Protest and Civility

Over the summer, Dale and I attended the Families Belong Together rally and march in Harrisburg. We joined more than 300 people protesting the immigration and family detention policies of the U. S. government. We left early because of the extreme heat, but we’re glad we made the effort to attend. It felt like the right thing to do at that particular moment in the United States.

I don’t often engage in public acts of protest. Even though I opposed the Vietnam War, I never marched or protested against it publicly. I have participated in a few relatively minor protests. Of course, there was my toddler protest when I refused to speak to my father for months, probably because I blamed him for moving us away from a beloved nanny. In college, a friend and I met with the college president to protest the non-contract-renewal of a favorite professor. In the early 1980s, Dale and I expressed our opposition to war by refusing to pay the military portion of our income taxes. Last year, we went to our local U. S. Representative’s town hall (might have been the last in-person one he held), in part to protest his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act. This past March, we went to the local March for Our Lives rally against gun violence. And I have written (and published) thousands of words over the past 40+ years, some of which could be considered a form of protest.

In general, however, big public displays of protest are just not me. It is not natural for me to chant slogans, shout down or boo people, interfere with someone’s dinner in a restaurant, or engage in bullying behavior toward people with whom I disagree. Some of my queasiness with protest, I’ll admit, is related to my dislike of conflict and confrontation, but I also don’t think it’s right to be rude and nasty – even when I believe the causes behind the protest are just and right.

My dilemma is this: how to protest and resist policies and practices I abhor while remaining true to my values. Or as I put it in a piece I wrote last fall, how to “speak truth with words that give grace.”

I am really bothered by the incivility of our national discourse these days. It starts at the top – with a president who name-calls, tosses out petty insults through his Twitter feed and in his campaign-style rallies, and encourages his supporters to treat others the same way – and extends to ordinary individuals, including people all along the political spectrum (conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats). Many people seem to feel like they’ve been given permission to say out loud in public whatever they think, regardless of how petty and mean it is. I cringe when people I like and respect in regular life share memes and stories on social media that are often not only blatantly false (and could be easily fact-checked) but also demeaning and nasty. I want to tell them, “Just stop it. Think before you post. This is not helpful, it’s cruel, it hurts your credibility (especially as a Christian), and I don’t think it’s really who you are.”

On the other hand, I believe it’s important to speak forthrightly, name evil and wrongdoing when we see it, even when it makes people uncomfortable. I want to take a stand for justice, especially for those who are the most vulnerable or marginalized. I understand the arguments in favor of a certain amount of incivility, and I realize that desperate times might call for desperate measures even if they don’t always fit my definition of niceness and civility.

So what are some ways to protest that better fit my personality and my values?

  • Write letters, make phone calls, and send emails to public officials. Be a pest and be direct and passionate, but don’t make personal attacks.
  • Take a stand on social media, but again, no name-calling or personal attacks. Admittedly, I’ve been pretty silent lately, mostly because I am concerned that I can’t say what I believe without inflaming someone I might hope to influence or persuade.
  • Engage in nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience (our tax resistance was an example). Refuse to participate in a system that oppresses or does whatever you think is wrong. Get in the way and gum up the works – but be civil in the process. Explain what you’re doing and why. Be willing to accept the consequences of your behavior, if you’ve broken the law. Civil disobedience not only has a long history in American politics, but it is also biblical: Daniel in the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach, and Obednego in the fiery furnace; Jesus picking grain and healing on the Sabbath; Peter and John declaring they would obey God rather than human laws.
  • Take positive action: prayer, volunteer work that helps those affected by the injustices, getting involved in political campaigns and voting and encouraging others to vote to elect candidates who will change unjust laws.
  • Sift through the noise to get the facts and commit to not knowingly spreading false information (and apologize when you do it by mistake).

I know I don’t engage in all of these forms of protest as regularly as I should, but whenever I do, I want to be as truthful and civil as possible.

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Real Patriotism

The recent decision of NFL owners to require football players to stand while the national anthem is played before football games got me, along with many others, thinking again about the meaning of patriotism.

As I wrote before (God bless the whole world, no exceptions), I come to this issue as someone born in Zimbabwe to an American mother and a Canadian father (who much later became an American citizen). So I am predisposed by birth and my early years not to pledge blind loyalty to any one country, even the one in which I have now lived for more than 56 of my 70 years. In addition, as a Christian, I believe that we are citizens first of all of God’s kingdom before we are citizens of any particular country. Citizenship in God’s kingdom and its values demand my primary loyalty.

Therefore, pledging allegiance to the flag is difficult for me. I do have patriotic feelings toward the United States, such as love of country and gratitude for the kind of life I and my family enjoy, and those feelings are often stirred when the national anthem is sung or played. But I’m always a bit uncomfortable with its glorification of war (“the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”).

Despite my general discomfort with the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, however, embedded in both of them are important values. The pledge ends with a commitment to “liberty and justice for all,” and the national anthem ends, “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Liberty/freedom, justice, bravery. These are important ideals, fundamental to what the United States is supposed to be. Which is why it is incomprehensible to me that some would banish to the locker room or otherwise condemn those who respectfully and silently protest the reality that these ideals are not equally available to all in this country and that many people are routinely denied basic justice. Standing with your hand over your heart while the anthem is played/sung and the flag is raised does not necessarily mean that the rest of your life is being lived in ways that advance freedom and justice.

In fact, it seems to me that the very person who lashes out at NFL players who protest, suggesting they should be fired or leave the country, is doing the exact opposite. He threatens basic tenets of democracy (like free speech and the free press), engages in overt and dog-whistle racist speech, assaults the basic rule of law that brings justice, allows cruelty toward children and their parents with his anti-immigrant threats,** and his administration adopts policies and loosens regulations that will make it less likely for everyone to be treated justly and fairly.

There are many ways to be patriotic. Pledging allegiance to the flag and standing for the national anthem, even though I understand how they are important symbols, are insignificant in the great scheme of things. Real patriotism ought to include nonviolent protest and resistance when one’s country is not living up to its highest values and best self, acting in ways that promote rather than restrict liberty and justice for all, and living one’s own life in keeping with those values.

**In the interest of fairness, I note that during the Obama administration’s attempt to crack down on illegal immigration, children and families (many of whom were seeking asylum) were also often held for months in detention camps under inhumane conditions. This was not right then and it’s not right now.