What does the Bible say about Protest?
You might remember form your history lesson that the United States was once the 13 colonies of Britain in the New World.
That status seemed to go on well for around 150 years until the British Parliament began to exercise control over the colonies in ways the colonists found oppressive.
Part of that oppressive control took the form of excessive taxes to pay for the French and Indian War.
The colonists screamed bloody murder and demanded that they have representation in Parliament.
They hit the streets and chanted, “No taxation without representation!”
Parliament said, “No!”
Those protests then expanded to include just about any type of control that Parliament tried to impose.
All of which led in 1776 to the Declaration of Independence which says this:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The Revolutionary War was, of course, the result.
That war lasted until Britain recognized the independence of the colonies in 1783.
Over the course of the next 6 years, the colonies shaped a form of government for all 13 “states”.
The new government was codified by the Constitution of the United States of America.
The First Amendment to that Constitution says this:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The lack of such rights was one of the causes of the revolution and should be no surprise it is a right guaranteed by our Constitution.
Those rights were expanded to cover state and local governments in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Declaration of Independence and Constitution clearly say that we as citizens of the U.S. have the right to protest.
And we certainly are seeing a lot of protests these days.
People are protesting the governments’ authority to restrict our lives in the pandemic.
People are protesting systemic racism and police brutality.
As long as these protests are peaceful, the government can’t stop them.
But what does the Bible say about protest?
One of the most common passages on this subject is our scripture reading today.
1 Peter 2:13-17
13For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,* whether of the emperor as supreme, 14or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. 16As servants* of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. 17Honor everyone. Love the family of believers.* Fear God. Honor the emperor.
So Peter says: Honor the emperor.
The Emperor, Nero to Peter, was Rome.
And Rome was the government.
So, Peter is basically saying, “honor the government.”
But the Declaration of Independence says: … it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [the government], and to institute new Government …
And the Constitution says:
Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech … ; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Do you sense a conflict between Peter and our governmental documents?
As disciples of Jesus, can we reconcile these two divergent views?
Are we compelled by Peter to blindly submit to any and all government policies, laws and orders in order to honor the government?
Or can we object, criticize, protest and even revolt, as the Declaration of Independence … well … declares?
To answer that we first need to understand the context of Peter’s letter.
The letter was written to Christians living in Rome.
The Christian community was a small minority, which was marginalized and subjected to violent hostility and distrust and discrimination.
They needed some advice on how to live out their lives as disciples of Jesus in a hostile world.
So, Peter gives them some in this letter.
Honor the emperor.
Peter, good Jew that he was, might have been recalling the stories of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
While exiled in Babylon, the Jewish people had two principal goals.
Survive as a people.
And maintain their identity as Jews.
To accomplish these goals, Jews had to be good citizens of Babylon.
They needed to “fit in” so long as “fitting in” did not require them to live contrary to their Jewishness.
So, what did that look like?
Kind of like Daniel and his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abendigo.
They were Jews captive in Babylon.
Yet they worked as clerks for Nebuchadnezzar, the emperor.
They honored him and obeyed his laws.
Until Nebuchadnezzar told them to violate their Jewish ethics and rituals either by worshiping his statue or eating non-kosher foods.
It was then that all four of them refused.
To comply with the new government rules would make them deny their identity as Jews.
You know the stories about what happened next.
Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den and the others were thrown into the fiery furnace.
Peter faced a similar challenge shortly after Pentecost.
Peter was preaching about Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple.
The Temple council commanded him to stop.
To comply would have made Peter deny his discipleship to Jesus.
Peter was commissioned to preach by Jesus and so could not obey the orders of these mere men.
The Roman Christians had the same problem.
They were told to worship the emperor and refuse at the peril of execution in the most horrible ways.
Honor the emperor until that requires you to deny Jesus.
If it does, refuse.
So, where do we draw the line?
We have some advice from folks who have thought this through.
In an article in Christianity Today, Emilio A. Nunez said:
Within the scope of those human matters that are relative, political systems have their place in society; but the Christian is not called to confer on any of those systems the quality of the absolute, because that which is absolute is found only in God. Furthermore, without pretending to have a false political neutrality, the Christian should always reserve the right to criticize any political system, whether of the left or of the right, in the light of the Word of God.
I also think that Nunez has hit the theological nail on the head.
In secular matters, we give the government the benefit of the doubt.
But when it is a matter of our faith, we obey Jesus.
What does that look like?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived this dilemma in the time of Hitler.
This is how he interpreted how the church and state interact when the church or an individual cannot reconcile what the state is doing:
There are three possible ways in which the church can act toward the state:
In the first place, it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities.
In the United States we would ask: “Is it Constitutional?”
Second, it can aid the victims of state action. The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community, “Do good to all people.”
The church must provide assistance to those the state has ignored or rejected or mistreated.
The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself. Such action would be direct political action, and is only possible and desirable when the church sees the state fail in its function of creating law and order.
This is open protest.
This is hitting the streets and crying out for justice.
This is proclaiming that the government is failing its obligations.
I think the founders of our country were in complete agreement with Nunez and Bonhoeffer.
I think that is why they did what they did.
But would Peter agree?
I think so.
Let’s look at the current protests and see what that looks like.
People are protesting, loudly and aggressively at times, our various governments’ restrictions on our activities during the pandemic.
Again, let’s look at what Peter says.
See those words?
Love your neighbors.
Love the family of believers!
Be faithful to your Christian community.
Maintain your identity as a child of God.
Honor the emperor.
Be a good citizen, in light of the above.
That sounds like what the founders said.
That is what Peter said.
So, these pandemic restrictions might be considered, and are by many, secular matters.
Honor the government might prevail.
But what of the protests against systemic racism and police brutality?
If we stand by and allow such things, are we servants* of God, living as free people, and not using your freedom as a pretext for evil?
Are we honoring everyone?
Including our black brothers and sisters?
Are we loving the family of believers?
Including our black brothers and sisters?
Are we fearing the God who created our black brothers and sisters in God’s own image?
Do we honor a government that does none of these things for our black brothers and sisters?
I think Peter might say no.
I think Peter is saying that, as much as possible, we should seek to cooperate with the government and obey the law; but when it comes to our faith and ethics, we are to compare the government’s actions with the way Jesus teaches us to live.
If the government asks us to live contrary to the Jesus way, we are to choose Jesus.
But when we feel compelled to act in violation of the law in order to uphold our faith, we do so also knowing that we might have to pay a price.
Bonhoeffer, Daniel, his three friends and Peter accepted the consequences of their disobedience.
Daniel went to the lions, his friends to the fiery furnace.
Bonhoeffer died in a German concentration camp.
Peter was crucified.
They each accepted their fate at the hands of the human government knowing that they were being obedient to God.
There are times when the right thing to do is to simply obey, be patient, and work within the system.
Happily, most often we simply work within the system to change the governing party or enact different laws.
But there are other times when we must disobey – protest – so as to remain faithful to Jesus.
That is what many are doing now.
Standing up for the lives of our black brothers and sisters who need justice, just like we all do.
That is living the Jesus way.
That is what the Bible says about protest.