My decades as a Christian activist have taught me valuable lessons, many of which I’ve had to learn the hard way. I’ve boiled a handful of lessons down to 11 principles of protest, all of which are based on familiar biblical truths.
They’ve served me well at different levels of cultural engagement, so I offer them as a reminder of our true focus, the gracious God who has shown us what is good. I hope they can help us as we seek to do what the Lord requires of us — namely to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Mic 6:8). If there’s one thing I’ve learned, there will always be something in our immediate surroundings that will fall short of God’s plan for a just society.If there’s one thing I’ve learned, there will always be something in our immediate surroundings that will fall short of God’s plan for a just society.
1. Everything we do should hasten the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Hab 2:14). Therefore as we go —whether across the seas or across the tracks, whether to teach or to preach, whether to pray or to protest — we should be making disciples, those who are learning to obey all things that Christ commands (Matt 28:18-22).
I saw most fruit in the field when young Christian activists were committed to raising a God-consciousness — both in those we protest against, as well as in the protestors themselves. These efforts will be successful if, at the end of the protest, people on both sides of the controversy have a greater consciousness of the glory of God.
Protest without discipleship is non-transformative and empty.Protest without discipleship is non-transformative and empty. It may change the status quo, but if the problems of flawed human nature are not diminished through transformation, they will come back to bite us. Perhaps we are where we are today because hearts in my generation were merely legislated, not transformed.
2. Our transcendent reference point — the glory of God — is the basis of our wisdom (Prov 9:10). When the protest goals are secondary to discipleship, we will make more progress. To use an analogy, my love for my wife is second to my love for God; because my love for God is first, she gets much more love from me than if she were first. Without this unique contribution to the causes for which we protest, our voice merely becomes another addition to the cacophony.
The Christian activist is looking for the transformation of society, its systems, and individual hearts.The Christian activist is looking for the transformation of society, its systems, and individual hearts. This transformation will never be complete in this temporary reality. However, it can point to the complete transformation in the coming permanent reality — the kingdom of God. For us, there’s nothing more radical than kingdom transformation.
3. Jesus held the moral high ground. We should follow suit. He did not judge by what he saw with his eyes, or decide by what he heard with his ears; he judged “with righteousness” (Isa 11:3b-4a).
The Christian activist, if he or she is consistent, will take the time to ascertain and sort out the facts. The Christian may not be the first voice heard but will be the strongest voice heard — a prophetic voice.
We live in a universe created and ruled over by the infinite, personal Creator. The more we align with his moral principles, the more power we will have in addressing the wrongs against which we protest.
4. Justice for the oppressed must be pursued and visualized through the lens of righteousness. The more righteous the protest, the more powerful the protest. Righteousness is a relational term. It simply means doing right by the other party in the relationship. Two expressions of righteousness are piety — doing right by God — and justice — doing right by fellow human beings.
For the victims of injustice or oppression, justice has two basic applications: liberation from oppression, and empowerment to do the right thing. For the perpetrators of injustice and oppression, justice involves the swift and compassionate application of the legal consequences of their actions and omissions.
5. Ad-hominem attacks distract us from the real issues and lay the groundwork for our protest to be interpreted by others with counter intentions. They are aimed at destroying the person who holds views we oppose, rather than dismantling the views themselves.
We all want to be treated with dignity, compassion, and respect. In the heat of tense moments, we have to constantly remind ourselves, not only do our opponents bear God’s image but they are sinners in need of grace — just like us. By failing to act on this truth or by engaging in ad-hominem violence, we forfeit the moral high ground.
Be angry if you must. But focus that anger primarily on the grievance itself, not necessarily on the people behind the grievance.We all want to be treated with dignity, compassion, and respect….not only do our opponents bear God’s image but they are sinners in need of grace — just like us.
6. Let the grievance do the speaking for you. When we embellish the grievance with unnecessary provocation, it clouds the issue and is counterproductive. The cause of justice does not need the help of evils such as hatred and falsehood.
Manipulating the narratives might seem to give the protest a short-term advantage but it will ultimately undercut it, causing it to lose its power. As a protest loses moral power, the easier it is for the opponent to explain it away or dismiss it. The power is in the truth, not in deception.
So, speak the truth in love, demonstrate the truth in love, dramatize the truth in love, chant the truth in love, shout the truth in love. In other words, be forceful, but do it in love — a powerful weapon, indeed.
So, speak the truth in love, demonstrate the truth in love, dramatize the truth in love, chant the truth in love, shout the truth in love. In other words, be forceful, but do it in love — a powerful weapon, indeed.7. Let the Word of God do the heavy lifting. The Word of God can be spoken without giving a chapter and verse, yet it has the same power either way. The Word is still the Word whether it is quoted directly, paraphrased, dramatized, expressed in narratives, articulated in spoken word, rhymed in hip hop, or chanted in slogans.
We have yet to tap into the wisdom and power available to us in the Word. The Word of God is the power that created this universe (John 1:1-3). The same Word also sustains the universe (Heb 1:3). That being the case, it should not surprise us that the Word will “accomplish what [God] desires and achieve the purpose for which [God] sent it.” It will not return empty (Isa 55:11).
When the Word is rightly and creatively applied to the art of protest, its effect will be tangible.
8. Justice does not equal revenge. Many cite “eye for eye” and “tooth for tooth” (Deut 19:21) as a justification for revenge. On the contrary, this is a lex talionis — a law of limitation. In other words, no more than an eye for an eye, no more than a tooth for a tooth.
On the other hand, many cite Jesus’ words to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39) as a call to be passive objects of abuse. On the contrary, to turn the other cheek is a statement of non-vengeance. It is also a call to respond to an enemy in a way he least expects. Therefore, if your enemy expects you to be mean, then be kind.
The wise Christian activist helps his or her cobelligerents take a stand of “non-vengeance” — leaving the vengeance to God.
9. Tranquility does not equal peace. I have observed that many confuse these two. However, unjust tranquility is an unstable and volatile sham that needs to be disrupted and demolished. This is why we protest.
True peace is more than tranquility; it is a state of being that leads to God’s original plan for human flourishing.
10. When we define the points of agreement with our co-belligerents, we must make sure that our shared words have the same meaning. When that is impossible, we must make sure that we understand what they mean and they understand what we mean.
The more our co-belligerents understand how our words and concepts fit into our worldview, the more they will understand our transcendent perspective. This will contribute to our goal of discipleship.
On the other hand, for the protest to have its desired effect, we must learn the language of our opponents. Communication is key to protest. In our slogans, chants, rally cries, etc., it is wise to choose words that our opponents understand that will confront them with the truth — leaving them without the option of ignoring the issue at hand and the truth we communicate.Communication is key to protest.
11. Our involvement in protest must have a redemptive and transformative role. Since the role of the Christian activist is to speak prophetically to all sides in the controversy, we need to ask important questions. How is the controversy framed? Is the protest advocating a solution or is it fomenting unrest for other purposes?
Distinctions must be made when we invoke a rallying cry framed by unbiblical parameters. On the other hand, if a protest organization has a valid rally cry but is inconsistent in applying it, we must lovingly critique this inconsistency. If we fail to do so, we blunt the impact of the protest.
There is no guarantee that our opponents or our non-Christian co-belligerents will receive our transcendent message; that’s up to God. However, we will have fulfilled our prime directive, society will be better off, and God will be glorified.As a young activist, I had to learn the hard way that what counts is the net prophetic message — prophetic credits (resulting from the wise things we do) minus prophetic debits (resulting from the foolish things we do). The key for Christian activists is to be biblical by maximizing our prophetic credits and minimizing prophetic debits so that the net prophetic message is illumination.
In summary, implementing these principles will amplify the power of protest to change the unjust status quo and maximize the quality of the resulting change. There is no guarantee that our opponents or our non-Christian co-belligerents will receive our transcendent message; that’s up to God. However, we will have fulfilled our prime directive (the Great Commission), society will be better off, and God will be glorified.
I recognize that just like the great creeds and confessions were not first drafts, we can’t expect to get our theological formulations and practices perfect on first blush. We need to find our way together. This process will take time, sweat, love, and patience. If we continue to pursue this together, the entire church will benefit from a theology of protest we can apply to any and all issues.
This article was first published on Dr. Ellis’ blog, Prophets of Culture.