Protests, demonstrations, and solidarity encampments are currently center-stage on college campuses in the U.S. and worldwide. With an upcoming presidential election mirroring many of the concerns of the previous two elections, more are surely coming.

Christian faith communities have an uneven relationship with protest movements. Hesitation to respond to injustice in embodied ways is likely related to their uneven sense of what these movements mean. 

As a seminary professor, former pastor to a congregation with a long social justice history, and an erstwhile chaplain at Harvard and MIT, protests, demonstrations and other embodied acts of solidarity-toward-justice have been part of my life for the last decade.

Though, honestly, I have never heard of a protest movement that I immediately wanted to run toward. Usually, I would rather not. But being true to my sense of call as a minister and scholar of congregational and community care have drawn me into the fray of many protest movements. This has left a lasting mark on my sense of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. 

I have been upfront in protests, speaking from megaphones.
I have followed others into demonstrations, unnoticeable among the crowd.
I have engaged in low-profile acts of embodied solidarity that had greater risk attached than joining the mass movements in the streets.

But I am not a protest expert or a community organizer. I am a minister and professor who believes that protest, demonstrations and embodied acts of solidarity are not the only means of striving for justice, but they are sometimes useful ones.

Faith communities and those who lead them must consider how to invite your people to these movements when necessary. 

 Aside from a few good books on the subject, most of what I know I learned piecemeal:

From octogenarian church members who haven’t missed a protest in their adult lives and dragged their young pastor along for the ride.
From immigration justice organizers who asked me, as a white minister, to put my body where my mouth is.
Through teaching seminary students who can’t imagine any reason they would ever engage in protest or lead a congregation to do so.
And from teaching students who came to seminary because being in embodied solidarity with others facing injustices taught them something about following the way of Jesus.
By companioning college students with the fortitude to take direct action long before the “grownups” on campus did. 

One note: If you don’t believe a particular issue of injustice is important, what I have written may not be helpful. Whether it’s Gaza, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration or getting a stop sign placed at a dangerous intersection in your neighborhood, you won’t bother engaging in protest if you don’t hold deep concern about those most affected by the matter.

In that case, you need to begin with consciousness-raising, education and a deepening spiritual awareness of your interconnectedness with those whose lives are on the brink. But for those deeply concerned about an issue and unsure how to engage a community in more direct acts of embodied solidarity, this is for you. 

Moving People Along the Sympathy-Empathy-Solidarity Spectrum 

Our ability to act on a concern often gets stalled somewhere along a spectrum. On one end is sympathy for a person or group in a precarious situation. On the other end is taking actions to address that situation, if only in a limited way. 

Sympathy says, “I intellectually see what is happening and feel bad about your situation.” Having sympathy can feel like the work we need to do is complete, especially if it has taken us a while even to arrive there. But sympathy usually rests in the realm of compliance. It’s not a particularly good motivator for action toward justice for the well-being of our neighbor. It is a starting place, never a destination. 

Empathy says, “I can imagine my way in a limited fashion into your situation and am moved by compassion.” Empathy brings us closer to the lived situation of injustice or suffering. We can never fully feel it, but empathy gives us an imaginative window into what it might be like.

First-person stories, knowing people affected by the situation, long-form media reporting, and personal conversation can all increase our empathic imagination. But we need to embrace a posture of compassionate curiosity, not suspicious scrutiny, to enter another’s world empathically and pay deep attention to their lives.

It’s hard to put ourselves in the shoes of someone different from us, especially across geographical and cultural distances. Jane McGonigal says when cultivating empathy for those we read about in the news or see on TV or social media, “Don’t put yourself in their shoes, so to speak. Stay exactly who you are and exactly where you are. What you’re changing in your mental simulation are the facts about your own life.”

Imagine the facts of their life are the facts of your life. Their situation is your situation. Then, talk with others about what this is like and how empathic understanding is changing you. 

Solidarity says, “I see how our lives and deaths are bound up with one another and am moved by compassion to risk something to stand alongside you in striving for justice.” 

The practice of solidarity has a long history, one that some avoid. If the word “solidarity” feels too intimidating in its associations for the community you belong to, you can replace it with something else.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu introduced many to the African notion of umbuntu: “We are human only through relationship…made for this delicate network of interdependence.”

Margin Luther King Jr.’s metaphor that we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” might help us reach a deeper understanding of solidarity: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

Whatever word or phrase you use, solidarity is embodied, practiced, and asks us to risk something of our comfort, privilege or advantage for another (or others) whose life and wellbeing are imperiled. None of us can be in a place of solidarity all the time with everyone whose life is on the brink. We all move along this spectrum of sympathy, empathy, and solidarity as various concerns of injustice enter our awareness.

But when we are serious about contributing to changing the circumstances that adversely affect the lives of others, at least some of our commitments to justice must enter the realm of solidarity.

Invitations to Wade, Swim and Dive into Troubled Waters
A librarian once introduced me to the notion of creating ways for people to engage in community (or in libraries) through wading, swimming and diving. This is a helpful metaphor to consider as we invite others into embodied solidarity. 

Wading into embodied actions of solidarity is a low-risk, introductory venture into action. Marching in an LGBTQ+ pride parade is a low-risk entry point for a wader. While most pride celebrations feel more like a party and less like a protest these days, pride began as an uprising.

In many smaller towns and rural pride festivals, the solidarity expressed through participation can be even greater than in big cities where pride has corporate sponsorships. And with an increasing attack on the rights of LGBTQ+ (especially trans) people in legislatures across the country, don’t discount the importance of showing up at pride events. 

Lobby days at your state legislature is another way to wade in. This is when a justice or advocacy organization – LGBTQ+, immigration, mental health, environmental justice, disability – gathers people at the state capitol with speakers and chants. They may invite constituents to deliver letters to their legislators or have conversations in their offices, making their views known on pending legislation on a particular advocacy concern. (This represents a helpful intersection between mobilizing large crowds to make a statement and organizing toward targeted, strategic, and winnable action. Both are essential strategies that often coincide.) 

Wading into embodied actions of solidarity usually means the action is planned well in advance, advertised, and properly permitted. It is very low risk, but it is a very big initial step for some. 

Swimming involves slightly greater risk through actions that include less lead time, more nimbleness, and less certainty about how authorities view the action. When the Muslim travel ban was instituted by executive order in 2017, thousands across the country flooded airports in protest and solidarity with Muslim travelers stuck in limbo at the airports.

It was instantaneous. I got a few texts from organizer and clergy friends. I got on a bus to the airport and joined hundreds of others packed in the terminal. When the mayor of Boston and Sen. Elizabeth Warren arrived, it was clear this wasn’t a protest where I was risking much. But there was no time to deliberate on the action ahead of time. The need was pressing, and the time was now. 

When I was a pastor, I often got texts from immigration justice organizers in immediate need of a showing of people at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. During these times, an immigrant without documentation would come for a scheduled check-in and feared being taken into custody and deported.

If the arrest happened, there wasn’t much we could do about it. But we could ensure that the person wouldn’t be taken from their community without witnesses, and we could stand alongside their family with prayers and tears and songs and chants until their loved one came out safely to return home with them. 

Diving often means risking arrest. Not necessarily aiming for arrest – though there are those actions, too – but knowing that it is a possibility. Diving is happening all over the country right now with college students (and many faculty) demonstrating and setting up solidarity encampments on their campuses and being brutalized by the police in the process. 

But diving into troubled waters also happens when churches practice sanctuary with undocumented families, sheltering them from deportation to violent conditions, and discover they have a government informant in the pews. (Our Muslim neighbors are quite accustomed to being spied on by the government in their houses of worship.)

Diving happens when ministers get into a trench being dug for a dangerous fracked natural gas pipeline running through a neighborhood and chain themselves to the pipe—an action of civil disobedience that is planned, strategic, illegal and aims for arrest. 

Wading, swimming and diving is a spectrum we move along, too. We can’t dive all the time for every pressing concern. But we can dive for some, or support others in our community who are diving while we swim or wade nearby. If diving sounds too risky, and even swimming sounds like a big ask, find a way to start wading.

And if you are leading a community into greater direct-action engagement, find ways to issue invitations to multiple groups to gather around a pressing concern simultaneously – whether they are waders, swimmers, or divers – so that all can participate at the level of risk they are able.

We need the companionship of more experienced swimmers and divers to invite us further into the deep end of the troubled waters, to teach us the strokes and the diving techniques. After all, even Rosa Parks wasn’t just a tired woman on a bus who enacted spontaneous courage. She had been trained in implementing desegregation at the Highlander Folk School five months before she refused to give up her seat. 

Constructively Engaging Protests to Protest
There are several reasons I have observed that keep people from approaching the possibility of embodied solidarity. Here are a few that you might expect and possible paths into constructive engagement: 

Rejection of form as a tacit rejection of the cause
Sometimes, the rejection of the form protest or solidarity movements receive acts as a stand-in for a rejection of the concern or issue that the protest aims to address. “I don’t condone burning down city blocks, so I don’t believe in protest!”

It’s unlikely that anyone will ask the Good Samaritan Sunday School Class at Peace Community Church to march down the street and torch the local hardware store. So, create some space for imagination toward action: What spectrum of actions exists between doing nothing about this concern of justice and burning down the city block?

Where do you see yourself engaging in action within that spectrum? Then, what next step feels like a stretch that you might be willing to take? 

Inaccurate views of who protesters are and why they are taking action
“Protesters are just privileged people who have nothing better to do.” Some people engaging in protest and solidarity movements are privileged – by race, class, religion, nationality, ability, etc. But don’t we want people who embody forms of privilege to take stands for justice?

And there are times when people in targeted positions – related to race or immigration status, for example – may be at greater risk of engaging in certain protests. So, these require people embodying some privilege to step up even more. That is the nature of solidarity.

“Protesters are just frustrated people blowing off steam.” Injustice is frustrating. Embodying our solidarity with others in protest can be a helpful and healing way to hold our anger, fear and grief in community. Many protests are filled with songs, chants, prayers, impassioned speeches and body movement—all the things we know are helpful in times of communal distress (and things we often do in church, too). 

 “Protesters are just virtue signaling. They don’t really believe it.” Well, so what? If some are, that doesn’t mean the rest don’t care deeply about the cause of justice.

Besides, when it was more fashionable, church attendance was a form of virtue signaling and impression management for many in the pews. That didn’t stop those who were more serious about faith practice from showing up, either. And sometimes, people are converted along the way. 

The purpose and efficacy of protest are poorly understood
“I don’t see how protest really helps anyone” is a common refrain. From the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks to the Selma marches to boycotts and sit-ins, direct action was a cornerstone of the success of the Civil Rights Movement.

Colleges large and small divested from corporations supporting South African apartheid due to the pressure of student protest. South African movement leaders like Desmond Tutu credited students with transforming the moral climate of the U.S. on the matter.

Myriad other examples, from women’s suffrage parades to the ACT UP die-ins during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, lend credence to the efficacy of protest, demonstration and solidarity movements as an integral part of justice movements. (On the subject, Coretta Scott King’s Harvard class day address of 1968 is worthy of continued attention, as is her, by then, assassinated husband’s letter written from his prison cell after his Good Friday arrest in 1963.) 

Aside from the efficacy of protests – and, of course, not all are effective in producing the desired outcome – there is also their wider purpose to consider. While they may not always pressure the powers to change, movements that bring people together decrease our sense of isolation in facing injustices and violence.

Hannah Arendt proposed that loneliness was a crucial ingredient in the rise of totalitarianism. We can’t discount the importance of movements that bring people together across differences in strengthening the social muscles of mutual flourishing that individualism has atrophied.

There is no solitary solidarity, only solidarity in relationship with others.

“Protests are reactionary, and we need time to gather all the facts”
Sometimes, this is just a stall tactic so that the pressing moment of action can pass, and we can believe that we would have acted sooner if we had had greater clarity on the situation.

If this is an intractable posture for those in your community, then, while you are waiting, figure out what you will do to embody your concern in practice once you have all the facts you need. Once you’ve decided whether you should be engaged in a movement or not, there will likely still be important work to do. Figure out what will be needed and prepare how to engage the concern when you get there.

If we can’t at least engage in preparation and planning for possible action, we are likely using this reaction to protest as an excuse for inaction. 

“But Jesus wouldn’t protest!”
Many Christians are more comfortable with theology about Jesus than with Jesus. We often treat the crucifixion of Jesus as if it were a passion play to simply demonstrate a theological truth to us, downplaying the fact that it was a state execution.

The unreality of Jesus in our embodied life of faith is palpable when we stifle our movements of solidarity with those whose lives are on the brink. We do that because we somehow believe Jesus wouldn’t (or didn’t) engage in embodied acts of solidarity and very often ended up on the wrong side of the law because of it. 

Jesus told stories about protest’s efficacy (Luke 18:1-8). Jesus stands alongside one about to be executed and stares down her accusers (John 8:3-11). Even in the scenes leading up to his state execution, we fail to see Palm Sunday’s “triumphal entry” as peasant street theater, a mocking parody of the imperial procession also entering the city during that time (Mark 11:1-11).

Jesus literally got people into the streets to mock the Empire that would, very soon, execute him.

We tame and spiritualize Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers and vendors in the Temple while yelling verses from the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah (Mark 11:15-19). This act of protest even embodied the oft-anathematized property destruction of some modern protests. 

Even his inaugural sermon began with his identification with Isaiah’s vision: to bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Jesus followed that reading with a sermon that made his listeners so angry that they chased him out of town and tried to throw him over a cliff (Luke 4:16-30). 

If we can avoid simply spiritualizing these stories, mining them for their comfortable theology, we can more clearly see a Jesus who not only would engage in protest, demonstration, and embodied acts of solidarity, but did, and now invites us to wade, swim and dive into the troubled waters with him and all whose lives are on the brink.


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