality, the United States has witnessed the killing of George Floyd by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minn. In harrowing fulfillment of what political philosopher Hannah Arendt once defined counter-intuitively as the “banality” of evil, Officer Chauvin seemed frighteningly calm as he slowly asphyxiated Mr. Floyd with his knee outside a corner store: eight minutes and 46 seconds of deafening, uncontested silence, save the plaintive protest of passerby, and Mr. Floyd himself, gasping for enough air to call for his mother.

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How do we protest such a grotesque execution of injustice? How indeed do we cry out against its quiet collusion with systemic racism, which shapeshifts in response to each civil rights victory in order to ensure its transmission to the next generation?

Our central liturgical image is the crucified Christ, whose body was broken by violence and adorned with Roman graffiti, “INRI.”

An inventory of our treasures

As a Catholic, it has been both encouraging and indicting to follow the Catholic Church’s response to the death of George Floyd: from watching clerical leadership denounce the “real and present danger” and “ongoing reality” of racism in America; to hearing lay prophetic voices, including EWTN radio show host Gloria Purvis, calling us to consider the extent to which racism has become an ecclesial “blindspot” among white American Catholics; to finding so few Catholic Church communities marching alongside our Christian and non-Christian brothers and sisters.

Why are we not, as Presbyterian minister Rev. Alexis Waggoner of the Church of the Village in New York City recently described it, “putting [our] body where [our] theology is”? Perhaps in fact we are: Increasingly privatized religion means privatized bodies. We have fulfilled, not forgotten, our seclusive theology.

At worst, Christians have preferred instead to cry foul in the face of church property damage and graffiti, blithely unaware that our central liturgical image is the crucified Christ, whose body was broken by violence and adorned with Roman graffiti, “INRI.” That is to say, our fidelity to Christ and his body the church has less to do with becoming an aggrieved church of fire damage than a compassionate church of kinship with the broken.

Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman once opined concerning the Christian intellectual and spiritual tradition, “[w]e have a vast inheritance, but no inventory of our treasures.” In a brief attempt to take stock of our shared inventory, then, and likewise to advocate a more self-consciously incarnational practice of Christianity in the world, I would like to propose that Christianity is best understood in nature and practice as a form of protest.

Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman once opined concerning the Christian intellectual and spiritual tradition, “[w]e have a vast inheritance, but no inventory of our treasures.”

Who God is in the world

That is, Christianity offers a radically divergent vision of how humanity might confront, interrupt, and heal experiences of violence, suffering and loss, and in so doing both reveal and enact who God is in the world: the God of boundless compassion for the afflicted, the morally outcast and the enemy; and the God of unity, that binds together the “beloved community” in charity against temptations to self-conceit, the abuse of power, and indifference to the poor.

To begin, Christianity as protest reveals who God is in the world. Let us begin with the daring, plaintive story of the Book of Job. As readers, we travel from Job’s innocence and prosperity, to a divine wager and unrelenting affliction, to passionate debate among friends over the moral legitimacy of Job’s protest over his undeserved affliction, to the overwhelming apotheosis of God, who discloses only the unfathomable mystery of existence to those who would most desire to understand it.

Job’s protest is an act not of deep cynicism against an unfeeling or remote God, but of stubborn conviction in the justice of God. Job insists, against all external counsel, that his suffering is undeserved, and by extension that human beings inhabit a world that is infinitely larger than the tidy zero-sum games of retributive justice played by his friends. If his protest is unintelligible, then so is the world; and that is only something he is willing to concede before God Himself. Ultimately, if not paradoxically, God rebukes Job’s friends and praises Job, who in his protest has “spoken well of me” (Job 42:7). This is difficult consolation: suffering and loss are as unmerited as they are intractable aspects of human existence.

Far from the Book of Job offering its readers an exercise in moralistic quibbling or a kind of emotional analgesic to alleviate spiritual pain, it seems to be written with the express purpose of aggravating and highlighting the problem of unjust suffering. However, it does so in tandem with the provocative theological claim that any intelligible response to human suffering will significantly involve protesting before the very God whom one worships.

We argue—for better or worse—with those whom we love because we trust them. We trust that our voice ought to be heard and will be heard by the other, and that our relationships can and will grow as a result.

In a sense, it is ultimately as an expression of trust that Job can so forcefully interrogate and make demands upon God. In this light, questioning, difficulty, disagreement and protest are the highest form, not of distrust or betrayal, but rather of fidelity and love. We might recognize this in our own relationships: We argue—for better or worse—with those whom we love because we trust them. We trust that our voice ought to be heard and will be heard by the other, and that our relationships can and will grow as a result.

In like manner, for the Christian to protest before God in the face of innocent, underserved suffering is a plea for fidelity, that God might reveal himself to be what he has promised to be in a world marked by suffering: that is, the God of inexhaustible justice and compassion: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings...” (Ex 3:7); the God who liberates the captive and remembers the forgotten.

Have we heard the cry of God’s people today?

For the Christian to protest before God in the face of innocent, underserved suffering is a plea for fidelity, that God might reveal himself to be what he has promised to be in a world marked by suffering.

Fidelity and idolatry

Marching through Harlem in a raucous celebration of protesters, I hear the faint, high-pitched voice of a child, issuing from a small, unidentifiable apartment window. The chant floats above the crowd, innocent and eerie: “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Not unlike Augustine’s famous conversion scene in the Confessions, it is the child who teaches us wisdom: tolle lege; take and read. Observe the misery of racism in America. Hear their cries on account of police brutality. Know their sufferings.

Our president has certainly taken the Bible with him for a publicity stunt; he most certainly has not read it. In what can only be described as a parodic inversion of Moses’s parting of the red sea, Trump’s resounding public response to his people crying out for justice on behalf of George Floyd was to order the police to part a sea of Washington D.C. protesters with pepper balls, smoke canisters, and rubber bullets in order to arrive alone at the promised land of self-regard and fraudulent piety.

Let us presume a charitable reading of the president’s photo-op at St. John’s Episcopal Church: Perhaps he in fact had the sincere desire to share in the public square the good news of the gospel: hope for renewed human community, rooted in Christ’s forgiveness of the sinner. Even granting the bare minimum of good intention, the publicity stunt objectively attempted to promote the peace of the Bible through acts of violence. It attempted to spread a message of peace at the expense of the very audience for which it was intended.

The evangelist John, the namesake of the very church before which Trump posed, writes, “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother of sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 Jn 4:20). Applying John’s standard, the president’s photo-op with the Bible means that functionally, he is a liar.

Perhaps our current commander-in-chief is only the hapless if opportunistic representative of our own preferential idolatries in America.

Or, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams recently noted in a newsletter to his local parishioners concerning the photo-op, “objectively this was an act of idolatry—standing somewhere else than in the truth, using the text that witnesses to God’s disruptive majesty as a prop in a personal drama.” Ironically, by reducing the sacred text to a violence-reliant publicity stunt, the president has both performed and publicized the rudimentary sin of idolatry against which the biblical narrative cautions.

But perhaps our current commander-in-chief is only the hapless if opportunistic representative of our own preferential idolatries in America. For we shall have no other gods before Law and Order. We too have idolized and so been undermined by the justice that was meant to set us free. And so we as Christians in particular continue to brandish the words of our own condemnation; and so we continue to eclipse rather than reveal who God is in the world.

We as Christians in particular continue to brandish the words of our own condemnation; and so we continue to eclipse rather than reveal who God is in the world.

Love in action

Again, especially here amidst our self-sabotaging pursuits of justice and their attendant despair, Christianity as protest enacts who God is in the world, and so redeems our desire for justice in the practice of love.

As disclosed in the gospel narratives, it is ultimately Jesus Christ who as fully human and fully divine most forcefully cries out against the injustice of sin before God. In his gasping cries to God the Father on Good Friday, wed to his glorified greeting of “peace be with you” on Easter Sunday, Christ protests against a world usurped by sin and death, and protests on behalf of a world transfigured by the resurrection. Christ in his protest enacts who God is in the world: unreserved delight offered without calculation to his beloved humanity, redeeming human communities now marked by mercy, non-violence, and mutual healing.

In a broken world that has convinced us that the only realistic context of justice is violence, to follow Christ is to maintain that the only sustainable context of justice is mercy. We might say therefore that compassion, or justice realized in and through mercy, is itself the highest expression of human protest. It interrupts cycles of violence, subverts the suffocating logic of retributive justice, and so re-capacitates human freedom. This conviction surely resonates at the front lines of some of the most brilliant contemporary civil rights advocacy, including the work of public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson on behalf of the incarcerated and the condemned on death row, captured poignantly in his 2014 text, Just Mercy, and its eponymous 2019 film adaptation.

Admittedly, compassionate protest on behalf of the other is easy to write, and near impossible to practice. “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing,” broods Dostoevsky, “compared to love in dreams”; not to mention love in online articles.

More often than not, in our news feeds and in our hearts, we fail to hear the cries of the oppressed, not because we are intuitively unmerciful or apathetic, but because the cries are violent. A common refrain these past two weeks: “George Floyd’s death was a terrible tragedy, but rioting and looting are inexcusable.” We begin to counsel, indeed rightly, that violence begets violence. Augustine’s famous reading of Romans 13:13 has perhaps already warned us of the dishonesty of rioting. How all the more dishonest, damning and culpable, then, are not so much those who have rioted in the night, as those who riot in the day?

As columnist Jamelle Bouie has suggested, the anarchy of rioting protesters merely mirrors the impunity of rioting police. Or rather, police impunity is but anarchy authorized by the state. The mimetic nature of violence does not justify or excuse violent protest; it rather demonstrates the inevitable complicity of each form of violence with the other, and the consequent absurdity of backing one form of violence in order to quell the other. 

“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing,” broods Dostoevsky, “compared to love in dreams”; not to mention love in online articles.

The language of the wounded

We must pause to remember that, more precisely, violence begets wounds, and wounds beget more violence. Violence is the inherited “language” of our human woundedness. In the face of the misery of our people, crying out in violence, we have thus allowed compassion to become partisan. We have preferred to denounce the violence of the wounded than to tend to the wound; we have preferred to judge as moral referee than to serve in the “field hospital,” as Pope Francis once defined the church.

To end violence, therefore, do not settle for denouncing its symptoms; rather, root out its causes. To end violent protest, end police brutality. But not only this: The police too are caught in cycles of violence that extend even beyond their ken. To end police brutality, we must confront nothing less than our all-American neo-liberal neurosis of punishing the poor, and instead begin to invest in new forms of community support and safety.

We might also begin by identifying what wounds and what violence we ourselves carry in our own hearts.  Even St. Peter, the rock upon which Jesus built his field hospital, was once a violent protester, filled with anger and stubborn love for a friend. Upon Jesus’s arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword against Malchus, the servant and ad hoc “law enforcement” agent of the high priest Caiaphas. In response, Jesus does not condemn Peter’s violence but rather converts it: He asks Peter to put away his sword, to empty his hands of the self-consuming life of violence (Mt 26:52), in order to open them as Jesus’s hands are now open, holding Malchus’s wounded head and healing him (Lk 22:51).

We must never forget that violence is mimetic and the language of the wounded. Do not, therefore, condemn the wounded for lashing out in their woundedness. Instead, put away the sword that you too brandish in your own heart, and free your hands to tend to the wounds of others. Let compassion be your protest. And if, like Peter, you find compassion far from your heart, perhaps begin by cultivating wonder. As Gregory Boyle, S.J., founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, Calif., writes, “Here is what we seek: A compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” So far, we have witnessed our judgement; where is our awe? Where is the wound? And how will you help to heal it?

“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Gen 4:9)

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