Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.”
We are a nation born of protest, a reaction against unjust taxation, political disenfranchisement and military occupation. The first casualty of the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks, died protesting British soldiers in Boston.
The right to protest was so fundamental to the founding fathers’ vision for our nation, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” is included in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Throughout our history, patriotic Americans have raised their voices to demand the end of slavery, the right of women to vote, the end of segregation and against abuses of military and economic power. Our constitutional right to protest has helped form us into that, “more perfect union” to which we aspire.
When we read the prophet Micah, God is on the move. From the first chapter, we behold a dramatic scene as God vacates the Jerusalem temple and travels through the land—God’s radiance being so powerful that it melts everything in its path.
Through the prophet, God laments the oppression and exploitation of the poor, warning of the consequences of such neglect: “Hear this, you…who abhor justice and pervert all equity…because of you Zion shall be ploughed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins” [3:9-12].
In the courtroom of God’s judgment, the Lord issues grievances against God’s people. God’s history with Israel offers precedent for this indictment. How can people deny the claim God has upon our lives after the great things God has done for us? To call a wayward nation back to repentance, God reestablishes criteria for true faithfulness. “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [6:8].
In 1934, several hundred pastors, leaders and theologians gathered in the German city of Barmen to protest abuses of the Nazi-controlled government. After assuming power, Adolf Hitler sought to bring all aspects of German life under his control, abolishing individual freedoms, censoring the press, jailing political opponents, purging institutions and persecuting religious and ethnic minorities. Hitler intended to warp the church into another tool of the state.
The result of this meeting was, Theological Declaration of Barmen, which affirmed Christ alone as the Head of the Church, and denounced anyone who would seek to supplant Jesus as Lord. Many such leaders would pay a heavy price for their audacity. Still, through this act of faithful resistance, they would prove themselves to be on the right side of history.
Americans haven’t always equated patriotism with protest. In recent years we’ve seen protests over women’s rights, racial justice, abortion, health care, and immigration — the list goes on.
Each issue raises the zeal of those who feel passionately about them, but regardless of whether we agree or not, the right of Americans to peacefully protest is inviolable and sacrosanct. We do not possess the luxury of denying voice to those who do not look, think or believe as we do. We do not have to like it, but as a free nation, we must respect the beliefs of our fellow citizens — to suggest otherwise constitutes a betrayal of conscience and the principles upon which this nation was founded.
We can condemn extremism and we can denounce violence. Yet if we take away the right of others to dissent, we remove ours as well. If we deafen our ears to cries for justice, we’ll be unable hear God calling us to repentance.
When a nation refuses to show compassion to the most vulnerable and instead turns toward gods of its own making, it is the Lord who marches through the streets in protest, calling upon God’s people to live up to the sacred ideals we profess.
Not only is dissent the highest expression of patriotism in a free society, but faith calls us to do so whenever necessary. As Americans and as Christians, we do not just have “a” right to protest, we have every right!
Being Protestant, I belong to a protest movement 500 years in the making, ever since a lone monk confronted abuses of power by the church of his time. In doing so, Martin Luther would affirm the necessity of conscience and liberty in matters of faith, so that we may proclaim hope to the forgotten.
Each Sunday morning, we take a stand against those who claim authority over God’s sovereign love and grace. God stands with those who stand for justice, while fools wither before true righteousness.
The Lord demands freedom so we may accompany God on the way to a kinder, humbler and more just society.