Why So Many American Christians Don’t Understand Protest

When I was in my last year of divinity school at Duke University, I stood in an auditorium listening to Patrisse Cullors, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the end of her talk she exhorted us to repeat the famous words of Assata Shakur:

It is our duty to fight for our freedom
It is our duty to win
We must love each other and support each other
We have nothing to lose but our chains

I remember speaking the words loudly despite the lump in my throat. I felt something stir within me. It felt significant that I was saying these words on a campus consistently plagued with injustice in a world much the same. It felt…prophetic.

Fast forward to the Colin Kaepernick controversy. The sentiment of so many people I knew was that these protests—against black death, for black life, for justice and freedom for all people—were disrespectful, disruptive. They shouldn’t inconvenience others by blocking interstates, interrupting games. Yet in Luke 4, Jesus stood in the synagogue, echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah that the oppressed shall be free, and proceeded to be disruptive.

In response to the media attention Kaepernick’s actions garnered, Franklin Graham stood behind Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and his comments about Kaepernick’s protest. While Swinney stated he believes in Kaepernick’s right to protest, he also told us what kind of protest is acceptable.

I think everybody has the right to express himself in that regard. But I don’t think it’s good to be a distraction to your team. I don’t think it’s good to use the team as a platform. I totally disagree with that. Not his protest. But I just think there’s a right way to do things. I don’t think two wrongs make a right. Never have, never will. I think it just creates more divisiveness, more division.

For Swinney, the right way to do things is in a manner that doesn’t feel divisive, such as a team press conference with the team’s logo in the background, which apparently doesn’t use the team as a platform. He appeals to Martin Luther King as an example of a peaceful Christian leader, perhaps forgetting that King’s actions often divided black and white Christians, and resulted in his assassination before the age of 40—for disrupting the status quo.

Franklin Graham points to a spiritual response as the best course of action. He lifts up a group of law enforcement officials who “take a knee” in prayer before heading into the streets of Charlotte, filled with protesters following the death of Keith Lamont Scott.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about sports figures taking a knee in protest. I’m encouraged to see people taking a knee, not in protest, but in prayer. These NC State Troopers are kneeling in prayer before going in to do their jobs in the riots and demonstrations in Charlotte. Prayer does make a difference. God’s Word tells us, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18). I’m thankful for the men and women trying to bring order and an end to the violence and unrest.

Graham had much to say about the Charlotte protesters and the violence reported, but he didn’t seem to prioritize the violence the protesters were responding to. Graham and Swinney’s responses are representative of the sentiment I encountered from many in my Christian community. The appeals weren’t against protest necessarily, but, like Swinney said, against a kind of protest that disturbs the order of things. I’ve even seen white Christian friends who, in other contexts, speak against injustice fall back when the work becomes too disruptive—to their paychecks, to family harmony, to social relationships.

Protest at its core is disruptive. As a Christian, my faith tells me that God understood this and disrupted the world in a human body. Filled with the Spirit, Jesus declared, “You have nothing to lose but your chains!” He walked the earth, protesting the powers of death and darkness, disrupting systems as he healed the sick, embraced the poor, and ultimately claimed victory over death and the grave.

It’s hard for me to comprehend how so many fellow Christians misunderstand the purpose behind protest. The forms differ, but the intention is always to interrupt business as usual. Their complaint is that there are less intrusive ways to send a message, but intrusion is the point. Intrusion is acknowledging the need and urgency to disrupt an unjust and oppressive world, especially when the light of the world—the one Christians worship—did just that.

At this very moment thousands of Native Americans and allies stand together to protect the water, the land, and the human lives endangered by an oil pipeline. Their peaceful protests have been subjected to continuous violence by law enforcement. While many Christians vilify protests enacted by the bodies of brown people who inconvenience and disrupt their lives, these same Christians are recipients of a message of good news that disrupted an ancient empire, resulting in the death of a brown savior at the hands of the state—a protest that, we believe, culminated not in death, but in the resurrection of God.

The heart of the Christian faith is the ultimate act of protest. The person and work of Jesus Christ was characterized by a Spirit-filled life, constantly breaching boundaries, transgressing spaces, sanctifying them in his wake. His life overcame the grave to disrupt the death-dealing systems of the world by refusing to bow to them, instead creating a new holy space where the oppressed go free.

What better moment to consider our place as faithful Christians than during this season of Advent? In a time when American Christianity has perhaps sold its soul for 30 pieces of silver, taking refuge in the security of a violent empire, we would do well to remember that our good news first came as an act of divine protest in the body of a poor, brown baby born in a barn.