Protest and Persuasion: Productive or Pointless?
Protest and Persuasion: Productive or Pointless?

Protest and Persuasion: Productive or Pointless?

A public protest can be an effective means of enacting positive change, but only if it is done right.

March 1 st 2013
Appears in Spring 2013

Are protests persuasive? Given recent examples, the answer seems to be obvious. The thousands who protested in Tahrir Square, Cairo, succeeded in getting a measure of change to the repressive government of Hosni Mubarak. The protest started 50,000 strong and grew to 100,000. It lasted eighteen days. This can be classified as a productive protest in that it was peaceful and effective.

But think back just a couple of decades to Tiananmen Square in Beijing where the same kind of protesters were massacred by tanks. Again, it was a protest against a repressive, anti-democratic regime. The repressive regime responded, well, repressively. This kind of response has been repeated many times and in many places in the world. It was not pointless, but neither was it effective in bringing political change in China.

Several European countries experienced mass protests last fall. Workers and the unemployed protested austerity measures. There was little hope of success in changing government economic policy as the alternative to austerity is likely bankruptcy. These seem to be pointless protests, undermining the economies of these countries at the very time when that austerity is the only hope for the future.

In North America, the Occupy Movement focused on global economic injustice, primarily directed against corporate greed. It started on Wall Street in New York and spread to many other cities in the U.S. and Canada. Protesters camped out in public parks. They were eventually cleared out and the movement appears to have collapsed. In recent months, Canada has experienced a surge of protests from First Nations peoples under the banner of “Idle No More.” This has been a grassroots movement protesting poverty on First Nations as well as certain environmental issues. Protests have closed roads and bridges and disrupted train travel.

Technology has facilitated such grassroots protests. Many protests, including the one in Tahrir Square, were organized on Facebook. Twitter and Tumblr are great ways to get a message out and convene people. There are even protest apps that allow protesters to connect to other protesters near or far, and that can let you know if there are police heading your way. In some ways, the use of technology can make protests seem more like a recreational activity—which tends to diminish their utility as a means of influence. In other ways, protests can have websites and Twitter feeds that raise awareness, a central aspiration of protesters.

It turns out, then, that the evidence is mixed. Protests can be persuasive. So let’s rephrase our question slightly: What makes a protest effective? Are there rules that should be followed to make them effective, a formula that promises they will be persuasive? And to this we’ll add another question: How should Christians think about protest?

What Makes A Protest Effective?

To be effective, a protest must lead to change. Often, however, one can only gauge the effectiveness of protests in hindsight. Protests themselves are most effective as a means to raise awareness or highlight injustice. However, if not linked to a larger, constructive initiative, raising awareness will not lead to political or policy change.

Martin Luther King Jr. is now seen as the leader of an effective civil rights movement. He championed non-violent protests such as marches and boycotts. At the time, however, he was widely criticized, particularly by white churches, because the movement broke the law. The civil rights movement had specific goals; namely, to change segregation laws that were common across the southern U.S. Protests, boycotts, and rallies were targeted toward a particular end goal.

The Occupy Movement, on the other hand, did not seem to be effective. It did not articulate a clear issue or injustice. Protesters were criticized for claiming that they were the ninetynine percent, protesting the one percent who are making millions, when, in reality, by global standards, almost all Americans are the one percent as billions make less than $2 a day. The Occupy Movement, however, did reveal the widespread discontent for the status quo. Protesters and organizers claim that their protests played a part in President Obama’s decision to raise taxes on the rich.

The Idle No More movement has had a measure of success. It started with a hunger strike by the chief of Attawapiskat, a First Nations community that has had a housing crisis over the past two years. She demanded a meeting with the Prime Minister and Governor General. Initially, Canadians seemed to support this cause. This resulted in the Prime Minister meeting with the Assembly of First Nations and making a promise to ensure that this issue be a priority. But like the Occupy movement, Idle No More raises a diverse array of issues. Canadians’ support for the movement is now waning as protests continue even after the Prime Minister responded positively.

So, to be effective, protests must be part of a larger initiative with clear goals. When those goals are reached, the protests must stop. Otherwise, protests seem to be little more than large-scale whining. Both the Occupy Movement and Idle No More seem to have sprung up as grassroots movements that transformed into larger initiatives. Both have run into problems developing clear goals for the larger initiative. I would argue that protests will be more effective in changing public policy if the initiative starts first and the protests support the goals of the initiative. In fact, there are steps that should be taken to attempt to change public policy before protests take place at all.

Steps To An Effective Protest

Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous and influential Letter from a Birmingham Jail, wrote, “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action.” While King is referencing passive resistance in a form that is likely to become civil disobedience, the same steps are important before taking to the streets in protest.

The first step is an easy one to miss: investigation. Unfortunately, all too often we see people get righteously indignant when they do not really understand the issue. It is very easy to have a knee-jerk reaction. Investigation is more than just checking the facts; it also involves proposing alternative courses of action. As soon as you take the next step and meet with a politician, they will quickly assess if you “know your stuff” and they will ask what you want them to do. Many an advocate has met with a politician and explained a problem without giving ideas for what to do about it.

King’s second step is negotiation. This requires meeting with those who established injustice or who can make decisions for change. Dialogue and negotiation takes time and relationship building, and you don’t always get the outcome you hope for. It often requires you to take an incremental approach, accepting part measures. At all times there are many individuals and groups looking to influence public policy. While you are advocating one position, others are likely advocating the opposing position. This is an opportunity for persuasion. It is the time to argue why your approach is the best.

If negotiation fails, King identifies the third step as “self purification.” This is probably more understandable to Christians than to anyone else in society. We have an understanding of taking the log out of our own eye before taking the mote out of someone else’s. In the context of protests, it requires that we prepare ourselves, our message, and our strategy before beginning. For Christians, this should include prayer. It may also mean a time of confession of past wrongs. Participants should be prepared for the consequences, even if those consequences include public criticism or confrontation.

The final step of direct action should only be undertaken after all three first steps are completed. Direct action might be a protest, but it could be other activities such as boycotts or petitions. One must consider what will be the most effective way to move an issue forward. The purpose is to force those with authority to pay attention to your cause.

An effective protest follows the development of a cause; it is not the first step but the final step. The earlier steps are time-consuming and demanding work, and can take months or years. When doors are closed or meetings are fruitless, only then is it time to prepare oneself and one’s message for action. Protests and demonstrations can open closed doors by showing, or developing, widespread support for the cause.

Christian Perspectives On Protests

King’s example prompts our final question: Are there times or causes for Christians to engage in protests, even law-breaking protests? In the Christian community, it seems the one issue that still gets us marching in the streets is the pro-life issue. In Canada, the annual March for Life in May has been growing steadily year-by-year. It provides unity to those who are pro-life and shows the public that there are thousands of people who believe this is an important issue.

On an individual basis, several protesters at abortion clinics have been jailed for peacefully protesting inside a bubble zone. Linda Gibbons and Mary Wagner in Toronto and Donald Spratt in Vancouver have been jailed for protests at abortion clinics. They are passionate about the unborn and are willing to take drastic steps to make this a public issue. They use civil disobedience to confront unjust laws.

For the last twenty years, Father Tony Van Hee, a Catholic priest, has been praying and fasting against abortion on Parliament Hill every day that it is in session. He regularly displays placards with pictures of aborted fetuses. He uses pathos to reach people’s emotions on the issue.

Despite the various ways pro-life protesters raise this issue, they seem to have little impact on public policy. In a recent vote, Parliament made it clear that it is currently not willing to even debate the issue.

Many Christians do not participate in protests on any issue. They feel that it is not appropriate to stand in opposition to government policy. This is particularly the case if the protest is illegal. This runs counter to Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement, and counter to pro-life protesters jailed for violating bubble zones around abortion clinics. Christians often look to Romans 13:1-7 as a blanket requirement that we must always obey the government. Paul’s instruction in this passage is to be “subject to” the governing authorities because they are established by God. Interestingly, Paul goes on to say that only those who do wrong are punished, not those who do right.

Yet Paul was jailed for preaching the gospel and was ultimately executed in Rome. He was punished for fulfilling Christ’s command, which required that he violate some laws.

Peter also commanded Christians to submit to “every human authority” (1 Peter 2:13). Again, this is because punishment is only for wrongdoing. Peter also spent time in jail and was ultimately martyred. He was therefore also punished for fulfilling Christ’s command.

This kind of disobedience to government authorities is also evident in several parts of the Old Testament. When Pharaoh commanded the midwives in Egypt to kill all the male Hebrew babies, the midwives disobeyed (Exodus 1:17). God looked with favour on the midwives.

When King Nebuchadnezzar commanded the people to worship a golden image, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused and were punished in the blazing furnace (Daniel 3). Later, King Darius ordered all the people to pray to him but Daniel prayed only to God. He was punished in the lions’ den (Daniel 6). In both these situations, God saved these men from certain death.

Queen Esther put her life on the line by going before her husband, King Xerxes, when he had not requested her presence (Esther 5). Again, the king granted her grace and she lived to save her people.

So we can find a number of biblical examples of what we might call “civil disobedience.” Of course, most protests do not involve breaking the law. But these more extreme examples from the Bible indicate that there are times and places for refusing to obey unjust laws, particularly if unjust laws require believers to disobey the higher law of God.

At a minimum, we can agree that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 do not require Christians to act contrary to God’s word. But it also suggests that there are times and places for criticizing government policy. It suggests that Christians are not required to simply acquiesce to unjust policies.

Role Of The Christian Church

Is there a role for the church, as an institution, to protest? Churches have historically seen themselves as having a prophetic role in society. While local churches usually do not speak to government policy, some have condemned local initiatives such as establishing casinos or legalizing brothels.

Old Testament prophets called the people back to God, but often spoke directly to governing authorities as well. Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Nathan are good examples. The church clearly has a role in being a prophetic public voice.

But does that extend to calling for public protests? Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the church in South Africa to oppose apartheid and joined in demonstrations. The Roman Catholic Church had a significant role in the overthrow of the Communist government in Poland. One can debate whether Christians can ever be called to violent overthrow of a repressive regime, but certainly Christians are justified in various forms of peaceful, legal protest against an unjust government.

At times when the church is called to protest, Martin Luther King Jr.’s steps are a useful guide. Further, as Christians are commanded to love our enemies, even our protests must be respectful. We must always be willing to engage with those who oppose our message. And it means that we should take the time to thank those who listen to our message or support our cause.

One concern with the church engaging regularly in protests is that it will be perceived as a political institution, which could harm the work of the church to spread the gospel and make disciples. If people see Christians shouting angry slogans, it may harden them to hearing the message of salvation.

Individual Christian protesters are a different matter. While I would argue that the steps prior to protest should be taken, even for individuals, some feel called to be prophetic voices on certain issues. Father van Hee is an example. Those who engage in civil disobedience in order to draw attention to an issue must be prepared to pay the penalty. Linda Gibbons, Mary Wagner, and Donald Spratt have shown that they are willing to do so.

Individual Christians with a prophetic message of injustice have often gathered large movements behind them that have altered history. Archbishop Tutu and Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., fall in this category. But there are many others whose message has not been heard.

Christians who protest have different considerations than others. Protests are only appropriate as a last resort to persuade policy makers to change unjust laws. There are laudable examples of Christians who have used protests effectively. As King surmises, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.” Christians should ensure that our protests are productive and we know what to do when public policy makers are finally ready to listen. In the meantime, our protests must be in keeping with our faith; there is always a risk of not only undermining the cause we seek to promote but also undermining the cause of Christ. Even our protest should be governed by his Lordship.

Janet Epp Buckingham
Janet Epp Buckingham

Janet Epp Buckingham is a professor at Trinity Western University and the Director of the Laurentian Leadership Centre, an Ottawa-based, live-in, extension program focusing on leadership in public policy, business and communications.


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