The Russian revolution of 1917 got rid of the Tsars. It also gave birth to Stalin, something worth keeping in mind in a year where the Protestor is Time magazine’s Person of the Year. Kurt Andersen’s lead article essentially lumps together all the popular uprisings that took place in 2011, comparing events as different as the uprisings in Tahrir Square to the Occupy Wall Street movement (Kurt Andersen, “The Protester,” TIME, December 26, 2011/January 2, 2012, 33-67). While there are some obvious similarities — the use of social media, the fact that many of the protestors are young, middle class and educated, etc., — there are also crucial differences between, for example, getting rid of a despot like Muammar Gaddafi, and trying to correct the perceived failure of the American economic system. But all the protests have something in common. They are trying to get rid of something or someone that is deemed wrong, and they are trying to do it through popular protest.
This is a heady time and many Christians see such uprisings as opportunities to show our commitment to Kingdom values like compassion and justice, and as opportunities to show the world that we are relevant. Maybe I am older and more realistic (cynical?) but in the face of many invitations to march for what is right, I find myself feeling the need to slow down, to seek solitude, the need to seek the Lord. Sometimes we feel a bit apologetic to give a biblical perspective to the human situation. We fear being dismissed for giving only religious answers and not being taken seriously. We need not fear. We need to speak softly but we carry a big truth. The ultimate source of humankind’s problems is sin and that infects all of us, both the people in the palaces, and the people in the streets. And while human attempts to improve society may have some value, our ultimate hope is in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The battle cry of those who brought down President Suharto of Indonesia in 1998 was Reformasi (reformation). By and large, that change ushered in a better time for the country. Still, even then, some of us felt that ultimately, we needed something more than reformation. We needed transformation and only God can do that. Indeed the story of the Kings of Israel and Judah in the Old Testament is one long lesson that there is no human leader that can ultimately save us. We need a change of heart and only God can do that.
I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20 NIV)
Am I saying that followers of Jesus should never take part in any public protests? Of course not. But I need to ask: Which protest? When? Why? I also need to accept the fact that different folks in the faith may come to different conclusions on the matter. In 2006 I was with folks of different races and faith traditions standing in front of the Malaysian High Court holding a candle as we asked for justice in the Moorthy case. I believed it was the right thing to do. But I am no hero and definitely no protest junkie. When I participate I do so after much prayer and reflection and even then I am fully aware of the inherent ambiguities of my actions.
As in many things I am caught between a number of concerns. As a middle-class diaspora Chinese it is very easy for me to live in a comfortable cocoon, enjoying my faith intellectually and ahistorically. I fear such apathy. As Cameron Strang challenges us in an editorial in RELEVANT:
What is it you can do? Everyone can take action, and everyone can make a difference . . . God hasn’t called us to be spectators while others do the heavy lifting. We need to be about the things Jesus talked about, and give our lives to them. It won’t be convenient, nor easy, but it will be worth it. (Cameron Strang, “Be the change you want to see,” RELEVANT, Jan/Feb 2012, 8.)
There will be times when followers of Jesus must take part in efforts to dismantle evil systems and to call tyrants to account. On the other hand I want to make sure that my hopes, goals and methods are anchored in biblical truth, in true truth. So I anchor my hopes in God and His sovereign working in history. It is He who will make all things right in His time. And because He is on His throne I will not be easily shaken by the ups and downs of history. And while I may sometimes take part in protests against injustice, I will never forget that the ultimate solution to human problems is a divine one.
“The day Mubarak stepped down,” says Abdo Kassem, 25, an unemployed Cairene who’d never been politically active until he followed the Facebook protest instructions last January, “I was crying. For me, that was like bringing down a false god.” (Kurt Andersen, “The Protester,” 50.)
It is one thing to take down a false god. It is quite another to repent and acknowledge the Lordship of the true one.
‘the stone you builders rejected,
which has become the cornerstone.’
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:11-12 NIV)