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Public Protest

You must be as cautious as snakes and as gentle as doves-Mathew 10:16

In the recent past there has been a growing tendency among prominent members of the Syro-Malabar community to voice their protest publicly through social and other mass media channels. These protests have been received with mixed feelings by the general public, largely because many feel that there is something unchristian about expressing dissent against people and issues. For them, the fundamental tenets of love, forbearance and forgiveness that form the bedrock of the biblical message, somehow does not gel with the image of Catholic priests and nuns protesting on public platforms.

To quell the rising criticism against this newfound protest mode, an official spokesman of the church came recently on a Catholic TV channel to justify the Christian’s right to make a public protest. He quoted two incidents from the Bible on how Jesus protested against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees and concluded by saying that it is fully acceptable for Christians to protest publicly against an issue, but they should not seek revenge.

This is when I thought it was worth examining what the Bible says about public protests, and how it blends with the message of love and peace that is central to Christianity.

If we look back in time, the most prominent public protest in the Syro-Malabar church in Kerala was by the Ernakulam-Angamaly clergy and religious about two decades ago. They took out a public march to protest against the decision of the Synod of Bishops who wanted to unify the mode of the Eucharistic celebration. This came as a shock to the laity at large, but it paved the way for other public demonstrations that followed. The Kerala Catholic community will not easily forget the protest and hunger strike of five nuns on a public stage in Ernakulam town square. This happened a year ago and was carried out against Bishop Franco Mullackal who was accused of raping one of the nuns. The protest continued till the arrest of the Bishop, and was the central point of discussion on the media for a long time.

The latest among these dissensions is by a group of Syro-Malabar priests against the Pope’s request to adopt a uniform code in the conduct of the Eucharistic celebration, thus fanning the embers of the contentious issue that pioneered public protests at the turn of the century. All these have focused on perceived internal systemic weaknesses.

However, there have also been public protests against threats from outside, against Hindu and Muslim acts of terrorism, and even against news anchors of particular TV channels. Recently there was a trending blog by Sister Sonia Therese who lashed out against a TV anchor for being a harsh critic of decisions taken by the archdiocese on several occasions.

As we can see, the issues are wide and varied, but what is significant is that the docile follower of Christ who preferred to maintain a low profile has now declared war openly—against external aggressive forces, and internally— against the Pope's decrees, against the Cardinal, and against exploitative practices within the hierarchy of the priests and religious.

Our next quest is to see how these public protests blend with what the Bible tells us, especially in the context of priests and religious, who have been in the limelight for these actions.

The dominant philosophy of Christianity is undoubtedly based on love and forgiveness, the strongest message being about loving your enemies and offering your cloak to someone who has taken your coat from you. In other words, we are called to be peacemakers in contentious situations that may arise with people who we are associated with. Here, Jesus is speaking about personal, one-to-one relationships where forgiveness and reconciliation are the only biblical solutions on offer. This is reiterated in many instances. In Mathew 5, Jesus seals the issue with finality saying, ‘So when you offer your gift to God at the altar, and you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar. Go and make peace with that person, and then come and offer your gift. ‘ In each case, it is about strained relationships between siblings or other individuals on a personal level. So, loving one’s neighbor is paramount, and one cannot have two interpretations on that.

Now we come to the situations in the Bible where Jesus protests publicly through words and actions. There are two prominent ones that come to mind.

The first is when Jesus drives away the moneychangers and traders at the temple. Unafraid of the collective ire of the Jews , He says “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers’.” Here the public protest is against the desecration of His Father’s house. The angry Jews asked Jesus who had given Him the authority to take this action . His answer is significant and He refers to His own body saying, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

Whether the temple is represented by brick and mortar, or by one’s beliefs, these are significant issues where Christians are called upon to protest publicly, or take the required action and stand by one’s faith. Over the centuries, Christian martyrs have been subject to great suffering for their belief, for standing against ruling authorities. The protest they staged against their offenders are in the lines of what Jesus did in the temple, and it cost them their lives. Finally, their fight was to uphold the first and greatest commandment that Jesus taught us in Luke 10- Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind.

The second incident is when Jesus lets fly against the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. It is important to note that Jesus singled them out for harsh condemnation mainly because of their influence as teachers and interpreters of the law. They mercilessly exploited the common man with their double standards and imposed burdensome responsibilities on them in the name of the law. For Jesus , a teacher or a leader must serve those under his care, and the Pharisees were on the opposite path.

In both cases, the protest is against the two fundamental commandments of Christianity. There was no personal animosity in either of these instances. Not once does it deteriorate into a personal confrontation or vengeful action. In fact, this is wonderfully proved in the incident that happened during the arrest of Jesus. Peter cut off the ear of a soldier who was arresting Jesus. The Master admonished him for doing so and touched the soldier's ear and healed it. This was His personal attitude to His ‘enemy,’ the soldier who had come to arrest Him, and finally crucify Him.

I believe that the message is now crystal clear. A true Christian can practice love and forgiveness in one’s personal relationships, and also protest publicly when God’s kingdom and His righteousness is threatened.

Nevertheless, it would be good to examine the instances of protest, whether they be against external threats faced by the church, or against internal institutional weaknesses that will take a toll on the entire system, if left unattended. There are some finer points one has to watch out for while lending support to protests. Are these protests tainted with personal animosity or pride of authority? Are there any vested interests that are diverting the focus of the protest in a different direction from the one originally agreed upon? The answers to these questions will be different for individuals and groups within the protesting populace. Let each answer for himself as we remind ourselves of the words of St Paul:

For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it pierces even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart-Hebrews 4:12

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