Recently a prominent member of my denomination was arrested, along with a dozen leaders from other denominations and religious groups, in an act of civil disobedience and protest over the debt ceiling debate. I always feel humbled when I read about such actions. I’m an ardent door-knocker, letter-writer, boycotter, Congress-caller, and money-giver, with an occasional march thrown in—but those marches have always had a permit and ended in time for me to feed my kids dinner. I am always wondering if what I do is enough—if it is faithful, courageous, authentic—and if it is effective.
The day of the arrest, my Facebook feed lit up with messages from clergy friends, buzzing about the arrest: “So proud to be Presbyterian.” “Awesome!” “We should all be getting arrested over this one.”
Later that day I was talking about the arrest to a friend of mine, someone sympathetic to the perspective of the protesters. The person thought a moment and said, “I agree with them, but that feels like a stunt to me. I can’t imagine that action affecting the outcome on this issue at all.”
Since then, I have been stuck pondering these two responses. I deeply respect the courage and conviction of people, some of them friends, who will put their bodies on the line as a public witness for what they believe. Civil disobedience has a long, vital history in our country and around the world. The Arab Spring is a recent shining example of people coming together in non-violent protest and setting powerful things in motion. And as I write this, protests are underway at the White House over the Keystone XL Pipeline project, with almost 400 people arrested so far as part of the so-called “Tar Sands Action.”
And yet I cannot dismiss my friend’s comment, because there’s a part of me that wonders if he’s right. Is it a stunt? Will it matter? Sure, tens of thousands of people in Tahrir Square are pretty hard to ignore. Such a mass demonstration cuts through the media noise and makes a powerful statement. But I’m not sure isolated pockets of civil disobedience do all that much. This past week, actress Margot Kidder was arrested as part of the Tar Sands Action. I admire her stance, but is the arrest of Lois Lane really going to move the ball forward?
In keeping with the Two Friars and a Fool “conversation over a couple of beers” ethos, let me play the role of the person who says, “Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. I don’t know.” Because I really don’t know. But I do know that it’s helpful to give the sacred cows a good once-over every now and then, and civil disobedience unto jail is a staple in some of the liberal circles I run in. My goal is not to impugn the motives of those who do it, nor to question their sincere desire to make a difference, but simply to ask: Is civil disobedience/protest/arrest still effective? Does it still have an impact?
I am a pragmatist at heart, and I want us to invest in tactics that work. And if these activities do have an impact, maybe we need to be training up a new generation of folks willing to engage in robust, large-scale civil disobedience. Let’s not do this in isolated pockets. Let’s not high-five folks on Facebook for doing something we’re not doing ourselves. Let’s get in the game and blow this thing open.
Here’s what I wonder as I consider civil disobedience in a 21st century cultural context:
The media landscape has changed. My Facebook feed was all abuzz with news of the protest, but I wondered how far the story traveled beyond the scope of folks already tuned in. A quick Google News search that day found a smattering of articles. This is a huge shift from the civil rights era, when pretty much everyone tuned in to the big three broadcast networks. Images of African Americans sitting at a lunch counter, or folks enduring the hateful blast of firehoses, were broadcast on those networks for all to see. The protests of the civil rights movement were a public witness writ large. Media outlets are more diversified now, with some news organizations wearing their own agendas on their sleeves. And these agendas may not coincide with our own. How do we get the word out? How do we manage the message? These are vital questions to consider in the age of Twitter and cable news.
Appeal to the “independents.” Take any given issue and you will have people in favor, people opposed, and folks in the middle who either haven’t considered it or aren’t sure what they think. These are the folks you need to persuade, especially if you’re trying to convince politicians to vote a certain way. They need to know that they have a broad base of support among their constituents if they’re going to stick their neck out. Does civil disobedience win you the additional support you need? How do independents view an arrest? As a principled stand that invites others to join the movement, or an isolated action by a few fringe players?
Symbols, substance, and celebrity culture. I’m a big fan of social media, but have to remind myself that ranting about an issue on Facebook is not the same as actually doing something about it. We now have myriad options for keeping ourselves busy and getting very little actually done, advocacy-wise. A friend of mine who has a long history of community organizing, and who has also been arrested a time or two, admits that he’s met a handful of folks who focus so much energy on the protests and the arrests that they do little else. Combine this with the narcissistic, look-at-me culture that’s often fertilized by reality TV and YouTube shenanigans, and it’s easy to see how the cynicism of our age can work against sincere expressions of protest. How do we show people we’re serious about what we’re advocating and not just seeking our own 15 minutes of notoriety?
A couple of caveats as I consider these questions and critiques:
First, while at the Wild Goose Festival in June my daughters and I heard David LaMotte tell the story of his arrest during a protest at the North Carolina legislature. David was humble about the experience, admitting that he had no illusions that what he did made a big difference—and yet it had a profound impact on his own faith journey and sense of commitment. I don’t discount the importance of that outcome—sometimes we act, not because our actions have efficacy, but because we simply can’t not act. And his testimony opened up a great conversation with my daughters afterward and standing up for what one believes.
And second, after my Presbyterian colleague’s arrest I did see something that gave me hope, and it wasn’t something I’d expected. A news story I read had a number of reader comments that were variations of the following: I never knew that Christians actually cared about the poor… I thought they were all about hating gay people… Kudos to these folks for putting their faith in action. That’s a public witness worth celebrating.