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From the Protestant Reformation to Columbia University, some thoughts on protests

Typically, historians view Oct. 31, 1517, as the beginning of the period known as the Protestant Reformation.

Ordained as a Roman Catholic priest a decade earlier, Martin Luther came to a deep conviction of the need for reform in the church. On the night before All Saint’s Day, he affixed his document, “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences,” to the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany.

This call for deconstruction of the practices of Catholicism that abused people centered on the sale of indulgences, falsely claimed shards of relics the church espoused brought the deceased closer to heaven and the purchaser closer to God. Luther’s statements of recommended reform, better known as his Ninety-Five Theses, sent uncontainable ripples throughout Europe.

Luther’s original intent was to bring change within the structure of the church he loved. Yet, this proved to be unattainable. When the Catholic priest was brought to trial, Luther famously explained that he could only renounce his views if they were disproved by Scripture or sound reason.

To this end, he famously stated, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” That stand led the Catholic Church and Emperor Charles V to issue the Edict of Worms, pronouncing Luther a heretic, banning his writings and teachings, excommunicating him from the church, and issuing a pardon for anyone who killed him.

Luther, aided by Frederick III, was safely taken to Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, where he translated the New Testament into German. This period of intense study led Luther to even further developed beliefs, emphasizing the sufficiency of Scripture, faith and grace, and the centrality of Jesus.

The term “Protestants” was attributed to Luther’s followers (more than the reformer himself). In 1529, at the Diet of Speyer, six princes and representatives of more than a dozen free cities denounced the previous Edict of Worms, the banishment of Luther and the proscription of his works. Their opposition became known as the Protestestation at Speyer, and those who joined in the pro-Lutheran movement were known as “Protestants.”

Protests in the modern era

Throughout human history, groups have gathered to express their protest on a myriad of issues. The very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, passed in 1791, affords Americans the freedoms of speech and assembly to publicly express their views in civil protest.

As a pluralistic nation, the United States is founded on the principles of acceptance and inclusion of diversity, and with that comes the importance of embracing complex theories and systems that need to be continuously reevaluated and reimagined.

For example, in 1848, the first women’s rights convention was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in New York. Mirroring the Declaration of Independence, the Seneca Falls Convention issued the Declaration of Sentiments, calling for better education and professional opportunities for women and the right of married women to manage their own wages and property.

This protest marked the genesis of the Women’s Suffrage Movement that lasted for decades. Nearly 70 years later, the National Women’s Party formed the first picketing around the White House in American history. Amid the backdrop of World War I, the National Women’s Party’s silent, six-day-a-week vigil lasted nearly three years. For 42 years, the 19th Amendment was introduced at every congressional session, where it was ignored or voted down, until it eventually passed in 1919.

Similarly, the Montgomery bus boycotts lasted for more than a year after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the front of the bus, sparking the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and their allies rose up to call for the end of racial segregation and Jim Crow laws.

Predominantly nonviolent protests, civil disobedience and sit-ins followed highly publicized atrocities such as the lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American boy accused of offending a white woman. The climax of the Civil Rights Movement occurred on Aug. 28, 1963, as about 260,000 people participated in the March on Washington and a gathering near the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King addressed the crowd with his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the first of several laws enacted to ban all discrimination based on race including segregation, voting restriction and access to housing.

Campus protests

In addition to protests against racial discrimination, college campuses were hotbeds for anti-war protests. Large-scale protests against the Vietnam War were prevalent across the country and sparked heated debate. Similarly, we are currently experiencing the largest protest movement of the 21st century in America as organized protests against the war in Gaza stretch from New York to California.

On April 17, students began to rally in support of Palestinians at Columbia University in New York. Building encampments in the middle of campus, students cried out for academic institutions to forego their business dealings with Israel and its military because of the aggression against the Palestinian people in Gaza. Similar encampments and protests have occurred on more than 30 college campuses around the country in recent weeks.

It is estimated that more than 1,300 people have been arrested for these (predominantly nonviolent) protests against the war, oftentimes by police in full riot gear. Occasionally, violence has escalated on both ends. For example, at the University of Wisconsin, a state trooper was hit in the head with a skateboard. While 78 protesting students were arrested April 29 at the University of Texas for trespassing charges that all were later dropped.

Protest at my church

On Sunday, March 31, the church I serve as pastor in Rolla, Mo., did what many churches around the country did on Easter Sunday; we celebrated with a worship gathering. Our sanctuary was filled as we sung about and reflected on the resurrection of Jesus and shared Easter brunch together.

Later that evening, we did something else in celebration of human dignity and resurrection life. Partnering with the local nonprofit advocacy and allyship organization LGBTQ+ Rolla, we hosted a Trans Day of Visibility gathering. The fun-filled evening began with an egg hunt at the nearby Community Garden, and then everyone came to our church for a time of food, fellowship, crafts, outdoor games, informational videos and support from the community. Not everyone who showed up was supportive though.

Prayer gatherings were held previously on site and in town as local churches organized opposition to the gathering and other LGBTQ-affirming events. Then, at the Trans Day of Visibility event, a small group of nonviolent protesters showed up with signs that read things like: “God’s wrath is revealed to all the godless and wicked” and “We are created in God’s image men and women.” Affixed to their slogans were references to Romans 1:18 and Genesis 1:27, respectively.

To block these oppositional protesters, a group of us formed a human wall at the ingress/egress so attendees could come and go without confrontation. While it may be likely these protesters believed they were communicating God’s loving message of salvation, they may not have been aware of the hurt they caused by their inept messages.  Attendees at the event were searching for a safe place to be their authentic selves and to enjoy community with other LGBTQ friends and allies.

Peaceful protests

The exercise of free speech through peaceful demonstrations is woven into the fabric of human history and American culture. As you consider ways you can spark change, these are factors you might keep in mind:

  • Plan your activism. Avoid getting caught up in the heat of the moment. Plan ahead. Give careful thought to what you are doing before taking action. Consider your words and behaviors carefully. Seek guidance from others you respect and admire. Work collaboratively with organizations that are participating in the activism.
  • Be prepared for opposition. When you side with a marginalized group, you will likely experience some of the harm that is directed at them. Empathy necessitates a heightened understanding of the suffering of others. When you stand for them and with them, you will experience some of the emotional agony projected on them.
  • Know your rights. The ACLU suggests that before participating in a protest, people need to know their rights and the limits of those rights. For example, what is permitted on public property may be very different than what is legally allowed on private property. Knowing what is permissible by law can keep you from litigation and/or help you to know if or when your rights have been violated.
  • Consider the complexity. Protests oftentimes accompany situations that are complex. Polarizing them into positions that are “for” or “against” oversimplifies the dynamics. Additionally, we live in a society where information is easily accessible but not always factual and rarely comprehensive. We do not know the whole story. So, there is wisdom in remaining cautious of being overzealous for a cause. While holding opinions loosely, we can continue to learn from others, even those who hold different viewpoints.
  • Seek to understand the opposition. When emotions run high and a cause is personal, we can be slow to listen. Yet, we gain much more when we seek to understand before demanding to be heard. When we actively listen to those on the other side of the issue, we can better see how they reached their position, search for common ground and even offer an olive branch by disagreeing agreeably.
  • Work toward peace. The use of violence by protesters, counter-protesters or even law enforcement is volatile. Unfortunately, far too many choose mob violence to force people to hear their concerns. Equally unfortunate is the unwillingness of many to take up the cause of those being abused, exploited and harmed. To be a just society, everyone must stand up, call out and reasonably expect justice to prevail. We do not bring peace by the sword; we must always choose the path of the peacemaker over simply being peacekeepers.
  • Use your ballot. Not every issue comes to the ballot box, but it is here that lasting change occurs. Voting for politicians at every level of government who exemplify character, value integrity and treat all people with human dignity is essential to having a government that seeks liberty and justice for all. To voice our dissatisfaction about things we do not like in the break room, the church parking lot or the picket line without voting muzzles the significance of our voice.

In his opinion piece entitled, “What is going on at America’s elite universities?,” Mark Wingfield accurately states, “There is no cause for violence or the threat of violence against any student on a university campus, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or something else. Protests that incite violence must be quelled. But protests that debate difficult ideas must not be quashed.”

Throughout history, protests have led to seismic change. Personally, I am grateful for those who blazed the trail for women to be able to vote and for the integration of Blacks into public schools.

While I disagree with those who gathered outside our church in protest of transgender visibility and believe their views are causing tremendous harm, I advocate for the protesters to be able to peacefully gather and express themselves and our opportunity to counter their protests.

What might happen if we listened to those who bravely protest the atrocities of war in the Middle East? What might happen if we sat at the table and prayed with those of differing faiths or scriptural interpretations? What might happen if we saw those on the opposite side of the aisle as divinely created human beings rather than enemies to be vanquished?

The table of the kingdom of God is big enough for Jew and Palestinian, Democrat and Republican, Black and white, conservative and liberal, disabled and able-bodied, rich and poor, queer and straight, cisgender and transgender, male and female. There are no labels at the place settings around Jesus’ table. All are invited. All are welcome. All are beloved.

As followers of the way of Jesus, we should protest the exclusivity of those who pronounce judgment on others. Suggesting that some are welcome and others are unworthy to sit at the table of Christ is egocentric. Jesus modeled and taught us to reach out to those who are ostracized, especially when the hatefulness comes from the religious establishment.

There always is room for one more chair at the table. So, pull up a seat and invite a friend or even someone who is different than you. Listen to them and begin the dialogue. Perhaps we will accomplish a lot more together at the table when we seek to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he now leads a new community of faith, CrossRoads. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.