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The Protester, the Dissident, and the Christian

The Protester, the Dissident, and the Christian

The protests and riots that have exploded in the United States and even globally since the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, have taken my mind back to 2011, a year in which Time magazine declared “The Protester” to be its person of the year. [2] Few years in recorded history before 2011 were so strongly characterized by a sense that something is terribly wrong with the whole world.

On the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Athens, Damascus, New York, Beijing, and London, the participants in the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street uprisings publicly encouraged each other across the globe. Around the world, people were angry over the perception that their friends, neighbours, and fellow citizens were being treated unjustly. The events sparking the protests were so diverse as to resist a unified description. It is hard to say whether any good results came from some of the efforts; revolutions often end poorly.

The editors of Time magazine could not know that their announcement would be upstaged four days later. One of the most admired revolutionaries of recent history died on December 18, 2011: Vaclav Havel, the prominent author and dissident who contributed significantly to the fall of communism in 1989 and subsequently became the first democratic president of the Czech Republic. Havel’s velvet revolution ended well, leading to decades of freedom and economic growth.[3]

I have used two distinct though overlapping terms here: protester and dissident. A dissident is a long-term opponent of an established religious or political institution. Dissidents may be either open or very reserved about expressing their opposition to the establishment. Protesters take part in a public demonstration in response to a particular event or policy. Many protesters seek only a specific policy change, not a fundamental change in a government or religion, so they are not dissidents. On the other hand, dissidents who express their desires in an underground manner are not generally considered protesters, since protests are public events.

I have long pondered, as far back as the race riots of 1968, how Jesus would relate to protests and revolutionary rhetoric. Wasn’t Jesus himself a dissident who engaged in years of conflict with the authorities of his time? Isn’t Palm Sunday a global celebration of the most famous protest ever, Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on a donkey to cleanse a corrupt temple? Was not Jesus’ unjust death the greatest unveiling of the depth of dishonesty and corruption to which religious and political authorities can fall?

Now that George Floyd’s death and others have provoked millions to engage in a new round of protests against racism and discrimination, I am again asking, “What would Jesus do?” However, we will not find a tweet-sized answer to this question.

The biblical message pushes us to be radicals, deeply dissatisfied with our societies as they currently exist. The biblical message is much more than a message of protest against the deep-seated evils of our world, but it should not be less. Similarly, although it should also be many more things, the Christian community should not be less than a community of dissidents, talking about what is wrong with our world and offering solutions. And we should especially be offering a message of reconciliation with God and with our neighbours to our fellow dissidents who do not yet believe in Christ.

In that spirit, I will propose some suggestions first to protesters and dissidents, and then to church members.

A. The Hidden Godward Assumptions of Dissidents and Protesters

Protests and dissident movements start with several convictions that might remain hidden, though a few may articulate them openly. I call these assumptions ‘Godward’ because, I contend, these convictions are God-given even among people who are atheists or uncertain about what they believe about God.

1. Though we are sometimes mistaken in our views, we know that there exists a standard of right and wrong that is above our feelings; on this basis we see that certain things are wrong.

When people argue, whether in private or on the streets, there is inevitably an appeal, perhaps implicit, to an ethical standard by which our actions may be judged. When people are of the same religion, they may refer to a religious text and say, ‘The Bible says’ or ‘the Koran says’. When people do not share a religion, the norm referenced may be less explicit; nevertheless, it is crucial. Normal people do not say, ‘There are no standards, so do what you want.’ When we engage in debate, we are implicitly claiming, ‘According to the standards which we all know, I am right and you are wrong’; we never say, ‘Let’s fight like animals.’[4] This unwritten standard has traditionally been called the natural moral law, sometimes more simply just natural law. Protest movements are screams for people to pay attention to this universal standard.

Within Christianity, the natural moral law is seen as a dimension of creation, part of how our minds have been fashioned in the image of the divine Mind, such that we can hardly avoid distinguishing between right and wrong. Globally, people make similar assumptions about general standards of right and wrong, even across diverse cultures.[5] Christian theology claims this natural moral law is a prominent theme in God’s ongoing general revelation, God’s speech which comes to humanity in multiple ways throughout his creation. The result is that most people know basic principles about right and wrong even if they cannot explain this knowledge. Protesters and dissidents depend on this knowledge.

2. There is something special about human beings; people have dignity that is worthy of respect, justice, and care.

Within Christian and Jewish teaching, this is called the image of God in humans. The term recalls the Genesis creation account: ‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27). We might call it the reflection of divine dignity in the other. Whether or not they are familiar with this religious teaching, morally healthy people recognize something about people that is different from other things. I often put my feet on my desk when I am writing (an old leg injury makes this more comfortable); it would be terribly wrong for me to put my feet on another human being, regardless of that person’s race, politics, or religion.

Human uniqueness is assumed by protesters, and this assumption merits frequent mention. This fact speaks to the dignity of the people whose fundamental rights have been robbed, but it also speaks to the dignity of the protester, as well as the dignity of the people addressed by a protest: public authorities and voters. The complex human communications in protests, then, take place among people with God-given dignity and a God-given sense of right and wrong.

3. There are many things in every society that are terribly wrong; these wrongs need to be criticized and changed. But we must be careful, because misguided efforts to achieve change can easily make things even more wrong.

Morally sensitive people come to the conclusion that things around them are horribly wrong because of the Godward assumptions discussed above. The universal moral standard and our awareness of God-given dignity provide the conditions that make morally serious protesting possible. However, not every attempt to criticize or change society leads to good results. Terrible mistakes with devasting results are easy to commit.

Before moving to the former Soviet Union in 1994, I read several books by Karl Marx. I saw the differences between Marx’s own teaching and the actual practice of communism. This allowed me a window into the disillusionment and despair that many people felt after communism failed.

Marx thought most people were miserable because of their alienation from themselves, their work, and their neighbours. In the broadest terms, he promised that a revolutionary change of economic relations and the end of economic classes would bring an end to alienation. Though revolutionaries claiming to follow Marx came into power in 1917 (in Russia) and again after World War II in 1945 to 1948 (across much of Eastern Europe), their revolutions did not fulfil that promise. Though some poverty was reduced and some people attained a low degree of economic security, these gains came at the cost of despotic control by paranoid secret police and the loss of the freedoms of speech and religion, with millions severely persecuted or killed. Everyone was afraid their friend or relative would report them to the police for something they said in private.

Not only did the treatment (communism) not fit the diagnosis (Marxist thought), the diagnosis included fatal mistakes. Long before the end of European communism in 1989, most people on both sides of the Iron Curtain knew that communism dramatically increased human alienation and suffering. Marx and the communists ignored what St. Augustine described as the “lust for domination” (libido dominandi)[6] or what Friedrich Nietzsche described as the “will to power” (der Wille zur Macht).[7]

Such philosophical mistakes inherent in Marxism and communism turned hope for a better future into suffering and despair, but the religious mistake was even more distorted. The proletariat, the working class, was described as something like a godlike saviour that would deliver society from the evils of the upper class or bourgeoisie, whereas belief in God was an opiate that prevented the proletariat from seizing control to create a new society. I come from a working-class family and know many wonderful people, but they do not have the godlike ability to create a fundamentally new society. This profound theological error led to catastrophe in the many countries that were controlled by communism. Theology matters.

Protesters, dissidents, and revolutionaries build on convictions which I have described as Godward: convictions about a standard of right and wrong, about human dignity, and about the religious desire to help people who are suffering indignity and injustice. So did Marx and the early communists! But massive mistakes about religion and philosophy led to human disaster. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that protesters and dissidents sometimes resist discussing these matters, perhaps because their anger at injustice is so hot.

In 2011, I gave a lecture about human rights for a group of Belarusian pro-democracy dissidents who were in exile from their homeland, out of reach from the authoritarian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko (another target of the 2020 round of protests). My understanding of human rights is organically tied to normal Christian beliefs about creation, the fall, and even the Incarnation, so I did not avoid those topics. I knew that some of the dissidents were Christians. But I felt tension in the room, even resistance, when I moved from the political level of hating totalitarianism to the level of discussing a universal moral law and the ultimate source of human dignity—God. People are sometimes frightened to connect political convictions with convictions about human nature and the nature of the universe, as I have just done. I soon perceived that for these dissidents, organized religion was linked with an oppressive government. That is a serious problem which merits our attention. Inauthentic religion easily gets everything wrong in relation to the state, as Jesus experienced at the end of his earthly life. 

B. The Christian Dissident’s Mind

What I have said thus far was intended for protesters and dissidents who have not yet clarified their relationship with the Christian message. Now I will address people who understand themselves as Christians with four themes that should prepare us to become more effective Christian dissidents and to engage in thoughtful Christian proclamation in the midst of our quests for justice.

1. The Christian can take the social criticism of the protester and go deeper, to articulate God’s criticism of sinful humanity. Injustices in society are the result of sin, including not recognizing God.

            The protester and the dissident start with the conviction that something in society is profoundly wrong. Those who read the Bible should notice the similarity to the Old Testament prophets, many of whom had highly conflicted relationships with society. Some 2,700 years ago, Amos proclaimed, ‘This is what the Lord says: “For three sins of Gaza, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath. Because she took captive whole communities and sold them to Edom”’ (Amos 1:6). Amos assumed that all normal people know that kidnapping and slave trading are atrocities, because people have a conscience informed by the universal moral law. What Amos pointedly added to his description, beyond what most protesters talk about, is the wrath of God. God is angry when people are mistreated.

On some occasions, the prophets criticized Israel and Judah based on the law of Moses. But on other occasions, such as in Amos 1, they spoke to the surrounding nations based on moral standards known to everyone, regardless of the religions the peoples followed. What I said above about an unwritten standard can be derived from Amos. This is where the proclamations of protesters and dissidents are frequently deficient; in spite of great moral courage, some lack the spiritual courage to recognize we are sinners before God. We all easily ignore the greatest injustice against Persons in the universe, that people ignore the dignity of God.

We Christians should borrow a page from other protesters and dissidents to become much more courageous about confronting injustices in our world. However, if we accept Amos as a role model, we need to add a much deeper level to our social criticism. Christian dissidents and protesters need to address the deepest level of the problem: sin, alienation from God, and even the wrath of God. If we do this, there will be no separation of our Christian proclamation from our concerns as social dissidents.

2. The Christian can take the hope proclaimed by the protester and dissident and go deeper to proclaim our ultimate political hope, a new heaven and a new earth.

People always look for a source of hope and courage that is based on a promise. Even when despair and disillusionment threaten, people can find hope for a better future, so long as they have at least a flimsy promise. The human heart can hardly resist trusting in promises. At the core of every protest and dissident movement is a promise of a better future, whether for us or for our children.

Social and political hope is both precious and fragile. Hope empowers people to work towards a better future, even if it will cost blood, sweat, and tears. Though I am deeply concerned about deceptive hope, I think hope can be a tool of God’s common grace to bring about a more prosperous, free, and just future. When some of my ancestors lived under conditions of terrible poverty, hope gave them the courage to bring about a better future.

Recognizing the depth of sin and foolishness should not destroy political hope. The real threat to hope comes from confusing secondary hope with ultimate hope. As Christians we should trust in God’s promise that he will give us a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21:1). At that time, ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (21:4). This is our ultimate hope in Christ. We believe it will come after the end of history, when, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, Jesus will come as the Judge of the living and the dead.

If people do not place their hope in God, they continually place their ultimate hope in the promises of a human saviour. Already in the time of Jesus, some of the Jews put too much hope in a political saviour who would free them from the hated Roman Empire. Some of the worst events in the twentieth century were caused by people putting ultimate hope in a secular saviour. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao are prime examples. Death and destruction follow when people trust the promises of a mere human as if he were a divine Messiah. 

We Christians should boldly say that no leader or ideology can bring heaven to earth, but that does not mean we simply accept the world as it is. Our ultimate hope, based in God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth, should give us hope for improvements in this age.

Only Jesus will wipe away every tear, but we can wipe away some tears. Only Jesus will bring the end of mourning and pain, but we can reduce mourning and pain. Jesus is the only ultimate Victor over injustice, but perhaps we can reduce human trafficking, racial discrimination, and religious persecution. And all our efforts to change things in this world should stand as a sign and symbol that Jesus will ultimately wipe away every tear and punish every injustice. We must protest injustice as a sign that Jesus will ultimately end all injustice. And while we protest and work for change, we must always say clearly that our limited efforts point to the real and eternal hope, that Jesus is the ultimate Saviour.

3. The Christian can describe the body of Christ as an alternate, dissident community that points to our eternal hope.

It is characteristic of dissident movements to form alternative communities with their own internal cultures. For example, the dissidents in communist Czechoslovakia had their own foundational document (Charter 77), their own small group meetings, their own underground literature, and even their own conflicts and differences of opinion. Consider the people who gathered in Hahrir Square in Cairo during the 2011 protests against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak: the estimated 50,000 people quickly developed their own internal culture, with norms, customs, and organization. Once people perceive their society to be fundamentally flawed, they very naturally form an alternate society, a counterculture.

Already in the first century, the basic Christian confession referenced Christians’ relation to their society.  Roman society said, ‘Caesar is Lord’; the Christians said, ‘Jesus is Lord.’ With these words they not only described their trust in Jesus; they also said they did not trust in the religious promise at the core of the Roman Empire, the religious ideology that shaped the society. The New Testament church became a counterculture.

The counterculture they formed, however, was not disconnected from their world; rather, a central task of the church is always to carry the word of God’s judgement and of God’s grace into society. Such a thoughtful interaction with one’s surrounding society includes recognizing what is good in a society. The early Christians recognized the goods brought by the Roman Empire, such as roads, law enforcement, and a common language, that helped people and families to flourish. They also saw these benefits of the Roman Empire as part of the God-given kairos, the appointed time for taking the gospel to the nations. Then and now, believing in Jesus makes us an alternative community with a mission.

In the Western world, we have a history of mistakes in this matter. I grew up in a Dutch community in the U.S. state of Michigan, where the church was frequently seen as providing the moral coherence for society. As a result, we sometimes lacked a clear sense of where we needed to be dissidents in relation to our society. This was part of the lingering heritage of ‘Christendom’, dating back to the time of Constantine. There were problems with this model of faith and society: confessing faith in Jesus was too much like promising to be a good citizen. The element of rejecting the false standards and false messiahs of the world was sometimes weak, though a strong sense that the world needed Jesus provided a corrective.

As soon as we describe the church as a dissident community, with its own standards and way of life, we encounter a recurring problem. Consider the words of Nietzsche, one of my favourite atheists: ‘If they want me to believe in their redeemer, they should look like redeemed people.’ For a long time, I thought Nietzsche was right. But we have this problem: as Christians, we want to look like something we are not. We want to pretend to already be fully redeemed, when in fact we are still in process. To be honest, we still find incidents of injustice, abuse, and betrayal occurring amongst us. We are in the process of being redeemed, but that process will not be complete until Jesus returns.

What makes us Christians a dissident people is our belief that Jesus is Lord, which means there is no other lord, saviour, or messiah. And we accept the message that Jesus is Lord with universal intent, meaning that Jesus is the Messiah whom everyone needs. We are carriers of this message of hope for all the world.

4. Like every dissident community, we want to make massive changes in our entire society while we also preach the gospel to all.

If the dissident starts with the conviction that something is fundamentally wrong in society, then the dissident community wants to bring about real changes. This is true of almost every dissident movement around the world. It is their defining quality. They desire to contribute to a better future.

This is also true for us as a Christian community. Our dissident agenda should be on two levels, a moral level and a spiritual level. For example, we long to dramatically reduce human trafficking, divorce, abortion, religious persecution, and racism; we also want people to know God through faith in Jesus. Throughout Christian history, Christians have often recognized this two-sided calling: to declare peace with God while also making significant contributions to society.

Whether our social contribution is to write treatises on the concept of human dignity, to adopt a child, or to start a local business, our two-sided agenda flows from the two-part revelation of God: his general revelation of a universal standard and of human dignity makes humane communities possible in this world, while his special revelation in the Bible proclaims redemption in Christ. As Christians, we want to make it possible for people to come to real faith in Jesus; as a dissident Christian community, we seek to produce positive changes in our societies. Our world needs a new generation who are both preachers and dissidents.

Our Assignment

In conclusion, I propose this ‘to do’ list for Christians and other dissidents:

  1. Recognize that our world is deeply flawed. This is the starting point for any dissident or protester.
  2. Accept your role as a dissident in relation to society.
  3. Consider that honest protests are only possible on the basis of what God is already doing, namely, giving us the universal moral law and human dignity.
  4. Develop courage to talk comfortably about our central Christian convictions as the foundation for being truly serious dissidents.
  5. Identify ways in which you can both protest against and contribute to your society.
  6. Confess that our churches have made serious mistakes about how to address the injustices of our world, compelling us to pursue improvements.                                                

May we have the courage to function as serious Christian protesters and dissidents, so that our lives may point back to the human dignity given in creation and point forward toward the final end of alienation and injustice, our ultimate hope.


[1]
This essay originated as a sermon at the International Church of Prague on January 1, 2012.

[2] Time magazine named “The Protester” as its 2011 Person of the Year on 14 December 2011. See Rick Stengel, ‘Person of the Year Introduction’, http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2101745_2102139,00.html.

[3] Havel’s state funeral was held on December 23, 2011, at Saint Vitus Cathedral in Prague, Czech Republic, after three days of official public mourning.

[4] This analysis of moral discourse is heavily dependent on C. S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity (London and Glasgow: Collins, 1952), 15–26. For an assessment of Lewis on this topic, see Thomas K. Johnson, Natural Law Ethics: An Evangelical Proposal (Bonn: VKW, 2005), 85–105, available at https://www.academia.edu/36884239/Natural_Law_Ethics_An_Evangelical_Proposal.

[5] For a mid-twentieth-century study of this topic, see C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1943), appendix: ‘Illustrations of the Tao’. For a late-twentieth-century effort, see the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic (Chicago: Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1993); https://www.global-ethic.org/declaration-toward-a-global-ethic/. For a more recent, official Roman Catholic discussion of this theme, see In Search of a Global Ethic: A New Look at the Natural Law (International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 2009 in French and Italian, 2013 in English); http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20090520_legge-naturale_en.html.

[6] Augustine’s phrase appears in the preface to book 1 of The City of God.

[7] Nietzsche used this phrase in various essays. For example, in Beyond Good and Evil, paragraph 13, he wrote, ‘Life itself is will to power.’


Dr. Thomas K. Johnson is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in America and individual member of the World Reformed Fellowship.  He serves as Senior Adviser to the Theological Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.



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