Thoughts about protests

/ 26 April 2024

Campus protests are spreading across the country this week, given the intensity of the bombardment of Gaza and the relentless desire on the part of Netanyahu’s government to keep it up.

These images brought back so many memories to me of the protests against South African apartheid, against Reagan’s interventions in South America, and on and on that shaped my undergraduate years at Yale. The peace protests I was engaged in fundamentally altered my life, even if they had little impact on the global political scene.

So on the one hand I am deeply glad that these students are protesting, and I am awed by their courage given that the response has been so much more brutal than it was to us back in the mid 80’s. On the other hand, I am also dismayed by how little some of them — and it’s only a small number, but picked up by the media and amplified — I am dismayed by how some of them are resorting to explicitly anti-semitic tropes. This essay by the dean of the Berkeley law school really worried me.

I am deeply commmitted to nonviolence — have been, ever since those days at Yale — and I worry that far too many of these students have no sense of what that involves or how to engage in disciplined ways. I wish I could get them to read Kazu Haga’s book Healing Resistance, or watch his many YouTube videos.

More than anything I want to remind myself — and all of us — that there are painful ambiguities and complexities present in this world, and we do well when we remain humbly aware of them. I have given my life to “act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly” (Micah 6:8) with the Divine. That calls me to protest and for the very shape of that protest to be its own goal. That is, to stand for nonviolence means to me standing IN nonviolence while protesting violence.

Doing so can be very hard, particularly when the needs are so urgent and the violence so obscene. And yet… and yet… and yet those of us who believe in Divine Love that connects us all must also acknowledge that it is not our work alone.

I pray we can remember Ken Untener (he of beloved memory)’s words:

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.