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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

Friday, May 3, 2024: A God Who Riots: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

Friday, May 3, 2024: A God Who Riots: “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”       

I have been closely following all of the protest and upheaval at college campuses across the United States in recent weeks related to the ongoing crisis in Gaza. On many campuses, student leaders (including many Jewish students) have organized “encampments” to bring attention to the widespread death and displacement of the Palestinian people and to highlight the role of the United States government in supporting Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. These encampments are often in public places in an effort to draw attention and disrupt the status quo. And some of these encampments have been met with counter-protests and other gatherings.


The shocking police response to these encampments and to the student activism - due to what they cite as “public safety concerns," concerns related to anti-semitism or other concerns - has brought comparisons to the civil unrest that we saw in the 1960’s with armed state and local police officers arresting protestors and breaking up the demonstrations.


These are clearly times of great turmoil and agitation - here and abroad. Whether it is the conflict in Gaza (let alone the conflicts in Haiti, Sudan, Congo, Ukraine and so many other places) ,reproductive rights, climate change, an increase in anti-Jewish hate, ongoing discrimination, land rights or a whole host of other concerns, there is much that is bringing people into the streets.

Many would claim that the status quo must be disrupted if we are to see any change. And many would argue about what exactly related to the status quo needs to change!


Historically the majority of Christians have not been at the forefront of social change movements and have been defenders of the status quo. Christians frequently have claimed that our faith should not be “political” and have advocated for a form of “neutrality” when it comes to social unrest, politics and conflict.


But as the great activist-historian Howard Zinn once said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”


In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples (in John 14) that “whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me,” and that the word we hear in Jesus is not just his but comes from God. John’s gospel tells us that the “word was made flesh,” and became an embodied force in our world. That embodied Jesus often placed his body right in the midst of situations and took a stand. He was not “neutral” when it came to injustice, hunger, homelessness, violence, discrimination, etc. He intervened and sought to disrupt the systems that supported harm.


We clearly saw this in his actions in the temple with the moneychangers.


In a recent book called The God Who Riots: Taking Back The Radical Jesus, author Damon Garcia speaks about the Jesus he encounters in the gospels. He says that Jesus’ demonstration in the temple - where he overturned tables and disrupted business-as-usual - gives us an experience of a “God who riots.”  He says that as we witness so many of the modern day “protests, strikes and other forms of direct action toward liberation…[we witness] the God who riots, continuing to empower people in the work of liberation.”


He says that “the process of transitioning to a new world begins with [people’s] dissatisfaction. Those without power are always the first ones to experience the constraints of the [current] condition of the world.” And “while it always is preferable to peacefully replace the conditions of the current world with a new one, this process is [almost] always met with conflict.”


Of course one of the reasons disruption of the status quo is hard is, well, because it disrupts the status quo and forces us to change our routines and rethink things we might not have to think about (things that have become patterned or normalized). And this can be upsetting, inconvenient and maybe even scary.


Sometimes we can also put our focus on the protests or protestors themselves and do less reflection back to the harm that they are trying to point out.  We debate their right to be in public spaces or critique the methods they use and ask why they can’t act within the law like everybody else. And yet some of the very laws that we wish for them to obey are the ones that protect the status quo!


Now I am not saying that everyone who riots, strikes or protests is doing the work of God or is involved in movements for liberation. Situations in this world are complex, and singular narratives do not capture multi-layered histories. Furthermore, our own sense of righteousness, ego or moral superiority can cloud our ability to understand and/or act with what the Buddhists call “right intention.”


And I am also not saying that the only legitimate form of faith expression is street protest. I know that much change can come from the many roles that people have in social change movements.


What I am saying, however, is that protest and disruption have a very long history and significant place in movements for justice and liberation and in our faith tradition. Our current historical moment reminds me a lot of Rochester’s very own Frederick Douglass who said in 1857 in Canandaigua, NY, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are [people] who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”


What do those words bring up in you as you read them? Do they bring comfort? Challenge? (What they bring up in us might actually depend on our proximity to power or social injustice...)


And people like Douglass - now frequently quoted and honored with streets, parks and celebrations - were often vilified and violently opposed during their lives (including his time here in Rochester). Our culture tends to like disrupters in the past tense!


Our embodied God - at least according to our scriptures - is one who takes sides against injustice, against oppression and against the culture of death  - and urges us to take a stand as well. This might include various forms of public action, protest, demonstration or acts of solidarity with those most impacted by harm.


If Douglass is correct in his analysis (and history seems to be on his side), systems of power and privilege will not likely self-correct. They will “concede nothing without a demand.” Those demanding justice in our world are many, and it is incumbent upon people of faith to try to keep hearing the cries of the marginalized and act in solidarity with those cries.


It is hard to know what the world will look like in 25 or 50 years, but it is very possible that some of the agitation we feel and witness right now will play a part in the development of the beloved community that our God desired.


Note: In my own life, I often go back to Martin Luther King’s framework (outlined in a 1957 article he wrote) for nonviolent resistance when I think about protest and demonstration. I recognize that not everyone will share these principles or value nonviolent resistance in the same way I might, but they are important to me. Nor do I expect that they must be done "perfectly". They provide me, however, with a framework for understanding how we might use public action toward a greater end. King, adopting Gandhian methods, suggested that nonviolent resistance:


Is “not physically aggressive toward [an] opponent,” yet are constantly seeking to pursue the opponent that they are mistaken in their use of power.

 “Does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win friendship and understanding instead…noncooperation and boycotts are not ends themselves; they are merely means to awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent,” and to ultimately create conditions for the beloved community to emerge.

“The [protest or direct action] is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces.” These methods aim to stay focused on the humanity of those who may be carrying out harm but aim to stop the harm at its source.

[Direct action tries to avoid] “not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit.” We must not let our campaigns turn into hate campaigns - this only intensifies violence in the world.

Mike Boucher

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