Student Encampments Echo Jesus’ Parable of Annoying the Powerful | Sojourners

Student Encampments Echo Jesus’ Parable of Annoying the Powerful

Pro-Palestinian protesters camped out on the Princeton University campus on April 24. Photo: Mary Ann Koruth/ / USA TODAY NETWORK

Just a short walk from my home near Princeton University, students, faculty, staff, and community members have come together to demand the university divest from financial and military support of the state of Israel and release a public statement calling for a ceasefire in Gaza — one of many similar protests that have been happening at college campuses across the U.S. over the past two weeks. Stroll by the encampment at any given time, and you’ll see folks of all ages and races gathered together on blankets and tarps sharing crowdfunded hot meals as scholars address the group; kids play and others offer physical and spiritual care, or clean up the encampment grounds. You might hear community announcements, prayer, music, or, at times, chants like “disclose, divest / we will not stop / we will not rest.”

These protests on college campuses began late last month, when student activists at Columbia University created a protest encampment, demanding the university transparently disclose financial details and divest from corporations profiting from Israel’s violence. Claiming the peaceful protests posed an immediate threat to public safety, Columbia University president Nemat Shafik called police to campus, sanctioning over 100 student arrests — an attempt to quell the protest through force that only enlivened her students’ fervor and inspired similar student movements across the U.S. On Tuesday, Shafik again called police to Columbia’s campus to arrest students who had occupied Hamilton Hall; on Wednesday, police remained present at several student encampments around the country. But despite more than 1,600 arrests nationwide and threats of institutional disciplinary actions, impassioned students are holding their ground.

So, what are we, as Christians, to make of these young people?

First, I think it’s crucial to remember that protest movements, including student-led protests, are never a monolith. Some media coverage has portrayed these protests as threatening campus communities or amplifying antisemitism, sometimes even isolating sickening statements from individuals and using broad strokes to paint all protesters in the same light. Yet the students participating in these protests offer a different picture: Students in many encampments have agreed to abide by community guidelines — including upholding shared values of love and justice by honoring the privacy, diversity, safety, and boundaries of fellow protestors — and have denounced individuals making inflammatory remarks.

Within these encampments, some protesters have shared communion and celebrated Passover. Here in Princeton, the encampment has featured faculty teach-ins on topics such as the history of Palestine, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli conflict; Palestinian scholasticide; the ecological impacts of the assault on Gaza; and racial surveillance technologies. A liberation library offers books on topics like racial justice and Middle East politics, while students — including Muslims, Jews, Christians, and those of other faith traditions — lead interfaith prayer and spiritual practices.

I also think it’s important to recognize that student protests, including demands for financial transparency and divestment, are not new — and have often been successful at sparking change. Starting in the late ’60s, student activists played a key role in getting their universities to divest from companies benefitting South African apartheid; more recently, student activists have been instrumental in getting about 250 U.S. educational institutions to divest from fossil fuels, with similar divestment movements urging universities to divest from the prison industrial complex and the gun industry.    

Christian faith commends those who are relentless in their pursuit of justice, especially those who do so with limited access to power and great personal risk. I’m reminded of the parable Jesus tells his disciples about a widow and an unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). The widow, Jesus explains, is petitioning for justice from “a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Each time the judge withholds justice, the widow returns, disrupting the court, bothering the judge, and generally raising a ruckus. Eventually, the judge relents — apparently from sheer annoyance; scripture recounts the judge thinking to himself: “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (v.5).

At the time Jesus told the parable, widows lacked both protection and financial means. But despite her seemingly powerless position, this woman used what little social capital she had to seek justice. For Sister Barabara Reid, a Catholic feminist theologian, the parable illustrates Jesus’ invitation to find power in “apparent powerlessness.” The widow does not wither in the face of an unjust, powerful judge, Sr. Reid writes in her commentary on the women in the book of Luke. Instead of taking the judge’s refusal of justice as the only solution, the widow continues to face injustice head on, to name it as such, and to reject it until it’s set straight.

When I look at the students protesting across the country through the lens of my Christian faith, I see similar persistence and power in apparent powerlessness. As the protests continue, students face potentially life altering consequences like police violence, arrest, expulsion, eviction, job loss, and damage to their career prospects. Yet I see many students continuing to use the social capital they have at U.S. universities to seek an end to the state-sanctioned violence — and the financial structures that uphold it — that Gaza health authorities estimate has executed at least 34,488 Palestinians, wounded nearly 78,000 more, and manufactured a looming famine in the enclave

In the past seven months, tens of thousands of people — including 1,200 Israelis killed by Hamas on Oct. 7 — have been murdered, each of them beloved and made in the image of God. As a follower of the crucified and resurrected Christ who himself suffered at the hands of empire, I feel a call to embrace a radical love of God and neighbor that does not accept the status quo but instead stands for justice and mercy for all creation. I take seriously the commandments to love God and love my neighbor — both my neighbor down the street and my neighbor the world over. To me, it’s clear we should follow the lead of many of these persistent students in using our own social capital — however much or little — to raise a ruckus in the name of those who suffer starvation, disease, and death-dealing violence each day.

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