We live in a period in which the emphasis on fashions is extreme. Some of these, being recurrent phenomena, are not worth serious attention. Who really cares that within a few years we have swung from wide necktie to narrow and now to still wider ones? Length of skirt is in the same category. That beards are ephemeral is obvious to anyone who has studied history. In Washington’s day it was difficult to find a man with a beard, while in Lincoln’s administration it was difficult to find a man without one.

The particular fashion of dealing with social issues by involvement in protest demonstrations came upon us with great suddenness. We understand how radical the change has been when we note that some now living never even heard of such a phenomenon in their youth, while millions of other people have been so accustomed to it that they accept it as a normal feature of living. For great numbers, the idea is accepted uncritically. If there is something you don’t like, start a demonstration! Thus the method was automatically adopted by those who recently became frantically aware, apparently for the first time, of the pollution of air and water. Marches were organized, as a matter of course, though it was harder to sustain enthusiasm because there was practically no one to march against. It would have been so much simpler if there had been some group actually favoring pollution.

Because there is serious danger that the protest mentality may be accepted uncritically, there must be some, and especially Christians, who are willing to challenge the popular expectation. We must not allow the world to squeeze us into its own mold (Rom. 12:2). The more we consider, the more we realize that it is not the purposes of the protesters that are damaging but the method. Nearly all organizers claim, in the beginning, that they propose to stage a peaceful protest, but serious thought as well as experience can show us why this hope is fundamentally naïve. The peaceful protest is a rare and short-lived phenomenon. This is not because the protesters, when they promise to eschew violence, are insincere, but because there is something in the very procedure that sooner or later produces violence.

We have seen many examples in the last few months of how the protest pattern deteriorates. These words are being written in western Massachusetts, where the student reaction to the Cambodian crisis was marked by mass hysteria. One evidence of deterioration is that of the so-called vigil. If a vigil is really devoted to prayer, it is potentially noble, but the integrity is spoiled by the universal practice of lining up on the main street in front of the college. There is only one reason for this choice of location: it is to be seen by passers-by! Every hand is raised to attract attention.

Article continues below

How many recognize that here is the exact antithesis of what the New Testament is teaching? The words of Christ apply with terrible pertinence: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand … at the street corners, that they may be seen by men” (Matt. 6:5). Then Christ adds, with a subtle touch of humor, “they have their reward.” They are, indeed, seen, but if this is the purpose, then the whole idea of the vigil is consequently debased.

The protest mentality seems, inevitably, to undermine all rational discourse. No one listens, because there is so much shouting. In the colleges that I know best there has not been one speech upholding the position of the President of the United States. The absence of debate indicates the victory of irrationality in the very places where reason is supposed to reign. There is undoubted idealism, but when the wrong method is employed, idealism turns to bitter denunciation. As we look back now, with the advantage of hindsight, we can see that some of the deterioration was inevitable. From the start there was a tragic flaw, and this has widened perceptibly.

The essence of the tragic flaw is the excessive moralism that is intrinsic to the protest pattern. It is not surprising that the protester exhibits an extreme form of self-righteousness, for everything about the method encourages this. We, of course, are the good people because what we are condemning is manifestly evil! We are, by definition, in favor of justice and of peace. With the mass enthusiasm engendered by the marching and the cheer-leader kind of shouting, it is very hard to remember that the people who are not marching may also be committed to justice and to peace.

It may seem paradoxical that harsh judgment of others can bring enjoyment, but there is no doubt about the truth of the observation. Demonstrations make people who demonstrate feel better. They feel that they are doing something with others for a worthy cause. Pleasure there undoubtedly is, but in the long run it is costly.

The temptations to indulge in excessive moralism are accentuated by the almost universal practice of carrying placards. The placards, of course, are carried in order to convey a message to anyone who is willing to look, but the consequence is inevitable distortion, because nothing either important or true can be said in this fashion. Some of the people carrying slogans might prefer not to be harsh, but they seem to have no alternative. Most of their signs are in the imperative. Since there is not space, on a carried placard, for a reasoned statement of the truth, we settle for “Go home” or “Out now.” All the fine shades of communication are thereby lost. It is the same with shouting. No sentence of any depth or significance can be shouted. Every thoughtful person is well aware that the truth about any important matter is complex. Should America, for example, sell fighter planes to Israel? This is an extremely difficult question, having to do with the balance of power in the Middle East, with the politics of Zionism, with the plight of Arab refugees, with the real continuation of the fighting over the Suez area, and much more. Such a situation cannot be handled with intellectual honesty by a brief imperative on a piece of cardboard or by a slogan shouted in unison.

Article continues below

Another inherent weakness in the demonstration pattern is that it is antithetic to the emergence of humor. Even as we watch on television we soon note that the mood is grim. If there are any jokes at all they are bitter ones. The decline of laughter is one of the saddest results of over-acceptance of protest as a style of life.

Worst of all, the protest mentality tends to kill the thing it loves. The method of denunciation produces a backlash among many who would otherwise be in essential sympathy with the purposes of the protesters. This is especially true when the protest gets out of hand and involves senseless destruction. A striking example of this occurred in Boston and Cambridge during the anti-war demonstrations of April 15, 1970. After the rabble-rousing speeches on Boston Common and the march to Harvard Square, the breaking of windows and looting began. Two days later I was personally able to view the damage, which was estimated at $100,000. Perhaps the most serious damage was that these undisciplined people succeeded in making peace a dirty word for thousands of their neighbors. The Boston Evening Globe, a strongly liberal newspaper, pointed out editorially, on April 17, that the Harvard Square stores and banks would be repaired, but it went on to ask the question, “Will the peace movement recover from the damage thus done to it?” No doubt it will, but it will not if it continues under the leadership of those who, by cultivating a method which leads to violence, show that they really believe in war rather than peace.

Article continues below

Not long ago we experienced the confrontation on Wall Street in which the men in hard hats, the construction workers, made a counter-attack on student protesters. Those who started with denunciation ended by fleeing. The obscenities of the students were answered by the blows of those who were outraged. If such a pattern of demonstrations and counter-attack goes on and becomes general, our entire fabric of civilization is bound to be torn, perhaps beyond repair. The practicing Christian has the vocation of doing all that he can, before it is too late, to guide public opinion into the ways of true peace. Perhaps the most pertinent of all biblical texts today is the seventh beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.