Protest and Witness

Is disciplined nonviolent action still possible?

A feisty fellow I knew liked to ask Protestants just what they were protesting. A wise Protestant might answer in terms of a positive protestation, for example, the rule of sola scriptura. A bellicose Protestant, in contrast, might reply “No popery!” Note well: the word “protest” can have either a positive or negative connotation; it can also serve as a noun or a verb.

Alasdair MacIntyre, a Marxist turned Thomist, after a bit of etymology, points out that protest has become largely negative and decidedly shrill. Such protest, he argues, usually comes into play when incommensurable values are in conflict, for example, rights contending with utility. As a result, he tells us, protest largely abandons argument, and both protesters and counter-protesters wind up talking to themselves.

In a recent exchange, my friend Karl Meyer, an octogenarian sage in some radical circles, puts his focus on results. The “effectiveness of mass demonstrations,” he writes, “does not depend on disciplined nonviolent methods.” Well, MacIntyre agrees, but with a critical qualifier: “This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective.”

Truth be told, I disagree with both Meyer and MacIntyre. I do so for the following reasons which I leave you, gentle reader, to evaluate.

Contra Meyer, undisciplined mass demonstrations lose sight of their goals, slide into violence, and undercut their supposedly progressive results. Consider our present round of protests: There is nothing progressive about “freeing” Gaza to languish under the tyranny of Hamas. Nor, of course, does funding Israel’s indiscriminate bombing put an end to bloodletting.

Contra MacIntyre, disciplined nonviolent demonstrations can be rationally effective. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed just how such demonstrations could bring a change of mind and a change of heart to millions of Americans. The victories of his civil rights campaigns are enduring, and the methods he used to achieve them provide invaluable lessons.

Disciplined nonviolent actions call for clarity of right purpose and purity of peaceful means. King’s purpose was to advance “the beloved community.” His means were speaking up publicly; his truth-telling gave no space to hate speech. He was ready to pay up personally, and in the end he did. King’s leadership was a deep well of courage to those who joined in his struggle.

And what gave Dr. King his courage? What sustained his clarity of purpose and purity of means? Its source was the Christianity, at once radical and traditional, that he learned as a young minister of the Gospel. Despite personal failures, he strived to live that Gospel both in head and heart.

For some time now, that Christianity has been fading from the mind of the West. What does this mean for sustained and widespread demonstrations? We would do well, I submit, to ask ourselves whether disciplined nonviolent action, on a large scale, which rises to the level of civil disobedience is still possible for us. The answer, I suspect, is that it is not and will not be a live option for some time. And what of the sustained mass protests that demand the public’s attention? They will continue as long as our less than righteous indignation fuels them.

Nonetheless, even now, there is a live option open to us, and some are bravely choosing it. It is disciplined and nonviolent witness. It is a prophetic witness that shines its light on unjust “laws.” For all their procedural sheen, these “laws” are in fact acts of violence.

Here’s an example. Just a couple days ago Lauren Handy, the pro-life activist and rescue organizer, was sentenced to almost five years in federal prison. Her crime? She blocked access to an abortion clinic in 2020, a clinic notorious for late-term abortions. So be it. For Handy, a Catholic, putting herself between the abortionist and the babies scheduled for death is “an extreme, radical act of love.”

Lauren Handy, in my view, offers a witness to the truth that can speak to power—even in these dark, and especially for the least little ones, perilous times. Godspeed, good Lady!

 

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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