The use of protest is an integral part of any democratic society. It has become instrumental in creating regime change. In the United States, many congregations are intimately engaged in social issues both at a local and national level. Faith communities may struggle with the use of the protest and the best ways to engage the broader community about issues of injustice, racism, and oppression. Protesting is primarily a group process with very little room for individual expression. In this blog, I’ll be thinking about alternatives to protesting. I hope you will share your thoughts and reflections in the comment section at the end of the blog.
I’ve supported and marched in protests over the years. My first protest march was as a kid growing up in Downers Grove, IL. The teacher’s union went on strike. My mother brought me to the march. I’m not sure how I ended up marching, but there I was holding a sign, walking with teachers, and asking for better wages. There have been other protests. Each of them was an opportunity to stand against injustice.
I think Disney’s Bug’s Life does a good job of illustrating the effectiveness of the protest. At the end of the movie, Flik (the main character who is an ant) realizes that there are more ants than tyrannical grasshoppers. Flik decides to stand up to Hopper, the head grasshoppers. Shortly after, the bugs overthrow the grasshoppers.
The New York Times recently ran an article about the Art of the Protest. The author highlights some of the core elements of protesting. It’s worth a read, and you can find it here.
Protest is a natural reaction to injustice. A few weeks ago Elizabeth Warren grilled the CEO of Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing. You can watch the exchange below.
Wells Fargo at the time was being investigated for opening fraudulent accounts without consumer’s knowledge. Something they have since apologized for and worked to amend. As the facts of the scam came to light, and as I watched the hearing, I found myself saying, “I need to protest.”
Protesting is an essential part of community organizing. It addresses systemic injustices by shifting the balance of power from governments and corporations to communities and organizations. Protesting is one way to solidify coalitions and advance a specific agenda. It has the potential of forcing governments and corporations to enter into dialogue or to give up altogether. People, though, have to be motivated to participate in a protest.
The Achilles heal of community organizing seems always to be the struggle to build durable coalitions that can exact long-term, solid change in society. At best, change is often incremental. It may have to do with who becomes responsible for change. If responsibility for change rests only with community organizers, then we may not see the kind of change we desire. Real change may only come when individuals take responsibility for their part of the problem.
For too long, everyday citizens have abducted their personal responsibility to political, corporate, or religious leaders. We often make assumptions that those who are elected and appointed as leaders will take responsibility for things we the people think are important. Apathy, towards the government, is not the result of failed leadership. Apathy is the result of a system where candidates make promises they can’t deliver, and the people continue to believe that candidates can make good on their promises. It’s a hopeless relationship. We elect persons who represent our collective inability to see what is.
As political leaders take on more responsibility and the general populous takes on less, our system of governance is prone to collapse because it eventually lacks the very thing it needs to survive: the people’s participation and voice. People are the economy of any society. When people are actively engaged (participating in the things they are interested in), societies do better.
Engaging people by engaging thinking.
A few weeks ago in Charlotte, North Carolina, there was yet another shooting of an unarmed black man. Judy Woodruff of the PBS News Hour interviewed Trevor Fuller of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners just days after the shooting. You can read the entire interview by clicking here.
In the interview, Fuller called for a continued process of engagement to make systematic changes in Charlotte. When asked by Woodruff how to make these systemic changes, Fuller responded:
“Well, the answer is first we have to regain calm. We have to regain security. Because my view is when emotions are high, intelligence is low. And so we’ve gotta get our community in a place of safety so that we can have these conversations that we need to have. Conversations about who shares in economic prosperity. Difficult conversations about race. But it’s very difficult to have those conversations when people do not feel safe. So we first have to establish safety, and then we not only have to have the dialogue but also have a plan of action and execute on it.”
Dr. Murray Bowen also connected the two systems of emotions and intellect. Bowen described it as the interplay between anxiety and thinking. When anxiety goes up, thinking goes down. When thinking goes up, anxiety and reactivity go down. When individuals engage their thinking, there is both an internal benefit with the downregulating of the fight, flight, or freeze response, and there is an external benefit with a lowering of the level of reactivity in the relationship system. Problems are solved, not through the intentional or unintentionally raising of anxiety but in thoughtful engagement. But this is not how most organizations are trying to create social change. They assume that only through social pressure can there be viable change. So if the goal is to raise us up to our better natures and best selves, then what makes for good, honest dialogue and negotiations? Is it social pressure or is it something else? Social pressure does lead to short-term solutions, but does it lead to long-term problem solving?
How does one represent their best thinking about an issue without participating in the reactivity that leads to automatic retaliation? How does one know when their focus is on the reactivity of others and not on the issues? It is possible to get lost in reacting to the behavior of others to the extent that protest is more about blaming and getting even than about solving problems? Dr. Bowen talked about the importance of process over content. If you don’t have traction on knowing your own level of reactivity and what gets it going, you are simply spinning your wheels.
I’m not suggesting that all protest is unnecessary or isn’t useful. There are plenty of examples where protesting leads to change. I am suggesting that when a protest takes away personal responsibility, only short term goals are achievable. Long-term, sustained change occurs when people take responsibility for the way they behave in relationship to their families, congregations, communities, institutions, corporations, and governments. As a society, we do a tremendous job telling people how to think and relate. But where are the opportunities to engage people’s thinking and provide space for them to develop guiding principles and core beliefs?
Congregations are uniquely poised to do this important work if they can move beyond their own automatic ways of functioning. Congregations are at their best when they encourage participants to present their thinking about an important issue without withdrawing from other people or attempting to debate, motivate, accuse, defend, or attack other’s position.
Congregations are well situated in communities to push for issues of mercy and justice:
- Most congregations provide a set of beliefs that uphold human rights and concern for the welfare of others.
- Most congregations consist of networks of members who are also connected with influential people in their communities. Sometimes the influential members of a community are members of a congregation.
- Most congregations are still respected as a beacon of morality and have a voice of influence with politicians and community leaders. People still listen to congregational leaders.
- Most congregations teach some version of personal responsibility.
Becoming a more responsible self.
Whether we can overcome our current situation, with all of its violence, hatred, injustice, oppression, and greed will depend not on our ability to collectively organize but on the ability of individuals to be responsible for self. What do I mean by being responsible for self?
Time and time again we have seen that politicians care about what their constituents tell them. Constituents keep them in office. The collective voice of individuals supersedes the collective voice of organizations and businesses. When individuals speak up against the lobbying of corporations and interest groups, politicians go with their constituents. Individual participation in the political process matters. The problem is not corruption. The problem is a lack of individual participation. Corruption results from disengagement of constituents. In oppressive, governmental systems, the same realities are at work, it’s just that more is at stake on both sides. Whatever the case, when individuals are engaged, things change.
So are you a responsible citizen?
- Do you contact your representatives (letters, emails, phone calls) regularly to share your voice on specific issues?
- Do you know what issues are important to your representative?
- Do you pay attention to what legislation is coming forward at local, county, state, and federal levels?
- Do you know the facts about your district? Who is in your district and what are the issues? How does your community compare to other similar communities? How are the weakest and most vulnerable in your community fairing? What challenges do they face?
- Who are the people in your district who are leading change? How are you supporting their best efforts?
My hunch is that a key indicator to how one answers these questions has to do with how one relates to their family of origin. I believe this could be easily researched. Bowen described it as differentiation of self. It’s about being a more responsible self when it comes to relating to the family. So, let’s turn the questions above about the government into questions about the family:
- Do you contact your family members regularly to share your thinking on specific issues?
- Do you know what issues are important to other family members?
- Do you pay attention to what other family members are trying to accomplish?
- Do you know the facts about your family? Where they live, their ages, how far they have gone in school, what they spend their time doing (working, raising children, retired), how their health is in general?
- Who are the leaders in the family? Who do you turn to when you need to connect with a good thinker?
Bowen would eventually connect the concepts of differentiation of self and the family emotional process with societal emotional process. There is a connection between the way one addresses problems in the congregation (and the broader society) and the way one addresses problems in the family. There is a connection in the level and kind of responsibility one takes in society, and the level and kind of responsibility one takes in the family.
Defeating oppression and injustice may necessitate civil protest. For there to be a long-term change, it cannot be done without differentiation of self. Our way forward is on the road of more thinking and a reduction of anxiety as we consider solutions to the larger social problems we face. Protesting will only get us so far. Until we learn ways of engagement that are more thoughtful and less reactive, our capacity to function at higher levels will always fall short. The place to begin is in one’s family, and working on being a more responsible self.