Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9) – but what does it mean to be a peacemaker? It is not enough to simply avoid conflict; Jesus also calls us to action.
A basic peacemaking activity is evangelism and discipleship. The good news invites people to be at peace with God and one another. Christians also make peace when they respond to human need with compassion, such as feeding the hungry or housing the homeless. We see this combination of ministry and social action in Jesus’ public ministry, as described in Luke 4:18.
When the need is a result of injustice in our society, however, it is also appropriate for Christians to work for social change. These efforts may take the form of participating in an organized protest or contacting representatives in the government.
Protests – physical and digital – seem to be an increasingly popular endeavor in a world aching for peace. How should Christians perceive such measures?
Jesus’ clearest teaching on resisting injustice is recorded in Matthew 5:38-42. Contrary to a common interpretation that this passage advocates passive nonresistance, each illustration Jesus gives is a form of active resistance: turning the other cheek, going the second mile and giving the outer garment. Each response protests the injustice levied against the individual – without utilizing violence. The person struck on the cheek does not strike back or passively accept the abuse, but rather nonviolently objects to it. The person forced to carry the pack for a mile voluntarily carries it for another, responding with service, rather than compliance or violent resistance. In the final example, giving the coat in addition to the sued-for shirt serves as a hyperbolic, nonviolent objection to the legal injustice of the case.
Jesus wants us to resist evil and injustice, but He doesn’t want us to in turn adopt evil ways in our resistance. By turning the practice of retribution on its head, Jesus replaces retaliation with His own unique way of life-through-sacrifice, exhibited most fully in the cross and resurrection.
Submission vs. Obedience
The paradox of new life through death serves as the foundation of Paul’s ethical teaching to the Romans: “… present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1, NRSV). This commitment to sacrificial living sets the tone for his comments about governmental authority in Romans 13:1-2, a passage sometimes cited to discredit civil disobedience. Paul writes, “Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder refutes the naїve interpretation of this passage that “whatever a government does, it is serving God and therefore what it is doing is a ministry which the Christian should always share.” The fact that God may use governments to accomplish His will does not mean, “Whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is good.” For example, God may have used Babylon in a divine plan to chasten Israel, but Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego correctly refuse to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 1-3).
Few, if any, argue for a complete acquiescence to all authorities. In some cases, illegal actions are the Christian choice. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.” King also emphasized the necessity of nonviolent resistance, in keeping with Paul’s teaching on peaceful submission. Submission in this case does not necessarily imply obedience. The Hebrew boys in Babylon are again a good example. They refused to obey, yet remained under the sovereignty of government and accepted the penalty.
A Pattern for Protest
When contemplating appropriate responses to injustice, I recommend Christians consider the following:
- Peace and quiet is not equal to peace and justice.
Ignoring injustice is not a legitimate Christian option. According to James, “Anyone who knows the good that ought to be done and doesn’t do it, sins” (4:17). Jesus never said, “Blessed are the conflict-avoiders.” Avoiding conflict may provide a negative peace, but also fails to create true peace because it allows injustice to remain unchallenged. Nonviolent protests can be legitimate means to draw attention to injustice, which may then be addressed through legislation and cooperation.
- Nonviolent protests are preferable.
When he nailed his 95 theses to a church door, Martin Luther was protesting the powers that be – which is why we call the resulting movement “Protestantism.” Christians seek to follow Jesus’ example of loving the enemy, therefore refusing to adopt means of violence.
Unfortunately, not all protestors embrace this virtue. No matter how worthwhile the demonstration, there may be those who loot, destroy property or pose harm to others in their act of protest. Nonviolence, however, is always the preferable option.
- Pentecostals: people of the Spirit.
Spirit-inspired biblical prophecy was often in the form of protests against the powerful and the abuse of the powerless. Today’s Pentecostals ought to be open to this aspect of the Spirit’s work. If our sons and daughters prophesy in a manner consistent with the biblical prophets before them, this would include critiques of injustice in our society.
An important caveat: Not all dissent is prophetic. Discernment is a necessity and requires prayer and sensitivit to the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, if Pentecostals uncritically discredit all criticism of leadership, they run the risk of being functional Cessationists. To be people of the Spirit, Pentecostals must also be people of prophetic critique – in word and in deed.