Thursday, July 21, 2016

Some Things I’ve Learned Along the Way

Soon I’ll be seventy years old.  It’s hard to fathom this, since I still feel twenty-five.

When I was young, I lived for moments.  Today, I’m living for time. Langston Hughes has a poem that included the line, “life is short, but God is long.”  That’s how I feel these days.

My decades as a Christian activist have taught me valuable lessons.  I’ve had to learn a lot of these things the hard way, but I boiled a handful of “lessons” down to twelve common sense and overlapping principles of protest, some of which are adapted from my book Free At Last? — all of which are based on familiar biblical truths. 

They’ve served me well at different levels of cultural engagement, so I offer them as a reminder of our true focus, the gracious God who has ‘shown us what is good.’  I hope they can help us avoid the “syncretistic subculture” discussed in my last blog, and save us unnecessary tears and wasted years as we seek to ‘do what the Lord requires of us — namely “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with...God” (Micah 6:8).

Many of you in the field will already be familiar with these concepts, but there are also some men and women I’ve spoken with who are just wading into the waters of protest and prayer, even at this stage.  If you don’t find these principles helpful today, I hope they will be useful in the years to come.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned, there will always be something in our immediate surroundings that will fall short of God’s plan for a just society.

Guiding Principles of Protest

1)  Our prime directive is The Great Commission — Habakkuk 2:14.
Everything we do should hasten the day when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of thLord, as the waters cover the sea.”  Therefore as we go, whether across the seas or across the tracks; whether to teach or to preach; whether to pray or to protest; etc., we should be making “disciples” (Matthew 28:18-22) – those who are learning to obey ‘all things that Christ commands.’  A disciple can be an individual or a culture, however a disciple is not necessarily a convert.  Yet the more Christ’s commands are applied, the better the quality of life.

I saw most fruit in the field when the young Christian activist was engaged in prophetic discipleship — both to those we protest against, and to the protestors themselves.  These efforts will be successful if, at the end of the protest, people on both sides of the controversy have a greater consciousness of the glory of God.  It makes no difference whether this “consciousness” is embraced or suppressed.  The real issue will be exposed to the light of truth.  I would go so far as to say the positive effect of prophetic discipleship will even go beyond the remedy of the grievance.  This is transformative protest

In his speech that set the tone of the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-56), Dr. Martin Luther King pointed out that the significance of this protest had the potential to set a positive precedence for years to come.

 If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, “There lived a great people — a [Black] people — who injected new meaning and dignity in the veins of civilization. This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.” *

Protest without prophetic discipleship is non-transformative and empty.  It may change the status quo, but if the problems of flawed human nature are not diminished through transformation, they will come back and bite us — often nullifying what the protest is trying to accomplish.  Perhaps we are where we are today because hearts in my generation were merely legislated, yet not transformed.

2)  There is power in our transcendent reference point.

When the protest goals are secondary to our prime directive of discipleship, we will make more progress than when the protest goals are primary.  A transcendent reference point multiplies the effectiveness of the protest exponentially.  To use an analogy, my love for my wife is second to my love for God; because my love for God is first, she gets much more love from me than if she was first.  Such is the quality and nature of God’s love that I receive.

In my early days, I learned that it was difficult to fully exercise the prime directive under the leadership of those who leave out the most important purpose of the protest – the glory of God.

Our transcendent reference point is the basis of our wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).  It is our redemptive God-given contribution to the cause for which we protest.  Without this unique contribution, our voice merely becomes another run-of-the-mill addition to the cacophony, contributing to today’s cultural confusion.

We can be “co-belligerents” with groups with a non-transcendent reference point, but it’s difficult to be allies.  Non-transcendent ideologies are simply not radical enough for the Christian activist.  The Christian activist is looking for transformation of society, its systems, and individual hearts.  For us, there’s nothing more radical than transformation. 

3)  Seek the moral high ground.

Jesus demonstrated this and we should follow suit.  He did not ‘judge by what he saw with his eyes, or decide by what he heard with his ears’ he judged “with righteousness...” (Isaiah 11:3b-4a).  In other words, hear-say or first appearance are not reliable sources of information on which to base a protest.

The Christian activist, if he or she is consistent, will take the time to ascertain and sort out the facts.  The Christian voice may not be the first heard, but will be the strongest voice heard — a prophetic voice.

We live in a universe created and lorded over by the infinite personal Creator whose moral principles will always be fulfilled.  Thus, the more we align with His moral principles, the more power we will have in addressing the wrongs against which we protest.

Without moral clarity, the point of the protest becomes bogged down, clouded and confused.

4)  Seek Kingdom righteousness in your protest.

The more righteous the protest, the more powerful the protest.  The only basis for judging between good and evil is the character of God.  That which conforms to God’s character is right, and that which goes against his character is wrong.  Important aspects of right and wrong are righteousness and unrighteousness.

Righteousness is a relational term.  It simply means “doing right by the other party in the relationship.”  Two expressions of righteousness are a) piety, doing right by God in a narrow sense — involving devotion and ceremony, and b) justice, doing right by fellow human beings.

            For the victims of injustice or oppression, justice has two basic applications a) liberation from oppression, and b) empowerment to do the right thing.  For the perpetrators of injustice and oppression, justice involves the swift and compassionate application of the legal consequences of their actions and omissions.

For the Christian activist, justice for the oppressed must be pursued and visualized through the lens of righteousness.

5)  Avoid ad-hominem arguments.

In today’s emotionally charged cultural context, ad-hominem attacks are common.  They are aimed at destroying the person who holds the views we oppose, rather than dismantling the views themselves.  This is violence.  Ad-hominem attacks distract us from the real issues, and lay the groundwork for our protest to be interpreted by others with counter intentions.  In the end, we may end up with a new tyranny as bad or worse than the injustice we protest against.

We all want to be treated with dignity, compassion and respect.  It was all too easy back in ‘the day’ to see the provocateurs of the protest as a dehumanized enemy.  In the heat of many tense moments, we had to constantly remind ourselves, not only do our opponents bear God’s image just like us, but they are sinners in need of grace — just like us.  By failing to act on this truth, or by engaging in ad-hominem violence, or by not calling it sin when we see it occur around us, we forfeit the moral high ground.

            Yes, be angry if you must.  But focus that anger primarily on the grievance itself, not necessarily on the people behind the grievance.

6)  Avoid being provocative beyond the offence of the grievance itself.

Let the grievance do the speaking for you.  When we embellish the grievance with unnecessary provocation, it clouds the issue and is counterproductive.  The cause of justice does not need the help of evils such as hatred and falsehood.  Anger?  Yes, but anger without sin (Ephesians 4:26).  The less anger is accompanied by evil, the more efficacious will be the anger.  The more anger is accompanied by love, the more efficacious will be the anger.

So, speak the truth in love, demonstrate the truth in love, dramatize the truth in love, chant the truth in love, SHOUT the truth in love, etc.  In other words, be forceful, but do it in love — a powerful weapon indeed.

7)  Let the Word of God do the heavy lifting.

The Word of God can be spoken without giving its chapter and verse, yet it has the same power either way.  The Word is still the Word whether it is quoted directly, paraphrased, dramatized, expressed in narratives, articulated in ‘spoken word,’ rhymed in ‘hip hop,’ chanted in slogans, etc.  Too many times the Christian community has been so uncreative with the Word that we fail to communicate it — often giving the impression that the Word is a set of tired  and powerless clichés.

We have yet to tap into the wisdom and power available to us in the Word.  The Word of God is the power that created this universe (John 1:1-3) — a reality so vast that we don’t know where it ends.  The same “Word” also sustains the universe (Hebrews 1:3).  That being the case, it should not surprise us that the “Word” will ‘accomplish what it desires and achieve the purpose for which it was sent.’ “It will not return...empty” (Isaiah 55:11).

When the Word is rightly and creatively applied to the art of protest, its effect will be tangible.
8)  Justice does not equal revenge.

Many cite an “eye for an eye” and a “tooth for tooth” (Deuteronomy 19:21) as a justification for revenge.  On the contrary, this is a “lex talionis” — a law of limitation.  In other words, “no more than an eye for an eye, no more than a tooth for tooth.”

The wise Christian activist helps his or her co-belligerents take a stand of ‘non-vengeance’ — leaving the vengeance to God because he or she knows that God can and will do a far better job of revenge than we can imagine.

On the other hand, many cite Jesus words to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) as a call to be punks.  This twisted interpretation has contributed to the toxic perceptions of Christianity among our urban youth.  On the contrary, “turn the other cheek” is a statement of ‘non-vengeance.”  It is also a call to respond to an enemy in a way he least expects.  Therefore, if your enemy expects you to be mean, then be kind.  On the other hand, if your enemy expects you to be a punk, then be aggressive.

Never let the one against whom you are protesting put you in a box; when he tries, bust it open.  As Christ’s ambassadors, we are called to be diplomats — not door-mats.

9)  Words have different meanings to different communities.

When we define the points of agreement with our co-belligerents, we must make sure that our shared words have the same meaning.  When that is impossible, we must make sure that we understand what they mean and they understand what we mean.  On that basis, we can make intelligent decisions whether or not, or how to cooperate.

The more our co-belligerents understand how our words and concepts fit into our worldview, the more they will understand our transcendent perspective.  This will contribute to our discipleship agenda.

On the other hand, for the protest to have its desired effect, we must learn the language of our opponents.  Communication is a key to protest, not just words.  In our slogans, chants, rally cries, etc., it is wise to choose words that our opponents understand that will confront them with the truth — leaving them without the option of ignoring the issue at hand and the Ultimate Source of the truth we communicate.  This too will contribute to our discipleship agenda.

10)  Let the true narrative of the grievance be self-evident.

Integrity is key for the Christian activist, so there’s no need to “juke” (manipulate) a narrative to make our point.  Manipulating the narratives might seem to give the protest a short term advantage but it will ultimately undercut it, causing it to lose its power.  As a protest loses moral power, the easier it is for the opponent to explain it away as mere agitation or dismiss it as a nuisance.

Because our opponents bear God’s image and live in God’s world, they have a God-given sense of good and evil, and justice and injustice (Romans 2:14-16).  No matter how hard they try, they will never succeed in ‘suppressing’ this truth (Romans 1:18-20).  The power is in the truth, not in deception.; admit and affirm truth, even when it’s hard.

11)  Tranquility does not equal peace.

I have observed that many in the dominant culture confuse these two.  However, an unjust tranquility is an unstable and volatile sham that needs to be disrupted and demolished.  This is why we protest.

True peace is more than tranquility; it is a state of being that leads to God’s original plan for human flourishing.
This is what we point to as the goal of our protest.

12)  Our involvement in protest must have a redemptive and transformative role.

Since the role of the Christian activist is to speak prophetically to all sides in the controversy, important questions need to be answered.  How is the controversy framed?  What is the aim of the protest?  Is it advocating a solution or is it fomenting unrest for other purposes?

As a young activist,  I had to learn the hard way that what counts is the net prophetic messageprophetic credits (resulting from the wise things we do) minus prophetic debits (resulting from the foolish things we do).   Our prophetic messages will never match the caliber of biblical messages.  After all, the Bible is “God breathed.”  This is revelation.  The key for Christian activists is to be biblical by maximizing our prophetic credits, and minimizing prophetic debits.  The net message will be illumination.

Distinctions must be made when we invoke a rally cry framed by unbiblical parameters.  On the other hand, if a protest organization has a valid rally cry but is inconsistent in applying it, we must lovingly critique this inconsistency.  If we fail to do so we release more unwanted prophetic debits, and blunt the impact of the protest.

In summary, implementing these principles will amplify the power of protest to change the unjust status quo and maximize the quality of the resulting change.  However, there is no guarantee that our opponents or our non-Christian co-belligerents will receive our transcendent message; that’s up to God.  However, we will have fulfilled our prime directive, society will be better off, and God will be glorified.

Final Observations

I recognize that just like the great creeds and confessions were not first drafts, we can’t expect to get our theological formulations and practices perfect on first blush.  We need to find our way together.  This is a process that will take time, sweat, love and patience.  I’m open to talking about these principles, and having them adjusted for today’s application.  Even as I approach seventy, I’m still learning.

If we continue to pursue this together, the entire church — both in the dominant culture and the subdominant culture — will benefit from a theology of protest we can apply to any and all issues, not just those of today.

If you can think of further biblical lessons beyond these twelve, feel free to add them in the comment section.

There’s more that I want to share with you.  Look for it soon.


*Martin Luther King Jr., StrideToward Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), pp. 61-63.


  1. Thank you for offering this critically important Biblical framework for protest.

  2. Such helpful thinking and theologizing. I would also be helped if specific examples were given to illustrate your points. For examples, what are some of the words that have different meanings (#9), or what are some of the ad-hominem arguments used (#5)?

  3. Dr. Ellis, Thank you so much for this post! I look forward to the next one!

    I'm in the Atlanta area and we have many friends in common but I've never had the honor of meeting you. I hope the Lord makes that possible one day soon.

  4. Carl,
    I only have two points to make here. First, you are chronological pioneer for me and I don't feel like I am 25. How do you do it?

    Second, when I became involved in activism, I became determined to let my activism revolve around the parable of the 2 men praying. What follows is that I could either protest as the pharisee or I could protest as the publican. The difference is that as the pharisee, I would call for a swift and harsh judgment on all who commit injustices. As the latter one, I not only seek relief for the oppressed, I seek the repentance of and reconciliation for a peer. Thus, I try to call the oppressor to change in the same way that I want others to call me to change.