Why We Need a Theology of Protest | Sojourners

Why We Need a Theology of Protest

On June 16, the song Sing Hallelujah to the Lord became a popular anthem of the Hong Kong protests against the extradition to China bill. The bill, it is widely believed, would provide the Chinese mainland unchecked power in detaining political dissidents in Hong Kong. This represents yet another flexing of China’s authoritarian rule over the people within its reach, and what some see as a breakdown in the “one-country, two systems” method of governance that has placed Hong Kong at an arms length of Beijing since it was handed over by the British in 1997. The annual July 1 pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are expected to see a massive turnout.

The first major anti-extradition protests occurred on June 9 — not long after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing — with around a million participants out of a seven million population in Hong Kong. The largely peaceful protestors were met with violent anti-riot police, water guns, tear gas, and batons. The decision to use force can be seen as a preemptive strike on the part of the police, which encountered the Umbrella Movement five years ago, whose anthem then was Les Miserables’ Do You Hear the People Sing.

The Chinese government’s moves in Hong Kong need to be seen in light of its other acts, including its detention of over a million Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang province, its ever-expanding measures eradicating Tibetan culture and the displacement of Tibetan persons, and its neo-imperial expansions into Africa and the South China Sea.

Today’s anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong also need to be situated alongside other protest movements such as the Umbrella Movement, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter. While each one of these demonstrations differed in their goals, they shared an ideological connection in the method of mass protest and peaceful occupation of public space, sublimating a collective anger and frustration at the lack of democratic power, whether it be against dictatorial regimes or financial overlords.

The anti-extradition protests were met not only with physical force but also digital attacks against activists. For example, activists used the Russian secure messaging app Telegram, which experienced large denial of service attacks originating from China during the time of the protests. During the protests, activists purchased train fares with cash to prevent transaction tracking, and wore caps, face-masks, and umbrellas (the symbol of the 2014 protests) not only to protect against tear gas and water, but also to protect them from facial recognition systems as aerial drones surveyed the streets. Certain demonstrators were bare-faced as an act of defiance.

Why do we need a theology of protest? The urgent answer lies in observing the increasing number of protests worldwide over the last decade. Moreover, important climate reports predict that the increasingly uninhabitable earth will only destabilize societies further and warn that global suffering is set to increase exponentially with the irruption of climate refugees, faced with ethnonationalism and xenophobia. This all points to the growing unrest of the global 99% whose backs are breaking under an unsustainable system produced by the capitalist world order. Protest is the oppressed crying out and, in the absence of change, revolting through direct actions such as blockades, occupations, strikes, and riots.

Jesus’ cleansing of the temple has much to teach us. In the Gospel of John’s account, Jesus made a whip of cords and drove out the merchants and moneychangers inside the Temple in Jerusalem while overturning tables and chairs.

A theology of protest leads us straight to theologies of liberation: theologies that are produced from the consciousness of those marching and bleeding on the streets, rendered invisible in slums, favelas, and ghettos. The agitation of protest is properly understood not as simply calls for democratic choice or economic equality, but rather the freedom from oppressive forces of any kind.

James Cone taught us that the Cross of Christ can only be understood in view of the lynching tree. Rather than the Cross that evangelicals wish to elevate, perhaps it is the Whip of Jesus that must inform our praxis. The slave bibles from the 1800s, which omitted passages that could have incited rebellion, come to mind. Maybe what is required of us is a holy insurrection, a willingness to go beyond hashtag activism, putting our own bodies and jobs on the line.

Some have praised protests like the ones in Hong Kong for their lack of violent encounters, contrasting them to conflicts in places like Ferguson or Baltimore where black uprisings are deemed “riots.” But it is hard for many to see that concern over destruction of property is a value of capitalism and whiteness, which tell the oppressed that they should protest nonviolently. Capital has more freedom of movement across borders than dying people.

The world as we know it is ending. The time is short. It is time to get righteously angry.

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