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Sinless Sacrifice and Perfect Protests

June 1, 2020

I am still somewhat surprised by the recent prominence of #BlackLivesMatter and related sentiments on social media, but I am unsure if my surprise is unjustified cynicism, if the apparent prominence is just the result of me being thoroughly enmeshed in an algorithmic bubble, or if the related protest and riot actions across many cities in the country are just the spillover result of pandemic isolation-related restlessness.

It’s come so far that I’m seeing people who normally would never say much of anything now come forward and encourage others to speak out. I am heartened to see people from a broad range of interests (not just the typical lefty politics realms) connecting those interests to the questions of racial equity. More and more, I’m seeing people state that silence on this issue is no longer an acceptable “neutral” position. More and more, I wonder how my own relative silence on social media will be taken?

But…

I still see and hear the voices of opposition. My nature is to constantly, voraciously collect and consume data that subverts a clean, easy narrative (even if it’s hard to frustrate my own clean, easy narratives.) This holds me back in part, because I fear what will come back at me if I say anything (the scales only tip in favor of me pressing publish on this post because I know that very few people even read this blog any more). I fear that I don’t have the resolve (or strength?) to fight if the voices of opposition speak out against me, because this isn’t some academic question to me.

I’ve seen this story before. Where people will insist that the cause is not worth supporting because its victims aren’t perfect angels, and its adherents aren’t peaceful protesters. Whether it be a criminal allegation, failure to provide proper deference to police, the violence of protests or riots or looting, I am well aware of those who will say: it’s just people reaping what they sowed.

And it’s made me think of Christianity and Jesus.

I don’t find Jesus relatable. I mean, I guess maybe that’s the wrong term. How can any of us reprobate wretches relate to a sinless God?

I guess what more I mean is that believers find something credible in the belief that Jesus can help them, that Jesus knows their struggles and can heal them. It’s a potent security for them that buoys them. But not me. That is what I struggle with.

But I think I get at an intellectual level part of what the pull is (the subversive me whispers: “you know nothing and make a mockery in your attempt to summarize faith”). Jesus’s death works because he was a sinless sacrifice, a perfect protest. Jesus’s death has the possibility to reveal the depravity of mankind because if we are to believe the stories about his life, then those stories reveal a life that is utterly incongruous with any of the rationalizations or justifications for his murder. There is only one answer: there is no good answer except for our own error.

I think of people trying to argue that protesters should be more like Martin Luther King (never mentioning what Dr. King had to say about riots, never mentioning that Dr. King’s message was often still considered too extreme at the time.) Others have correctly pointed out that, ultimately, Martin Luther King was also murdered.

When people say “violence only leads to more violence,” maybe this is so. Yet, with Dr. King, there was still violence.

I think when people talk about Dr. King, at worst, it’s because they prefer a response that can be ignored (and a non-violent response is much easier to ignore than a violent one.) But at best, if I am being charitable, then I think they want to evoke and inspire and advocate a Christian message that a non-violent response to violence is so incongruous that it is perhaps the only thing clear enough to possibly sever the cycle of vengeance and serve as a mirror on human depravity.

…but…

I keep wondering how this standard is destined to fail, because a crucial thing about Christianity is that Jesus is the only sinless one. And if that’s the case, then there will always be a way to find something to pin on anyone else. Of course people are willing to dig any perceived or real character flaw about anyone, Dr. King included.

And if this is the case, if it is possible that people can still ignore the sacrifice, ignore it and continue in the ordinariness of their lives, then what?

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12 Comments
  1. johnnyjohnnyt permalink

    Beautifully written. Have you considered writing an op-ed for the Salt Lake Tribune? They prefer pieces right about 700 words. I think your voice and talented writing would benefit the Trib’s readership.

    Johnny TownsendAuthor of “Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land,” “Human Compassion for Beginners,” and “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?”johnnytownsend.com 206-324-3457

    • That’s very flattering, but I probably have noooo business being in the SLTribune hahaha

  2. Zach Myers permalink

    Very well put.

  3. Agellius permalink

    I understand the outrage. I don’t understand the looting and burning. I think MLK’s tactics worked because they were peaceful, and that made the other side look bad by comparison. It gained sympathy for the cause. That’s the way it works. When you act good, you look good; when you act bad, you look bad, even if it’s in response to other bad behavior. I understand that MLK’s tactics still resulted in his murder. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that they largely accomplished what they intended. They *worked.* So maybe it depends what your criteria is. Understood, no one is perfect but Jesus, so there will always be bad apples associated with whatever cause, and that’s no reason (logically) to denigrate the cause. But it’s still the case that acting good works better, if your intention is to gain a hearing for your cause and persuade people to change their minds. Whatever the cause is. People are more willing to listen to people who are acting good, nice, calm.

    That being said, I really don’t see that the protests were necessary. Virtually no one was arguing in favor of the police in the Floyd case. Everyone was already convinced. One cop was arrested, three others fired already. The protests, it seems to me, were simply an outburst. Understandable, but in terms of tactics, of persuading people to their side, I don’t think they were necessary. Virtually the whole country was persuaded already. The looting and burning accomplished nothing but to piss people off. I don’t mean this is going to turn people against victims of police brutality. I think people understand that that’s not really what it was about. The looting was just, “Hey, we’ve got more people out here together than the police can control, so let’s take advantage of the numbers and have some fun.” That’s not going to contribute a single iota to the cause of justice for the victims and consequences for the officers.

    Anyway, good to hear from you!

    • There are just a few things about saying MLK’s tactics worked because they were peaceful that bother me.

      1. MLK was despised within his lifetime and considered extreme. And of course, as you acknowledge, he was still killed.

      2. I need to do more research, but I wonder a lot about whether the contrastive efforts of Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X helped to ameliorate MLK.

      3. MLK’s protests did *not* achieve the legal changes. MLK had been pushing for fair housing laws, and they had been filibustered in 1966. Laws only changed after massive nation-wide *violent* protests after his assassination. Granted, there’s also no doubt that Nixon’s later candidacy and election was bolstered by his ability to appeal as a “law and order” candidate.

      There is definitely a whitewashing and amelioration of MLK that I think a lot of people want to do today. People want to believe, as you have stated, that “when you act good, you look good,” and yet…it’s not so much that “when you act good, you look good.” You can act good and still look bad *because it’s not a level playing field to begin with*. You can act good, look good, and get nothing done.

      If King’s assassination had not led to violence, I am certainly not confident that the 1968 Civil Rights/Fair Housing Act would have passed.

      I tend to think that riots (as opposed to protests) are symptomatic. I like the wording “outburst” but disagree about what leads to the outbursts. They happen *because* of pressure that has built up. But we are not thinking about why the pressure keeps building up.

      I don’t think people are convinced. I think there are still people who think that police brutality is justified. I think there are still people who think that at worst, police brutality is just individualistic actions of some folks acting bad, rather than representative of a system that is designed to promote certain actions and protect certain people and not others and which therefore creates the conditions for riots.

      • Agellius permalink

        “MLK’s protests did *not* achieve the legal changes. MLK had been pushing for fair housing laws, and they had been filibustered in 1966. Laws only changed after massive nation-wide *violent* protests after his assassination.”

        I don’t get it. You think it’s a more likely explanation that the laws were changed because of violent protests? How would that work? Are you saying people felt obliged to pass fair housing laws out of fear of more violence? and not because a majority came to realize the injustice of discriminatory housing laws? Or do you contend that the violence made people realize the injustice, when peaceful protests had failed to persuade them?

        I’m skeptical.

        • >I don’t get it. You think it’s a more likely explanation that the laws were changed because of violent protests? How would that work? Are you saying people felt obliged to pass fair housing laws out of fear of more violence? and not because a majority came to realize the injustice of discriminatory housing laws? Or do you contend that the violence made people realize the injustice, when peaceful protests had failed to persuade them?

          eh, I guess it’s probably too premature to link riots to change. After all, most riots have been ignored, both before and since.

          My thoughts would probably be more as follows:

          1) the perception of righteousness or unrighteousness doesn’t work in a straightforward way. People can’t easily perceive the difference between “anger” and “indignation” and what the appropriate response is to each. So I am not sure about who was or was not realizing the injustice in the same way as I don’t think people now have a great track record for realizing injustice.

          2) People felt comfortable *ignoring* peaceful protests. People despised those, but could ignore them. I honestly think that people in power wanted to believe that nothing would happen and things would just fizzle out. The violence made the matter more visible, urgent, pressing (and yes, also, more polarizing, to be honest), but I think in most cases, people also wait for these to fizzle out and then don’t do anything either.

          I get what you’re saying, that the assassination and actions against the civil rights movement were the more decisive action for change, but I really do think that peaceful protests can be easily ignored and that is the default state. I think that had there not been upheavals after MLK’s death, it would have been easy for politicians to say, “Well, then, that takes care of that.”

          • Agellius permalink

            Just happened to come across this:

            “So let’s not excuse violence, or rationalize it, or participate in it. If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.”

            Couldn’t have said it better myself, President Obama. : )

        • obama definitely represents the position of respectability politics (and its failings) very well.

  4. Mary Ann permalink

    Discrediting a messenger in order to justify ignoring an uncomfortable message is an innate human defense mechanism. We’ll never be able to fully get rid of the impulse. One of the messages of Christianity, though, is that these “natural” impulses aren’t necessarily the best long-term responses. The idea of plucking out the beam in our own eye before complaining about the speck of dust in someone else’s eye runs counter to that natural human response. Also, there’s more to Christian justification of non-violent protest than just the idea that if we behave perfectly, it’ll force people to listen. The Sermon on the Mount talks about responding to violence by turning the other cheek. Standing up for something and not giving in to your gut physical instinct to answer violence with violence is itself something that Christians are supposed to strive for, regardless of its effect on others.

    For people who either come from a Christian culture or subscribe to the religion itself, I think an appeal to Christian virtues or concepts can still be useful. Yes, Christ is understood as the only sinless sacrifice, and yes, you can always find dirt on someone. But an appeal to Christianity can also provide a common language of brotherhood/sisterhood as well as the idea that we are each individually imperfect beings who always have room to improve and build a more Zion-like community.

    • in a different example, since both slaveholders and abolitionists used Christianity to justify their diametrically opposed positions, I am not entirely optimistic that appeals to Christianity are always helpful. I agree that Christianity provides a common language. I’m just not sure if that really means anything since it can be used and is used as a common language for *anything*.

      Because it depends on what you consider individual imperfections. In my lifetime, my race and sexuality have both been considered imperfections that others have assured me will be fixed up in the afterlife. So.

      • Mary Ann permalink

        Yeah, I think I get what you’re saying. I was more than a little disturbed that my comment seemed to fall right in line with Nelson’s statement yesterday. It’s not a useful common language if it’s vague enough to confirm any bias.

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