I’ve been thinking about prophets and protestors lately. Ever since reading Radical Reconciliation, I’ve been thinking about the role that followers of Jesus play in advocating for social justice. It’s Christmas. People are saying things about peace on earth and goodwill, and too often we equate peace with, “No one at the Christmas dinner table saying anything offensive, and Great Aunt Zoe refraining from ranting about politics for 30 minutes.” We think of peace as the avoidance of conflict.
It’s the prophets and protestors who have to make the status quo uncomfortable enough that we will act. They’re the ones who remind us that justice is the bedrock of peace, and we shouldn’t cry peace, peace when there is no peace.
I witnessed some of that today. BlackLivesMatter in Minneapolis/St.Paul protested at the Mall of America and the International Airport today to draw attention to the need for justice in our policing and criminal justice system. We were not actually in the protest. We were there for the protest, but the mall had shut off the entire wing near the protest by the time we arrived. My kick-butt sister-in-law and her three kids under the age of 5 were there, though. We caught up with them for a little bit outside the mall where the protest continued in the parking lot. The protestors then took the public transit system to the airport where they met up with others who were already there, and continued the protest. One reason why people came out to this protest was because they want the police to release the tapes of Jamal Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot by the police–but this is just one incident that illustrates the larger brokenness of our current criminal justice system. (Side note, if you’re confused about #BlackLivesMatter, and feel like it’s divisive and we should focus on “All lives matter” read this great explanation).
In their official statement, they say, “…On December 23rd, one of the busiest days of the holiday season, Black communities across the United States are taking brave actions to impede the flow of goods and commerce with peaceful protests to call for an immediate overhaul of the justice system both locally and nationally that will demand accountability for police, removal of grand juries in cases involving police shootings, an immediate halt to militarized police units and weapons, and extensive review of racialized police practices in Black neighborhoods”.
People chanting “No Justice, No Peace, Prosecute the Police”,”Black lives Matter” surrounded by swarms of mall security, police, and state troopers, shutting down access to major retail stores–this is not what people want at Christmas. We want fudge and iceskating and the ability to do our Christmas shopping and make our flights to be with our families on Christmas day. Heck, I want all those things.
And it gets really irritating when we can’t. Reading twitter after the event, it was clear to see there was a split between people who were just angry at the protestors, “I used to support what you guys stood for, but keeping my innocent son from making it home for Christmas is not okay!” to things like, “Just think of all the innocent black men who have been shot by police and won’t be home either, I don’t mind I missed my flight.”
The protestors statement read, “Black Xmas is here and there will be no business as usual until we get accountability for our dead, and justice for the living.”
There will be no business as usual.
That’s what prophets and protestors do– they highlight what’s going on but everyone is too blind (or too busy, or too caught up in the routine) to notice. The protestors aren’t ruining your life, they’re exposing what’s rotten in it so you can root it out.
As we were standing on the fringes, watching people getting escorted from the mall, it made me think about myself. I think black lives matter, I support the demands of the movement, but I was not willing to get arrested for it. Witnessing people who were willing was humbling and inspiring and convicting. It made me question my own commitment. It made me think of all the other civil rights activists in American history, and gave me even greater respect for their immense bravery. That’s what the prophets and protestors do, their actions disrupt us, their courage confronts us. Not to make it sound like the protest is only valuable because it’s all about me and my life. But that’s the way we work as humans, right? We only care about stuff that touches our immediate lives, and that’s why we need prophets and protestors coming up to touch and disrupt us.
One of my family’s Christmas traditions is watching the 1987 made-for-TV movie, “The Little Matchgirl.”
Kind of weird that my family’s best-loved and most-quoted Christmas movie is not anything with elves or Santa (although he does show up for the party at the end) but about a protest. The climax is a bunch of protestors from the poor side of town disrupting their rich landlord’s Christmas party (since he’s kicking them out on Christmas eve). Oh, and the protestors are led by his estranged son. It doesn’t seem so Christmassy at first.
But then, after the landlord admits his stubbornness and pride, reconciles with his son, and gives in to the protestors demands, the snooty Christmas party for the rich turns into a jazz party with the poor. Kind of like that story Jesus told about the wedding feast where the guests were welcomed in from back alleys and side roads, crippled and poor. That’s what Christmas is really about, after all. God reconciling with us so we can reconcile with others. The beginning of the upside-down kingdom where the first is last and the last is first.
A baby in a manger who wasn’t just a really good guy setting us a good example, but God himself come to live and die and rise again so as to put death to death and welcome us back into his family.
Sometimes, everything that’s wrong with the world is overwhelming. And the prophets and protestors just seem to be dragging us down into despair. “Really? We know our justice system is corrupt. We know black lives matter. But what can we do about it? Can’t you just be quiet for one second and let us have a break?”
But here’s the thing: If you find yourself feeling drained and despairing- don’t avoid the protestors and prophets: join them. Join them in the pursuit of hope as Christina Cleveland says. Because even if the shoppers were feeling sad and guilty and irritated, the mood among the protestors and prophets was one of hope. They were making their voices heard. They were not letting the powers that be ignore their perspective. They were speaking out. They were doing something.
Yesterday I read this from Thomas Merton, “This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the Cross. To wage war against despair unceasingly. That war is our wilderness. If we wage it courageously, we will find Christ at our side. If we cannot face it, we will never find Him.”
“How goes the world?”
“It goes not well.”
“But the Kingdom comes.”
“The Kingdom comes.”
The cry of the Rangers in Tales of the Kingdom