Speak in ways they can understand
Speak in ways they can understand

Speak in ways they can understand

There are good and important reasons to protest. But is this what global leaders expect and respond to?

July 2 nd 2010

What is all the fuss about? Why does an economic summit require security walls, police presence, helicopters flying to and fro? Yes, I am talking about the G20 in Toronto (coming up a few days hence at the time of this writing). The security aspects of the G20 are a huge part of the reported billion dollars it will cost.

It is all about the protestors. Well, there is some concern that it is a target for terrorists as well.

But it is not just the government that has barricaded in Toronto; shops have closed up and boarded their windows. It does not exactly show the city at its best. But if past G8 and G20 Summits are any guide, the extreme measures are necessary.

G8/G20 protesters seem to be a breed unto themselves. (I say this as if they are homogeneous—they are not.) What are they protesting? Some raise important issues like economic justice, environmental degradation, and human rights. But some are just anarchists and like to blow things up and throw bricks.

You do wonder if some folk saw, or participated in, important protests in the 60s and want to be just like them. The Raging Grannies, for example, seem to be trying to relive their youthful sit-in days.

There are good and important reasons to protest. I do not deny that. There has been enormous power in people taking to the streets. Gandhi developed the practice of non-violent protest after being thrown off a train in South Africa because he refused to move from first class to third class. Sounds a lot like Rosa Parks—but this happened in 1893. Gandhi later organized all Indians in South Africa to boycott the trains and was able to win concessions from the government regarding rights and recognition for Indians.

Gandhi successfully took this model of peaceful protest to India and mobilized his fellow countrymen. Ultimately, this campaign brought India its independence from Britain.

Peaceful protests also played a huge role in ending discrimination against African-Americans in the southern United States. Of course, many of these protests turned violent as well.

And there have been more recent protests, like the one in Ukraine in 2004-05, the so-called Orange Revolution. Sustained peaceful protest was a factor in forcing a new election after reports of vote-rigging.

But there is a very dark side to protests and public mobs. We are only too aware that it was a mob that shouted for Jesus to be crucified, forcing Pilate to order his death even though no valid criminal charge existed.

Gandhi himself faced a lynching mob on more than one occasion.

Notice the difference even in the wording we use—a peaceful protest turns into a violent mob. It becomes a mob "when it is "lawless, disorderly and riotous."

The biblical examples of protest are always directed towards God. Time and time again, the people "cried out" to God and repented. The protesters at the G8 and G20 are closer to the biblical tradition of the prophetic voice. They are trying to call governments to account for their actions. Old Testament prophets called down God's judgment on the nations for failing to act justly.

It does seem somehow odd that the protestors of the G8 and G20, who are from these countries, are trying to influence these global meetings rather than influencing their own governments.

Perhaps the other odd thing is that these meetings occur at all. As some protestors have pointed out, we have the G192 that meets rather peacefully in New York. The United Nations buildings do not seem to require the fence and police presence that are needed that the G8 and G20. Why have these meetings become such a target?

The G8 dates back to the mid-1970s oil crisis. The presidents of France and Germany called together leaders from the largest economies to respond. It now includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but other countries are regularly invited. The goal is to address global problems.

They have dealt with topics such as terrorism, the environment, and energy security. The host country promotes its agenda. Canada likes to focus on international development. At the 2002 G8, Prime Minister Jean Chretien made African development the top priority: the unfortunately named NEPAD initiative. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made maternal health his top priority, unfortunately hijacked by the abortion debate.

The G20 started as a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors back in the late 1990s following the meltdown of the Asian economies. Canada's Finance Minister at the time, Paul Martin, was a driving force behind its creation. The country leaders of the G20 started meeting following the economic crisis of 2008 at the invitation of President Bush. The G20 is likely to replace the G8 as the forum for dealing with global economic issues.

This long description does not really answer the question why these global fora attract protesters of all stripes. Perhaps it is because it is a symbol of globalization. But isn't the United Nations symbolic of that as well? Perhaps it is because it is the wealthy countries and gives no voice to the developing countries. It is significant that the G20 countries control 85% of the economy, while there are 192 countries at the United Nations.

But perhaps Jian Ghomeshi, of the CBC program Q, put his finger on the real issue; maybe it is the wall itself that draws protesters to throw things at it and try to breach it. I seem to remember a certain tree in a certain garden that had that effect on a certain woman long ago.

Christians in some countries have been more active in public protests. British Christians have chained themselves to the gates of embassies when religious liberty was threatened in those countries.

Even in Canada, the annual March for Life attracted 15,000 this year. It has been growing every year. That is a good number for Canada, but still not dramatic. And no one lay down on the road like Iranian protesters did in Toronto last summer.

I am not calling on Christians to take to the streets. But I do wonder if there will ever be an issue that we feel passionate enough about to take to actually protest, or boycott. And I mean protest in a sustained way that will make a difference.

I am sympathetic to the calls for justice some protesters raised in relation to the G8 and G20. But because of the chaos and the anarchists, those cries get drowned out.

For the last few years, a parallel World Religions Summit has gathered leaders of many religions prior to the G8. It met June 21 to 23. This year, the religious leaders called on global leaders in a careful crafted joint statement to address poverty, care for the environment, and invest in peace. It met in Winnipeg, where there were no barricades and no police presence.

Perhaps this statement is the better way to go. It is carefully worded and fits the diplomatic typology that global leaders expect and respond to. This declaration also calls for accountability and global justice.

If we are looking for impact, protesting in the streets is rarely effective. It has only worked in very specific circumstances. To actually have an impact, one needs to understand the system and work in ways to which it responds.

Topics: Justice
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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