How Clergy Support Pro-Democracy Movements Around the World | Sojourners

How Clergy Support Pro-Democracy Movements Around the World

Activists, relatives of those killed in the drug war, and others protest extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. Photo by AC Dimatatac /

Several days before the election, a pledge signed by nearly 40 Black faith leaders and activist allies promised “massive nonviolent resistance” in the event that President Donald Trump loses the election and refuses to accept the results. That “nightmare scenario” may be around the corner.

Despite neither candidate clinching the 270 electoral college votes necessary to determine a winner and with millions of votes still to be counted, Trump declared a premature victory hours after West Coast polls closed early Wednesday morning and has since stated his intent to ask the Supreme Court to invalidate legally submitted ballots in places like Pennsylvania that were received after Election Day.

Promising protest and a general strike, the pledge signers, including Freedom Road’s Lisa Sharon Harper and linguist Noam Chomsky, declared, “We cannot acquiesce to a coup. We will not accept an illegitimate government.”

Should the faithful take to the streets in protest to combat political injustice, they will be following the footsteps of religious groups across the globe that have responded with nonviolent action during times of civil resistance.

In Nigeria, clergy are currently supporting a nationwide call for police reform and dissolution of the state’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a group that has been accused of 82 counts of torture by Amnesty International. In what have been mostly peaceful demonstrations, pastors have led protesters in prayer and created space in their churches for victims of police violence to share their stories despite an escalation of state violence in recent weeks.

And during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Muslims and Coptic Christians joined together in Alexandria, just weeks after a Coptic church was bombed, in a show of interfaith solidarity to protest state violence. Then-president Hosni Mubarak would announce his resignation just a day later.

According to Christopher Shay, a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School who’s tracked the effectiveness of civil resistance campaigns worldwide, nonviolent protest is the most effective way for movements to create change.

“You need as many followers and participants in as many ways as possible, and a good way to achieve that is to lower the barrier of participation — making it safer, making it easier, and less risky to join the movement,” Shay told Sojourners.

In the Philippines, where over 7,000 people have been killed during President Rodrigo Duterete’s war on drugs, a handful of Catholic priests are taking a stand against the government’s extrajudicial killings. The Guardian reports that clergy have helped shelter the families of drug war victims. And despite Duterte’s consistent and open animosity toward the Catholic Church, others like Bishop Pablo David, whose diocese was the site of extensive killings, are continuing to peacefully dissent against the president.

“It’s a simple equation: If you meet violence with more violence, that just keeps things on the same level,” said Mel Duncan, the executive director of Nonviolent Peaceforce. “If you meet violence with active, strategic nonviolence, that switches the equation.”

But while international faith groups have often galvanized pro-democracy protesters during periods of civil unrest, it has not always meant an end to conflict. In many cases, violence has escalated despite their presence.

During pro-democracy uprisings in Hong Kong, a group called Protect the Children, led by pastor Roy Chan of Good Neighbour North District Church, worked to protect the many young students protesters from increasingly violent state police. The group would form human chains between protesters and police, offering up their bodies to help maintain peace. Other Christian groups offered spiritual guidance through 24-hour online forums and administered first aid to the injured. Despite these protest efforts, Hong Kong officials still passed a catch-all security law that criminalized political dissent.

The support of faith groups during civil unrest can help to galvanize supporters, but their presence is simply one part of a very large puzzle that often requires coalition building across religious, ethnic, and economic lines.

“It’s not just about numbers, it’s also about diversity,” Shay said. “Violence can provoke the unification of the opposition, and when you connect people that may not have been connected before, that makes them more powerful.”

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