But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven (Matthew 5:44-45).
Question: I know we should not participate in protests of any kind, but it seems that we can be influenced to some extent by them. What do you think our reaction should be as believers to these trends of increasing social unrest and malcontent?
It is true that we have recently observed protesting and violence in our streets that is among the worst in a generation. It rivals that of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of the 1950’s, 60’s, and early 70’s. Divisiveness and social unrest in this country has taken its toll in human life and property destruction, and only seems to be worsening. We fully recognize that what may appear to be purely social movements for a cause, are often undermined by political activists and extremists to achieve different ends from those at the root of the protests.
Our questioner introduces a valid concern. While we should all be able to say that we have never actively engaged in a protest, and certainly not any form of violence related to one; is the general prevalent discontent in the world today rubbing off on us as believers? It is, in fact, so easy to get caught up in all the grumbling about the problems in our society – the political divisiveness, racial injustice, police brutality, and general inequities across the increasingly diverse makeup of our population. These are real problems in this country and elsewhere in the world. But, what should our reaction be, and how are they affecting our thinking and our walk as brothers and sisters of Christ?
Should we be getting involved in these causes, even the ones that may seem to reflect our concerns, things we may feel passionate about and are a matter of conscience? These may be difficult questions, but what we do know is that we shouldn’t become “entangled” with the world and associate ourselves with “unbelievers” that we are expected to remain separate from (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). Part of the difficulty is that many “Christians” are involved in these movements, including public protests, and we may feel some kinship with their concerns for their fellow man. Our hearts go out to those who have been mistreated, or much worse, to the underprivileged and disenfranchised in society.
What attitude should we as believers take? To help answer this month’s question and those related to it, let us first consider…
THE EXAMPLE OF CHRIST
Christ taught that we must not retaliate in kind to evil or violence. Instead, we should keep ourselves beyond reproach and bring nothing but righteousness to bear in every circumstance. One’s heart should not harbor resentment or anger, whatever his friends or foes might do. But I say unto you, that you resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5:39, 44).
These words are far removed from agitation, retaliation, protest and violence. We know that Jesus himself lived his words. Was he an agitator? Was he a revolutionary? Did he try to organize a movement bent on bringing about political or social change through public pressure or protest? Did he even attempt to enforce his standards on those who did not want to follow after him? “No!” Christ never roused his followers to rebellion, or even to demonstrations for equality of opportunity. Rather his counsel was to resist not evil (Matthew 5:39), but rather to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21); not to grumble or complain about the circumstances of life, but to rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven (Matthew 5:12)
Christ lived in a country that was occupied by a pagan power. There were heathen Romans walking the streets of Jerusalem. Some of his fellow Jews had formed themselves into a terrorist band known as the Zealots who planned to use violence against the Romans when the time was right. Most Jews despised the Romans and regarded them as “dogs.” And we know that violence did erupt which the Romans tried to suppress, but it could not be quenched, eventually leading to the atrocities and destruction of AD 70.
During his life and ministry, what did Jesus do about these things? As the Son of God, in His land, what steps did he urge against the dominance of the Romans? None: absolutely nothing! There were no words of resentment expressed, no words of instruction that they should resist or try to violently overthrow Roman authority. In fact, one of the disciples had been a Zealot, but he had to learn that such behavior was not compatible with the way of Christ. Far from using inflammatory language, Jesus seemed to ignore the whole situation. His silence and absence of any form of political protest, even when his own life was at stake during his trial before Pilate, is a remarkable example for us as strangers and pilgrims in the land.
On one occasion, Jesus was reminded of an incident of massacre and brutality in the province where he grew up, There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1). Jesus made no comment about the motivation of the soldiers and did not pronounce a judgment against them or their commanders; but instead he addressed the nature of the victims and the implications for everyone, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things? I tell you Nay: but except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish (vss. 2-3).
On another occasion when the chief priests and scribes tried to trap him into saying something against the Roman government and taxation, his response was simply, Render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s (Luke 20:25). Is not this another example of our Lord telling us not to protest or complain in any way against governmental authority, but to obey the laws of the land?
THE MESSAGE OF THE APOSTLES
Christ’s apostles also had much to say about the influence of their society and how his followers should or shouldn’t be influenced by it. Society in the Roman Empire outside the land of Israel was very different from that in which Jesus lived and preached. There was idolatry, gross immorality, and corruption of all kinds. The point is that these differences did not cause the apostles to alter the teaching of their Master; they never tried to adapt it to make it more “appropriate” to the prevailing circumstances of pagan society as they traveled to these other lands. It was clear to them that a believer’s behavior was set by their Messiah and his Father, and not by circumstances in which one finds themselves, whether good or bad. The overarching principle that Paul and the other apostles taught was that our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:20 ESV).
The critical point is this: The view of Christ’s brethren must be much wider than the panorama of their own times and circumstances of life. They do not see themselves as having the right to seek political change or to cry for social justice. Such rights have not been given us by our Master, for we are to conduct ourselves as fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19). What the apostles commanded was to simply seek peace, and pursue it (1 Peter 3:11 NKJV); to live peaceably with all men (Romans 12:18). We should not be tempted to believe that these verses suggest we should involve ourselves in even a “campaign” for peace. Again, if we look at the example of Christ and his disciples, they never campaigned for secular causes. Any “campaigning” was always on behalf of the Truth and righteousness, and often against the Judasizers and their promotion of the Law of Moses over the doctrine of Christ (Hebrews 6:1; 2 John 1:9).
GOD'S RIGHTS VS. HUMAN RIGHTS
Demand for various “human rights” is what is behind much of the protesting that we observe today. It has even become a large part of the modern Gospel that is preached in the churches. Should that be our rallying cry as believers, or should it be about the will of God which is largely ignored by secular society? Little, if any, of God’s will is taken into account when political or other activists take to the streets, or when social reformers campaign for their causes.
We know that God is in control of the affairs of men as the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will (Daniel 4:17). For us to resist our governing bodies and their authority is to resist God’s appointments. And it is not a matter of whether a government or leader is good or bad. It is because God is in control that we should not in any way resist His ordinance in the affairs of men. It is because we believe that the true disciple will not engage in politics, protests or any “battle” that the citizens of this world might attempt to wage. Instead, his disciples, humbly and in faith, are to follow their Master in adopting what his Father has ordained.
CONDUCT OF CITIZENS OF THE FUTURE KINGDOM
In summary – If believers in this 21st century are not to be involved in the protests and demands for change in our society, how should we conduct ourselves as we await our Lord’s return and the establishment of his kingdom?
We counter evil with goodness and live our lives in a way that sets an example for others to follow.
We do not protest in any way (which includes grumbling about our earthly leaders and other circumstances of life), instead we will proclaim the Gospel message.
We will not sign petitions, yet we petition our Heavenly Father in prayer.
We will not join in the campaigns or marches for reform or human rights, yet we will conduct a life-long campaign on behalf of our Lord and Master that we might one day soon participate in the march of the immortalized saints to Jerusalem.
We will not take part or take sides in the confrontations between political or societal factions; we serve a higher authority.
Our allegiance must be to the king of the ages, immortal, the only God, to whom be honor and glory for ever and ever (1 Timothy 1:17 ESV)
Note: This month’s response includes thoughts from the pamphlet “Christ and Protest” by Brother Harry Tennant, originally published by CMPA (UK).