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Protest and God’s Presence - An ON Scripture Feature

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, A Reflection By Brian Bantum

While every year is filled with its triumphs and its terrors, 2014 has been a year that has felt particularly fraught. It is not because this is a year where evil and terror appeared from nowhere, surprising us in our general euphoria or mundane lives. Perhaps, this year has seemed more fraught as the weight of evil seems to bear down on the lives of the marginalized in egregiously visible ways, flaunting its power and its certainty while so many stand watching, silent.

We have seen the granite blocks of America’s racial legacy continue to be heaved upon a purported road to progress, in the continued refusal to name the death of black men and women at the hands of police who serve to protect them. Though not new, this was the year we saw the system's face in its full, hellish fury. Eric Garner, Marissa Alexander, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice... and these are only the most public.

The protests in Ferguson, MO, seemed to spring from nowhere as spontaneous responses gathered in the streets, making visible the life of Michael Brown that had been so senselessly taken. From those protests emerged young women and men who would not let Brown's memory die and have continued to protest everyday for the last three months at great personal cost. Confronted with the state's refusal to seek truth, these protests have spurred declarations across the country that #BlackLivesMatter. As the streets of New York, Dallas, Berkeley, Seattle and so many other cities fill with determined voices, perhaps we are seeing the emergence of a powerful refusal to be hidden, to be disregarded, chained, shot, and criminalized.

Internationally, we have seen the Chinese government press more blatantly against the people of Hong Kong, navigating the precipice of contested nationality, seeking to more strictly control the pool of candidates who can be chosen in a “democratic” process. A contested relationship for decades finally poured into the streets in an "Umbrella Movement" as the Chinese sought to limit the democratic processes, people filled the streets and endured police brutality. In the face of this resistance, the protesters blocked traffic for weeks and occupied the center of Hong Kong's Central Government Complex.

In Mexico City, thousands marched against the president's use of government funds and improper relationship with business against the backdrop of a violent massacre of student teachers, all while the police remain poised more fervently against the protesters than towards the pursuit of justice for those killed. The streets filled with a desire to hold the government to account, calling for trust and action for the innocent.

Our fear of the other bears its teeth in the shadow of America’s perpetual campaign against the “forgeiner” seeking the possibility that America once purportedly was built around. A congressional body passes meaningless bills to simply say that if they had it their way, they would thwart making homes for those whose lives are already knit into our nation’s economic and cultural fabric. Some seek to protect themselves from the phantom "foreign" while waging war on the present poor, never seeing the land beneath our feet as never really having belonged to us in the first place.

In all of these moments, we see the reality of a world where power seems to pave over the ground of the lives it deems unnecessary. We see nations’ vision of “Zion,” of fullness, of “civilization” not in the flourishing of its people, but in its capacity to dominate the land and the people beneath its feet. To level hills and lay down crushed rock upon fertile ground. And perhaps most tragic of all, we have seen this violence resound in silent songs of normalcy and bitter resentment at the “interruptions” - our lament, our anger, our crying sorrow pouring into the streets - causes for those who wish to eat and be merry.

But this year was also unique, in recent years at least, because from beneath the concrete edifices of a deceptive social progress, bodies of righteousness began to force themselves into the light of day, sometimes through gaps in the slab or through cracks of their own making.

Upon streets, in malls and in the edifices of our advancement, people laid down. They stood where cars should carry people from one place to another. They crowded the entrance of commerce on its busiest days and flooded highways with umbrellas on days where there was no rain. In these moments, people's bodies and cries filled streets. Their protest made righteousness visible. They risk their lives with each step and derision with each shout. They are called "radical" and "thugs" and "rioters," but are they not the face a God who deplores the dehumanization of God's people? Is this not the enfleshment of God's anger when the dispossessed are silenced with batons or hidden by the media's boredom?

We asked people on the street about the effectiveness of demonstrations and protests.

In Isaiah 61:10 and 62:1, I was struck by the imagery of soil and growth in juxtaposition with the refusal to not speak – the compelling need to speak for Zion’s sake. Writing in the midst of exile and restoration, this text points to the prophet’s sense that there is a reality moving beneath our feet, that the certainty of our days is illusory. But what s certain is God’s working in our midst. That like a plant is drawn to sun the seed will spring tendrils of life and press its way through ground – so too are our lives drawn to light, to righteousness, to dignity, to fullness.

The land is not simply a natural entity, the mobilized power of military and economic security. More profoundly, land is an icon of love's orientation, of identity. That when planted in a space of cultivation, we will grow, we will nourish, we will be bountiful.

But what happens when the ground we are given is not received as a gift to be cultivated, but dominated? What if we press and flatten the hills or cover our fertile ground with crushed and heated stones, hiding it from the sun so that we can get from point A to point B with more ease? What if instead of rocks we build our flourishing upon the backs of our neighbors – our notions of national flourishing requiring the disappearance of certain bodies, the silence of certain voices, the dehumanization of any we deem a threat?

Isaiah’s prophetic words to an Israel that exists between exile and restoration are words that call it to remember the ground beneath its feet. As we see protests interrupt the ebb and flow of Black Friday, as “die-ins” sprout up in the streets of American cities, as umbrellas unfold in the streets of Hong Kong, amassing like wildflowers in concrete fields, we are witnessing the sprouting of seeds that cannot remain silent – that cannot lie dormant and dark, but press through the cracks of our normalcy – intruding into the illusion that our present prospering does not have a human cost.

How do we begin to make sense of the protests that have surged to the surface this year and what happens when they dissipate? In these protests we see the swelling of God's love for those whose voices have, for too long, been silenced. But as the crowds recede, can the church be a holy interruption, a seedbed of many voices, scattering them in the city, in schools, in neighborhoods to grow, and to press against the structures of an oppressive normalcy? Will the church wander in the wilderness of a spiritualized passivity, rationalizing its own safety and silence? Or will it drink deeply from the streams of living water? Will it orient itself towards the land of Jesus' body, the Word enfleshed to protest humanity's refusal of God and itself? Will the church say, "For Zion's sake, I will not remain silent?"

Bible Study Questions:

Isaiah writes repeatedly to Israel, warning them against idolatry. What are some ways idolatry is present in our contemporary society? What could "righteousness springing up" look like in the face of these idolatries?

 Isaiah implores the people to not remain silent. Protests are gatherings of people to bring visibility to an issue, but they are not the only way to speak. What are some other ways to speak in this moment?

Protest is a means of making the voices of marginalized people heard and making injustices that were hidden, seen. How can the church be a space to help voices be heard?

For Further Reading:

Ransby, Barbara. Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. (Gender & American Culture). Chapel Hill; London: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Rieger, Joerg, and Kwok, Pui-lan. Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude. Religion in the Modern World. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.

Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination / Walter Brueggemann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978.

The Umbrella Movement and Theology. Justin Tse, ed. Syndicate.

David Walker, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

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