The brave citizens of Hong Kong have reminded us this week that sometimes you have to put your body on the line, not just your email address. They have been left with no other option, as their Chinese overlords attempt to fool them with fake democracy. Many Christians have been involved on the frontlines. My question is: would we be there?
As spoilt Western consumers, are we being slowly enculturated into a tacit acceptance of the status quo? Has our protesting to some extent been sanitised by the internet? No longer the costly, awkward effort of camping out or walking police-lined streets, but the simple click of a mouse rendering us guilt-free. Our virtual protest is now often mediated via web portals of the very stock-market-floated corporations – paying little tax and increasingly led by their advertisers or shareholders, rather than wider public interest – who we may want to be protesting against. From the work of www.christiansontheleft.org.uk with MPs, we see at first hand that impersonal mass emailing can be counter-productive.
The point of a protest is to cause a stir. It’s to wake the apathetic or the arrogantly powerful from their slumber. It’s to declare that those who have been taken for granted will no longer go willingly. Does the Scottish referendum show that we are waking from our lives of convenient protest? “Yes, I do strongly believe in that cause, but would I be back from the march in time for Doctor Who?”
There was plenty of protesting in the bible – Jochabed, Esther, Daniel and Paul, to quote just a few examples. Not to mention the early Christians whose refusal to bow to the emperor’s image was civil disobedience par excellence. It should come naturally to a Christian, bearing in mind the word protest comes from ‘testari’ in Latin meaning to testify. Yes, we are to be “subject to the governing authorities”, but our primary allegiance is to another kingdom.
It’s not like we are short of protest fodder. You’ll have heard about the ‘1 per cent’. But let’s go further. When for example the richest 0.1 per cent of Americans hold the wealth of 23.5 per cent of the nation, somebody somewhere should be getting angry. Those figures are even worse than previously thought as originally they didn’t include money hidden in tax havens. That’s one person in a room full of 1,000 people having the wealth of 235 of the people in the room! That should cause a (peaceful) riot in that room. But most of the other 999 seem to be happy enough to let this state of affairs continue, as long as they are kept entertained by multi-channel TV and celebrity nonsense.
The UK figures aren’t a lot better. The top 1 per cent have accumulated as much as the poorest 55 per cent. Money isn’t everything, and I’m not looking for a utopian flat earth of distribution, but it does not take an economist to work out that this staggering level of inequality brings huge injustices in terms of opportunity and wellbeing.
What we forget in the UK is that so many of the freedoms we now take for granted – like votes for all, votes for women, some level of racial equality – would not be here if our predecessors had not protested for them. Sometimes the only way to stop injustice is to literally stop it happening. Hong Kong is a good example. Sometimes those involved pay a price – I don’t think anyone actually enjoys being handcuffed to gates – but they often get the issue much further up the public agenda, while we armchair activists nod our support from behind a warm, fairly traded latte and a copy of The Observer.
What at one point seems like a fringe preoccupation can become accepted wisdom over time. For example, for years our members have been campaigning on a financial transaction tax and the separation of retail and casino banking. But don’t expect the status quo to like the fact that you are protesting. There are powerful vested interests for who our present system of politics, commerce, and media works very nicely, thank you.
I’m a big fan of the creative protesting that www.speak.org.uk have done over the last few years. I remember lying down in a ‘trench’ outside DESO – the Department of Export Services Organisation –(which promoted arms exports with taxpayers’ money), praying and offering flowers. They closed down a little later.
I think there are some key distinctives that should mark ‘kingdom’ protest:
- It should be prayerful – we must remember that the people we are communicating with/complaining to only hold delegated authority from on high. There are bigger levers to be pulled.
- It should be peaceful – it is right to be angry at the injustices in the world, but we are also called to be peacemakers. Channelling righteous anger productively and creatively is a useful spiritual discipline for all of us.
- It should be as broad-based as possible. As believers we can find common cause on many issues with those who aren’t believers yet.
- It should be part of a wider strategy to influence power brokers or achieve positions of influence. Meetings, letters, and conversations building relational bridges as well as just ‘shouting from the outside’.
- It should be targeted, rather than nebulous. Hopefully on an issue rather than a person. Solutions should be offered as well as complaints.
See you on the street.