Riots, peaceful protest and the church’s role

By Savi Hensman
August 14, 2011

On 14 August 2011, in church, we celebrated Mary, mother of Jesus. She first appears in the Gospels as a brave, dynamic teenager, hopeful of a better future for the oppressed through One she trusts – and willing to put her reputation and even life on the line for this.

She matures into a middle-aged woman, looking on as the son she loves is put to death by the forces of state and religion, and celebrating as he returns, overcoming even the power of death.

She sings:

[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty

(Luke 1.52-53)

In the wake of a week of riots and looting, churches have joined with others of goodwill to care for those who have been harmed. In some areas, they have opened their doors to those whose homes have been destroyed, and comforted the distressed and frightened, as well as trying to ease tensions. As well as condemning the actions of looters and rioters, church leaders have contributed to attempts to understand, and address, the factors that led to the flare-up.

In the longer term, pastors and laypeople have been working with disadvantaged and disaffected youth to help them channel their energies positively. So too have youth workers and community activists of other faiths and none. The value of such patient work should not be underestimated.

The actions of the rioters and looters harmed others and themselves, and ultimately bought into – as well as being a reaction to – the consumerism and pursuit of self-interest glorified in this society. Projects which persuaded some young people to steer clear of the trouble deserve praise.

Yet peace, in the biblical sense, is more than the absence of violence: justice, too, matters deeply. In the Observer, US contributors have written about the CeaseFire programme, involving academics and community organisations. Recognising how violent moods can spread through crowds and communities, it works in several cities on changing people’s behaviour during situations which could blow up into riots. This draws on "violence interrupters" or "outreach workers" from within communities.

Tio Hardiman, director of CeaseFire Illinois, wrote about an incident he witnessed in 2007, when police shot a young man in Chicago and prevented family and friends from going to him as he lay dying. The anger erupted, and “Residents went tearing into the street squaring off against the police, mobs formed and the young men close to the victim went off to get their guns.”

He and his colleagues went into action. “At the end of the day, what those young men needed most – to be heard – is what we provided. We listened. We listened for hours. And we talked... Eventually, we were able to channel that energy into a peaceful demonstration. Around midnight we marched on the police station and held a vigil. No more shots were fired that day. No one else was killed.”

Christianity offers a rich store of ideas, stories and practices, drawing on Scripture and tradition, for exploring issues of love and justice, dealing with the emotions these evoke and taking action. All too often, the church is seen as being on the side of the powers-that-be, and indeed many Christians shy away from the radicalism of Mary’s song and Jesus’ life and teachings. But there is also an ongoing history of resistance to the gross inequalities of wealth and power which blight this world, including nonviolent direct action.

Church communities which proclaim good news to the poor and liberation to the oppressed (Luke 4.16-30) risk being condemned as ‘subversive’. No doubt some congregations and religious leaders will not be willing to take this risk, or find it too hard to break with the culture of conformity to society’s norms and structures of power and privilege. Others, however, may be willing, like Mary, to be bold.


© Savi Hensman is an Ekklesia associate, a Christian commentator on social and church affairs, and works in the care and equalities sector.

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