Monday, October 3, 2011

The Soul Force of Protest

Civil disobedience (noun) 1. the refusal to obey certain laws or governmental demands for the purpose of influencing legislation or government policy, characterized by the employment of [nonviolent techniques], including protesting, boycotting, picketing, and nonpayment of taxes.         --Random House Dictionary

What if humans could change the world, not with bombs or bullets, not with money or power, not through violence or oppression, not through corrupt governments or inept Kings and Presidents, but instead with just one simple idea? It’s happening right now, and this earth-changing idea was born in 1848 in the mind of one our locals, Henry David Thoreau, right up the road in Concord.  

Thoreau morally opposed slavery and American expansionism in the Mexican-American War and believed that in paying his taxes he was forced to support governmental actions he wholly disagreed with.  Rather than pay those taxes, he refused and was arrested and jailed by the civil authorities.  In his 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience (Resistance to Civil Government)”, he wrote, “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”

Thoreau’s philosophy is simple, elegant and most important, non-violent.  Rather than take up arms against the government, Thoreau argued the best way to affect change was for citizens to literally put their bodies and freedom on the line.  To civilly, not violently, protest government and other forms of oppressive power.  Gandhi read about Thoreau’s idea while in a jail cell.  Martin Luther King employed this ideal and almost singlehandedly gave birth to the civil rights movement.  And today, right now, Thoreau’s idea is on the move once again.

Beginning last December in the Middle East, the Arab Spring has swept across a region of the world long dominated by violent and repressive regimes, by military backed dictators and uber-rich and corrupt monarchies.  In just ten months, non-violent revolutions and protests have broken out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Oman. 

Even Americans are following Thoreau’s lead.  Last month more than 1,000 folks were arrested and jailed outside the White House in protest against the Tar Sands oil pipeline which is proposed to be built from Canada down into the southern United States.  Last weekend 700 peaceful protesters were arrested in New York City, as a part of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which seeks to confront corporate greed and government inaction in the face of the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.  Heck even Bostonians are getting in the act, with hundreds of folks recently marching against Bank of America and its refusal to more compassionately modify thousands of mortgages gone bad. 

As a person of faith and a citizen, what most impresses me about all of these protests is the willingness of protesters to use “soul force” (Gandhi’s term) to confront and topple governmental and institutional power gone bad.  Soul force is the idea that moral truth can be vindicated and achieved, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.  You protest oppressive power, not by hurting your oppressor, but by sacrificing your own self.  You march until your feet are numb. You confront tanks and soldiers peaceably. You meet the power of the sword with the power of love. You put your body on the line to save Creation.  You sleep on the sidewalk to say that the rich and the elite have taken away far too much from the poor and the middle class.  You sit in a jail cell and give up your freedom for an ideal.

Who knows just how far all these domestic and international non-violent protest movements will go and whether or not they will succeed?  That’s not clear yet.  But me? I have an immense amount of respect and admiration for the protesters who see the world as it is and yet refuse to accept that status quo.  Who have the courage to fight for freedom and fairness and compassion and go beyond words and best intentions to actually put their lives on the line.  Who recognize that at certain critical times in human history, the only way to force the powerful to give up power is to confront them directly, but always in peace. 

Takes a lot of guts and moral fortitude.  Yet finally this is how the world changes.  When moral truth speaks to power and then the truth wins. But first someone has to be on those frontlines. 

So thank you protesters.  And thanks Henry.  You started a revolution.



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