Is the Church prepared to engage with civil resistance & non-violent protest?

‘Water belongs to the people’ Bolivian water protests in 2000

In A Time when civilian movements are becoming more and more common globally, when protests have intensified and gathered ‘do or die’ courage and momentum, when insecurity has both entrenched and displaced and scattered community in a myriad of complex ways, it seems right and good to seek to understand The Time and particularly, for those of us who are People of Faith, to seek to grapple with our response to The Time we are in.

Jewish sociologist, Emile Durkheim, thinking and writing in the context of the Industrial Revolution, notes the profoundly stabilising social function that order (even to some extent bad order) has and how a break from order creates a break from meaning which can result in alienation and produce new contexts of insecurity and ‘normlessness’ which he termed anomie. Contexts of anomie are highly volatile and dangerous. Unlike Weber, Durkheim conceives social cohesiveness around innate social tendencies towards solidarity which can be disrupted either by excesses of ego (excessive individualism and self-agrandissement) or, in his time, the fragmenting processes associated with Industrialisation (which he writes about in The Division of Labour). A break with order thus has inevitable destabilising consequences which need to be mitigated by the introduction of a New Order.

Richard Horsley, in his book, Religion and Empire: People, Power and the life of the Spirit, notes that the ‘order’ associated with Empire (which would include, in his view, the current neo-liberal form of globalisation) is in fact a ‘disorder’ and he closes the book with this:

The new world (dis-)order is suffused with power and powers. Critical analysis and awareness of how these powers operate and the effects they have can help enable religious communities to respond self-critically as well as creatively.

Resistance movements and protests highlight perception of ‘disorder’ and the recently published book, Civil Resistance and Power Politics co-edited by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash is the fruit of the Oxford University project on civil resistance which was established in 2006.  It is a very useful text which catalogues the many differing quests for political, economic, and social change over the past half-century, most of which have been nonviolent.

Here is a useful product description from Amazon:

This widely-praised book identified peaceful struggle as a key phenomenon in international politics a year before the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt confirmed its central argument. Civil resistance – non-violent action against such challenges as dictatorial rule, racial discrimination and foreign military occupation – is a significant but inadequately understood feature of world politics. Especially through the peaceful revolutions of 1989, and the developments in the Arab world since December 2010, it has helped to shape the world we live in. Civil Resistance and Power Politics covers most of the leading cases, including the actions master-minded by Gandhi, the US civil rights struggle in the 1960s, the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the ‘people power’ revolt in the Philippines in the 1980s, the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa, the various movements contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989-91, and, in this century, the ‘colour revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine. The chapters, written by leading experts, are richly descriptive and analytically rigorous. This book addresses the complex interrelationship between civil resistance and other dimensions of power. It explores the question of whether civil resistance should be seen as potentially replacing violence completely, or as a phenomenon that operates in conjunction with, and modification of, power politics. It looks at cases where campaigns were repressed, including China in 1989 and Burma in 2007. It notes that in several instances, including Northern Ireland, Kosovo and, Georgia, civil resistance movements were followed by the outbreak of armed conflict. It also includes a chapter with new material from Russian archives showing how the Soviet leadership responded to civil resistance, and a comprehensive bibliographical essay. Illustrated throughout with a remarkable selection of photographs, this uniquely wide-ranging and path-breaking study is written in an accessible style and is intended for the general reader as well as for students of Modern History, Politics, Sociology, and International Relations.

As (good) research gives us ever clearer ‘maps’ of socio-political phenomena of Our Time the question for the Church (and of course for People of Faith more widely), is how do we interpret and live the message of hope and radical social justice of the Gospel in times such as these?

When I went to Bolivia as a mission partner with my husband and family, one of my earliest realisations was that I was largely unprepared to understand, respond to or engage with the considerable civil unrest we encountered there in the aftermath of the Water Riots (2000) and the indigenous uprisings against oligarchic-style, neo-liberal leadership of the country. I had neither a deep understanding of the social, political, environmental or spiritual processes which were contributing elements to the unrest nor a real grasp of what an appropriate missiological response would be had I been able to interpret the context adequately. When neighbours and local church members asked me if we would be joining the peaceful protestors on the streets (burning tyres and waving the indigenous Aymara flag and shouting anti-imperial slogans) I recoiled and we rapidly sought guidance from our mission agency’s policy documentation on foreign mission workers involvement with national politics!!

What we were facing was a manifestation of one ‘unstable context’ which Garton Ash’s comments  summarise neatly below:

 “…remove the elementary staples of organized, civilized life—food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security—and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all.”

In his New York Review of Civil Unrest ‘Revolution Without Violence?’ Brian Urquhart comments:

There are now ominous global problems, of which the increasing severity and number of natural disasters probably linked to climate change may before very long have such an effect. The resulting mass migrations alone would test the veneer of civilization as never before. Is humankind irreversibly stuck in a downward spiral? Or can it find the common sense and solidarity to fight its way back? Garton Ash is skeptical [and] also reminds us that while serious progress has been made in the art and method of radical political change, we cannot count on the automatic survival and growth of democracy, nor indeed on the self-correcting capacity of a predominantly capitalist system. We also face urgent global problems to which we have scarcely started to look for solutions. The popular political involvement that was the lifeblood of civil resistance movements, as well as determined and courageous leadership, is now desperately needed nearer home.

The question remains, how will the Church respond?

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