Tag Archives: protest

Desiring Unity: Reflections on Protest and Protestantism

By Sharmaine Koh, SM ’22. Sharmaine is majoring is Statistics & Data Science and History.

– Protest-

Open your G-cals. Type in “Yale Campus Protest” sometime in the next semester. We can probably log a protest into our fingertip calendars with more certainty than we can schedule that let’s-grab-a-meal meal.

Part of this certainty arises from the constancy and regularity of the Yale Protest. The image of a colourful crowd ringed by tanned gothic walls is all too familiar and frequent. There are fresh faces from walked-out-of lectures. There are lips shaped like “O”s for shouts and “o”s for boos (and “ok boomer”). There are fingers clenched white around signs and loudhailers. In their time-stopping, cop-defying resistance, the passionate motley compels the world to stop and listen.

As I look at the faces of peers just like me — poised to shout a slogan, stony in defiance, or alight in hopeful laughter — a deep sense of empowerment I can’t quite describe bubbles up within me. But even as my heart swells with the slogans, and I scavenge for the will raise my fist, I doubt. Suddenly their banners and fists seem vacuous and performative, misguided and divisive. I confront the dissention of my classmates with a conflicting allergic discomfort.I walk away confused and disappointed with myself, wondering why and how to grapple with a simultaneous rapture and repugnance towards this spectacle.

As I delve deeper into this inner conundrum, I recognise the shutters with which I consider protest. Where I come from, unlicensed public demonstrations are illegal. In Singapore, we are raised to be hyper-conscious of vulnerability, suspicious of dissent, and protective of order. Afraid of fracture, we sweep inconvenient alternative truths under the carpet because to confront them, we must struggle amongst ourselves. Underneath the suave confidence of a small state, there is a nagging fear that there is little else left for us without the ability to agree among just 6 million people. We have come to accept our absence of protest culture as a necessary sacrifice. And there is fruit in this “unity”, too. There is no doubt that internal stability — whether artificially imposed by a heavy-handed state or not — is part of what has allowed us to grow and thrive. We look to crippling protests and restive disunity in our neighbourhood with wary eyes and give thanks that “it doesn’t happen here.”

But surely, I think, this settling for a limited unity bodes only an empty house. Behind the cheery facade, feuds simmer under saccharine smiles, its members go to sleep with unresolved disagreements, elephants in rooms are ignored. As things fall apart, it seems insufficient to hush protests and trample on truths in a desperate attempt to just hold it all together. An aversion to trouble is not a desire for unity.  You do not want to live under the roof of a house you no longer believe in. You couldn’t ask a Hong Kong citizen to stay acquiescent to what they see as Chinese hegemony in the interest of “unity”. You couldn’t expect Ho Chi Minh or Gandhi to place independence on the backburner for imperial “unity”. You couldn’t envision student activists at Yale being “complicit” with the administration’s investments in fossil fuels for some campus “unity”.

Therefore, I see on the other hand the need for protest. I recognise the fruit in its struggle for a vision of truth, for the traumas of the last century have produced a character more insidious that the rabble-rousing protestor — the bystander. Writing after the fall of Nazi Germany, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller penned a poetic confession concerning the cowardice of the Protestant clergy, the German intellectuals, and himself:

First they came for the  socialists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

—  Martin Niemöller, “First they came …” (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Today, we have cultivated a Niemöllerean aversion to this passive submission. There is no pride in the guilt from all sides, Germans and Christians alike. In the face of feverish national unity, Niemöller held his tongue. As Hitler justified anti-semitism with the writings of Luther, Christian fellows preserved their peace. Swept up in the currents of right-wing nationalism, people watched Germany unite under a swastika and murder millions of Jews. Sure, in the mass mobilisation of Total War, Naziism united the nation. Nobody protested. But today, nobody praises Nazi Germany for its unity during the war. Today, nobody praises the many around the world who stood passive in the face of genocide. They were not united. They were complicit.

– Protestantism –

Martin Niemöller reminds me of another German Lutheran. Four centuries earlier, this other  German Lutheran Martin —  Martin Luther himself — took a decidedly  different approach. Luther was a monk responsible for starting the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church. Appraising the state of the Catholic Church in 1517, Luther saw its corruption, objected to the excesses of papal authority, and published a substantial thesis detailing 95 points of practical and doctrinal disagreements. Protestants today are named for Luther’s revolutionary protest.

I consider all of this with conflicted fallibility, navigating the complexities of my own Catholic identity. In Luther’s protest, I recognise the courage that Niemöller lacked. In Luther’s eyes, it would be a greater sin to stay silent and preserve a superficial unity, than to resist the corruption of his Catholic contemporaries. But I also see the painful legacy of division that the Reformation bred — 500 years of flurried mitosis that leaves us with more than 38,000 denominations today.

So I struggle as the Catholic Church struggles to discard the indignant hurt that the Reformation has bred. I struggle with an acquired moral authority that comes with believing we were the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” fighting against the legacy of a protest that was “heretical, scandalous, false, offensive to pious ears or seductive of simple minds, and against Catholic truth” (Pope Leo X, 1520).  I am saddened that even as I find love and joy in exploring my faith with my Protestant brothers and sisters, on Sundays we still worship at different churches. My desire for reconciliation and Christian unity is restrained by an obligatory counter-protest to Luther’s protest.

“The unity willed by God can be attained only by the adherence of all to the content of revealed faith in its entirety. In matters of faith, compromise is in contradiction with God who is Truth. In the body of Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), who could consider legitimate a reconciliation brought about at the expense of the truth?” [emphasis added]

Ut unum sint, Pope John Paul II (The Vatican website)[1]

Such is Christianity’s tragic desire for unity. Martins and John Pauls, Protestants and Catholics, protestors and protested-against, even if seemingly opposed, don’t actually disagree on this fundamental thing. They recognise that true unity needs to be founded on truth. The problem then, is confronting our different version of truth.

St. Augustine provides a nice analogy for the necessity of truth to unity.

“Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law and agreed on.”

The City of God, Book IV, St. Augustine (Trans. Marcus Dodds, 1950, Modern Library ed.)

If we assume that kingdoms stand on the side of justice and have apprehended some form of truth, this big band of men is respected for its unity. But unity among a band of robbers can hardly be celebrated — it seems absurd to respect men for uniting around unjust deeds.

Thus, I realise that protest in and of itself is not the problem, but the solution. Underlying the spirit of protest and protestantism is a desire for both truth and unity. When the rabble is roused and the banners are raised, we are alerted to the fact that the truth around which we might once have united has gone awry. If unity needs truth, disunity signals that truth has not been attained. Society has gotten something wrong, and protest points it out. We must keep looking and keep struggling.Therefore, protest — ostensibly divisive, arguably polarising — is paradoxically what will realise our desire for truth and unity. With this, I resolve my discomfort with the protester, recognising that there is good in them.

But if protest is the solution, why have we not resolved anything? I consider the Yale protest again. Every semester, with the regularity of moon cycles, Yale protesters gather in front of Salovey’s office and yell at his impervious windows. Every semester, Yale administrators pace about their offices, draw the blinders to survey the chanting crowd, then sit down to send a school-wide email. Every semester, the protesters and the provosts go home after a day of protesting and listening to protests, pat themselves on the back for yelling and listening to the yells respectively, and fall asleep to the musical sounds of free speech and healthy discourse.

Perhaps we continue to sleep at night because the permission of protest has ironically become a flimsy band-aid for our cowardice. Underlying a tolerance for protest is a learned respect for the equality of opinions, however different. But these differences also worry us because we doubt whether they  can actually be reconciled. As religion encounters atheism, as conservatives encounter liberals, as Yale protestors encounter Peter Salovey, they recognise in each other sometimes fundamentally contrary positions. The right to protest becomes our response to this uncomfortable difference. Protest simply becomes a ritual to remind ourselves that we agree to disagree.  But we stay in the little kingdoms of people who agree with us. Now and then, we open the windows to let in the noises that other kingdoms are making in our backyard, and we pat ourselves on the back for even opening the windows. The noise, however, is merely ambient. We don’t really listen to each other.

– Beyond Protest –

The words of another Martin Luther come to mind.

“At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic. Nobody of honesty can overlook this […] The first way that the church can repent, the first way that it can move out into the arena of social reform is to remove the yoke of segregation from its own body.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.,  in a Q&A session at Western Michigan University, December 18 1963 (God and Culture, 2010)

Speaking in Jim Crow America, King lamented the Church’s failure to uphold its responsibility as “the moral guardian of community” by not starting a movement of desegregation. The Civil Rights leader spoke specifically of racial division, but his words are hauntingly relevant to the unity of the Church as a whole today.

What happens after the protest? In the context of the Church, we built separate churches. We worshipped in separate places on Sundays. We settled for unity within our individual denominations. But in some other ways, we moved forward. In 1999,  after extensive ecumenical dialogue, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The revolutionary doctrine professed “a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ”, the doctrinal point at the very root of the initial conflict. In 2015, Catholics and Protestants jointly held a prayer service in Sweden to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It has taken us 500 years, but today, the movement towards ecumenism, or Christian unity, is a hopeful détente of sorts.

Part of the reason why Christian unity is so urgent and necessary is because we recognise that the Church was not meant to be divided in this way. In Colossians 3:15, Paul writes: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” Because of this intended wholeness in Christ, there is widespread recognition that Christians have a responsibility to mend divisions in the Church that has for a long time festered in its fallen state.

But outside of the Church, the desire for unity feels somewhat more muted. Somehow, it feels as though the world has stopped believing that it is better together. Underlying semesterly protests, political unrests, and international strife, is a bewildering paradox. The resistance clings to a desperate hope that their protest will change things, but at the same time doesn’t believe that the other side will ever “get it”. In a bitter loss of trust and faith, protestors keep up the yelling to be heard.

So what happens after the protest? In the context of Yale and the world, the protesters pack up and go home. They come back again tomorrow, next week, or next semester. The protest starts again, and the cycle continues ad infinitum.  Or, if the belligerents choose non-confrontation, the resistance breaks away, lives a separate existence, spawns an alternative culture. If they choose revolution, history has often proven it to be bloody and tragic. Either way, the relationship is essentially antagonistic, and we stop daring for radical reconciliation because it seems so unattainable.

As I consider Luther’s contest and the Yalies’ protests, their legacies make the desire for unity seem like a tragic one, for the desire for unity really is a desire for truth, for a common ground to stand on. As hope in truth dissolves in the post-modern world, that grounding is increasingly hard to find. But straddling my cosmopolitan and Catholic identities, I wonder if the Church’s own experience with division might hold kernels of wisdom that the wider world can look towards. Surveying the history of Catholic tension with Protestants has been surprisingly and remarkably hope-giving.  It has taken us 500 years, but in those years we have revised our respective positions, we have learned to listen, and we have actively sought out areas of agreement, while holding fast to certain principles that distinguish us. It is some proof that a desire for unity, a tempered patience, a passage of time, and a deep faith to lean on God, will bear fruit.

One thing Christianity does well is daring to posit and pursue an absolute Truth. No matter how vehemently Methodists disagree with Mormons or Seventh-Day Adventists, they all assert that God, at the very least, is Truth. In the plurality of today’s world, this profession that truth is absolute has fallen out of fashion. Relativism — the belief (ironically) that “truth is relative” — has often served as a conservative and cautious cop-out to the overwhelming number of beliefs in our world.

But we do ourselves no justice by asserting that truth is relative and using that as a justification for separate existences, veiling it as “mutual respect”. For nobody takes to the streets to protest or counter-protest a truth that they think is relative. Seeing different beliefs as “relative truths” is not respectful, but patronising. We are simply duplicitous fence-sitters that declare “everyone is right, subjectively”, while really believing that we are more right. Relativism’s moralising, self-contradicting ambivalence makes us no different from the silent Niemöllerean bystander. It is a defence mechanism that really veils a deep-seated insecurity of having one’s own beliefs challenged. The protester or the protested-against, in contrast, fare better when they boldly posit that they believe their perspective better approximates the absolute truth. And it stops short of bigotry if they open up this belief to challenge from opponents, in humble conversation with others as co-searchers for truth.

Thus, the pursuit of unity must start with the desire for truth that underlies the instinct to take an absolute stand and protest. When communities start to fray and fall apart, protest endeavours to revitalise unity by signalling that truth has lost its way. But with each act of protest, we are in danger of exchanging our artificial unity for a convenient disunity, where a limited sense of agreement is easier established in smaller and smaller groups. We have to go further. The desire for unity must be carried through beyond the protest.  All sides must dare to believe in reunification.

The Christian case is a hopeful one, because God has revealed to us the necessity of our unity in Him. No matter the disagreement, our concomitant desire for truth is founded in Christ. Charged with a teleological mission, we are convicted to strive towards Truth Himself. In the endeavour’s seeming unattainability, we have God to lean on and faith that His will be done on earth as in heaven. Outside of God, the picture is rather different. Yet no matter what form secularism’s absolute Truth takes, belief in its fundamental attainability and the necessity of unity charges the secular establishment and the secular activist with a greater urgency and moral responsibility to keep striving. If not faith in God, progress at least requires faith in the humanity of the other side. If we really hold such faith, maybe our G-cals might look a little different next semester. Maybe we can grab a meal with Salovey. We can only hope.

[1] Ut unum sint, “That they may be one”, is a 1995 encyclical by Pope John Paul II on the Catholic Church’s relations with the Orthodox churches and other Christian ecclesiastal communities. An authoritative document on the Catholic church’s ecumenical commitment, it reinforces the need for unity in the Church, and further dialogue with Protestants.

Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.