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Christian Protest

April 28, 2019

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Acts 5.27-32, John 20.19-end at Eucharist on Sunday 28th April 2019, Second of Easter.

Protesting is the new queuing. And quite a reversal it is, too.

Queueing used to be the epitome of British politeness. People would wait patiently in queues and if anyone had the temerity to jump a queue, then nothing was said aloud of course, as that would have been rude, but open glances were exchanged among the queuers that said, Bad Show! What a rum chap that was!

But protesting is replacing queuing as an emblem of our national psyche. We have become quicker to complain, quicker to voice our frustration and less than reticent about picking up a placard and taking to the streets in anger. It may not be too long before we catch up the French!

The largely home-made placards I saw last Bank Holiday Monday on Winchester’s climate change rally still held a hint of British politeness. One said, ‘Pull your finger out, Mr Brine’, but there we all were marching, or straggling along, from the Discovery Centre via the Buttercross to the Guildhall, the heart of local decision-making.

This wasn’t a political march, and not all political parties were represented on it. I was offered a piece of yellow cloth to pin on my jacket by a friend from WinACC, with a picture of a bee on it and underneath the words ‘Beyond Politics’. My wife chose one saying, ‘Conscientious Protector’. There was a playful element, as well as a serious call to action.

Other Christians were there, including one of our sidesmen, a Radio 4 Thought for the Day contributor, and a lady from the Baptist church; but the most prominent group was children. The brief speeches given at the Buttercross and Guildhall were given mainly by them, sometimes young children, all echoing the scientists’ warning that urgent action was needed in the next 11 years to avert irreparable climate change.

Our national culture is changing. We are undoubtedly disillusioned with the political process and with the body now being called ‘the Westminster Parliament’, as if it was by nature only able to represent a small and elite minority.

But if we have become more prone to taking matters into our own hands, then Christians need to understand more about protest, and especially how to do it well, in a way that contributes to justice.

The Easter message, Christ is risen, is, in one respect, a protest slogan. It is God’s protest against everything that makes for death.

God protesting against injustice is nothing new. Prophets such as Isaiah, Micah and Hosea summoned the nation’s leaders back to justice and warned them of the terrible consequences of their evil ways, which risked imminent exile and defeat. For example, Micah proclaimed:

Listen, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Should you not know justice?—
you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin off my people,
and the flesh off their bones;
who eat the flesh of my people,
flay their skin off them,
break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a cauldron.

Then they will cry to the Lord,
but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
because they have acted wickedly.

The resurrection, then, isn’t God’s first protest against injustice, but it certainly is the protest that changes the rules of the game.

You see, God found, as we do, that denouncing evil, doesn’t always help change things for the better. It often alienates those who are criticised and leaves them hating those who dare to expose their moral deficiencies and failures.

You have to admire the priest who officiated at the funeral of Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old journalist killed in the recent violence in Northern Ireland. He took a risk. At Lyra’s funeral he asked the assembled politicians why it took her death to provoke talks about resuming power-sharing. The congregation gave him a standing ovation, while the politicians sat stony-faced, looking uncomfortable. Fortunately, those leaders have had the grace to accept their failings and have begun to talk to each other, perhaps because the priest wisely did not attempt to apportion blame.

The resurrection isn’t about God telling us what is wrong with the world; it is about him taking extreme measures to set things right. He had a mission to make a definitive difference.

The dispute in our first reading between St Peter and the apostles and the High Priest of Jerusalem underlines this step-change. The old order saw Jesus hung on a tree, and understood by it that Jesus had been cursed by God. Nothing had changed: Jesus had brought a small upset, but no lasting difference. But in fact Jesus had not been accursed on the cross, rather he’d been vindicated by God, by God raising him from death. Everything had changed. Obedience to God now meant living in the new order, as revealed in the resurrection of Jesus.

The resurrection gives Christians two placards which should characterise our protesting, one says ‘sacrifice’ and the other ‘hope’. The rise of populism across Europe is something that should worry us; populism seems bound up with notions of purity. Outsiders and minorities become a threat to the soul of the nation and homogeneity is promoted as the way to prosperity and peace. Purity is fine if you are among the pure, but Christians always need to work by the standard of Christ.

Christ never did anything out of self-interest. His interest was in the will of his Father and in the plight of a disparate group seeking forgiveness, healing, enlightenment and deliverance. He died and rose for those outside the circles of purity and power, to take their cause back to the Father.

That is why protesting for climate justice seems valid, because it’s not of immediate benefit to me and people like me. Actually, it’s a judgement on my lifestyle and a restriction of my choices, but it’s a way of bringing deliverance to many.

However, this placard of self-sacrifice only makes sense when held close to the other placard I mentioned, the placard of hope. Without hope, sacrifice is a vain and useless gesture. Even Jesus made his sacrifice only because he believed God would honour it. Remember Jesus’ repeated prophecy in Mark’s Gospel that he, the Son of Man, must suffer, be rejected and killed, but then after three days rise again.

Christian protest is therefore never simply motivated by anger or fear, but by the hope that God has already triumphed over death and sin. That makes a world of difference. A new age of peace and justice is breaking in, which can never be destroyed by human violence or folly.

That’s what Thomas wanted to know, beyond reasonable doubt. Nails had been driven into the hands of Jesus and a spear into his side. The worst had been done to him. He had been crucified and buried. The issue for Thomas was whether this was the absolutely final chapter of the story of God – a tragedy ending in betrayal, despair and grief – or whether hope remained.

Thomas found that living hope as he felt with his own fingers the risen flesh of Jesus around those wounds. And this is still Christian hope: we do not deny the deep wounds that can be caused by climate change, or terrorists, or masked gunmen. We lament all these horrors. But when we protest it is in the hope that the final word will always belong to God, that his flesh can, as it were, suffer all this pointless and brutal violence and yet still be raised triumphant.

The resurrection is God’s protest against injustice, but it is also the pledge that Justice now stands with us and will never die again.