As NMMU descends further and further into the chaos caused by unmet demands and unmoved protesters, any Christians involved in the protests have an uncomfortable question to answer: What does God think about all this?
Anyone turning to the Bible for clear guidance on how to conduct a mass protest will find nothing because that concept didn’t exist in the ancient world. Democracy didn’t exist either. If you tried to rise up against a ruling authority, they would respond with the sharp side of their sword, and that would be the end of your brief protest. Today, governments and institutions in democratic societies make allowances for protests, and even expect them; their citizens have every right to make use of this legal means of holding them accountable. It just depends how far those citizens take it.
Paul the Apostle used his own legal means of getting justice for himself. Acts 22:22-29 describes a violently escalating situation in Jerusalem, where Paul, having incensed a crowd of listeners, was detained by Roman centurions and about to be flogged. He then used his coveted Roman citizenship to avoid the flogging and secure a proper trial. Having used his legal right in order to protect himself from harm, however, he didn’t go beyond it. He didn’t demand compensation and the implementation of a new system, for example. We need to stand in support of any NMMU protester who is being unfairly treated, but at the same time, I believe we are seeing many people going beyond their rights, both legally and before God.
Words of hatred, the use of intimidation, destruction of property or threats of violence are indefensible for a Christian who claims to be a new creation. The New Testament may not address organized civil disobedience, but it clearly, unambiguously and repeatedly addresses the Christian response to authority. “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” wrote Paul to the church in Rome, who lived under their fair share of vicious dictators. “The authorities that exist have been established by God,” he went on, seemingly unafraid of repeating himself.
“I request then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority,” he wrote to Timothy. If a Christian hits the streets to protest authorities before they hit their knees to pray for them, they’ve missed a significant step.
And again, to the Romans: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” He instructed believers about things that depended on them, not responses beyond their control. The very hallmark of prolonged protesting is issuing demands and digging our heels in when the response is inadequate; God, however, instructs us to take the initiative to create peace, not to wait for the other party to do what we want.
Christian protestors, you have a legal right to protest something you feel is unjust. Our government has allowed it, and our democratic process has encouraged it. But if you consider yourself to be a follower of Jesus, you also have a larger responsibility: To fulfil God’s command by recognizing and submitting to authority, praying earnestly for the university decision-makers and doing whatever you possibly can to be at peace with everyone. For our God is a God of justice for the poor and oppressed, but He’s also a God of order, righteousness, obedience, holiness and peace.