A Body of Protest

© by Rev. Alison Wilbur Eskildsen

Centering Thoughts:

I do not see how we could really avoid participating in [civil protest] as we do have a stake in this with [the] people being persecuted and we must stand at this point or allow ourselves to be classified with the group of those who look on, but do very little. The Reverend Clifton Hoffman (UUFA’s first minister)

Every successful social movement in this country’s history has used disruption as a strategy to fight for social change. Whether it was the Boston Tea Party to the sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South, no change has been won without disruptive action. Alicia Garza (activist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement)

So we are speaking up for those who don’t have anyone listening to them, for those who can’t talk about it just yet, and for those who will never speak again. We are grieving, we are furious, and we are using our words fiercely and desperately because that’s the only thing standing between us and this happening again. Emma González (activist & school shooting survivor)

Reflection: (after a hearing story about the shared activism and long friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass)

Fifty years ago, on June 28, 1969, New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gathering place for gay, lesbian, transgender, and other members of the queer community. What began as just another raid on an LGBTQ-friendly bar, resulted in either an uprising or a riot, depending on your perspective. Whatever you label it, the event made clear that the LGBTQ community would no longer accept the humiliation, oppression, and criminalization of their behavior. They defended their right to live free and be who they needed to be. They protested with their bodies against violent police Billy clubs and bully fists.

Although gay activism had occurred before Stonewall, this event marked a change—pride rose up and the public took notice. Eventually the GLBTQ community and its allies won respect and greater rights, such as the right for same-sex couples to marry. Though further protections still await, progress is visible by an openly gay man running for President, husband at his side.

As mentioned earlier, June also marks the 100th anniversary of Congress passing the 19th Amendment, though it took another year for the enough states to ratify it. Susan B. Anthony was one of many who embodied her values by giving speeches, marching, sacrificing, and giving her whole life for women’s rights. Many joined her efforts, notably Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, but her leadership was significant.

Frederick Douglass’s leadership also made a significant impact on abolition’s success. And by his side were many who risked their lives to obtain freedom for black people, notably among them Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Despite a Civil War and civil and voting rights acts, we continue his fight for racial equality.

This past week, protesters took to the streets voicing opposition to the closing of the last clinic in Missouri that provides abortions. Proponents of the closing claim it’s to protect women’s health and safety, because the Planned Parenthood clinic doesn’t meet new licensing requirements—ones set in place specifically to close it down. In response to the protests, a judge stayed its closing for a few days, but the clinic’s future remains in question.

These are only a few examples of Americans fighting for rights. Resistance is patriotic. The American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence created a freedom-from-oppression narrative as powerful as the story of Moses leading the ancient Hebrews out of Egypt. A more modern freedom-fighter, Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” America’s “promissory note”. A promise still unfulfilled.

Are we helping to fulfil that promise? Have we increased freedom and equality? Do we embody our convictions like Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and many others? Perhaps, but there’s so much more we could do.

Like many of you, I’m a white woman of privilege. I’m comfortable speaking about racial justice, economic inequality, the school-to-prison pipeline, fair treatment of undocumented immigrants, religious freedom, and more. Occasionally I speak on the steps of Athens’ City Hall, at the UGA Arch, or an interfaith event. Even more occasionally I serve lunch with Our Daily Bread, donate to causes, and financially help people in need.

All safe activities. I’ve never been arrested. I can’t imagine being beaten up for a cause, participating in a hunger strike, or facing armed police. I’ve never chosen to be physically uncomfortable because of my identities or convictions, nor has physical or psychological discomfort been forced upon me because of my identities or convictions. That’s my white, cis-gender privilege.

And that makes me doubt I’m embodying my values very well. I realize social protest and physical risk are not the only measures of walking my talk, but Gandhi said, “To believe in something and not to live it, is dishonest.” So if nothing I hold dear motivates me to risk personal safety, might I be a fraud, my values or convictions false?

I do believe we can make a difference through writing books, giving speeches, circulating petitions, and voting. But public protest calls attention to issues they might otherwise not get. Rosa Parks sat down in a bus. Greensboro, NC, students sat at a lunch counter. John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed in bed. Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem, and Parkland, FL, students created a gun-safety movement. These acts of protest were broadly noticed.

Not everyone needs to be out on the streets. We do need people to hold protesters lovingly when they come in off the streets. We need organizers and speech writers and water carriers. We need legal aid and strategic minds. We also need people willing to learn about the issues and their own unwitting participation in systemic, institutional injustice. Understanding starts change.

History proves that the oppressed rise up. Women rose up. Blacks rose up. GLBTQ folks rose up. Dreamers rose up. All marginalized people rise up because being invisible does not foster change. As Gandhi and King advocated, we need non-violent protest because violence alienates potential allies, and because violence becomes an excuse to ignore the problem.

Our UU values and principles, our consciences, our hearts, our relationships with people different from ourselves, and our awareness that we are all interconnected, together they must prevail upon each of us to get uncomfortable, to rise up in the face of injustice.

The UU Reverend James Germenian wrote, “Love without justice is not love. Compassion without deeds is not compassion. Faith without action is not faith. And religion without politics is not religion.”

If you doubt that resistance is the work of religious, moral, ethical, or values-based communities, please read our Seven Principles that indicate otherwise. Justice must be for everyone. If it weren’t for political action and protests, I wouldn’t have the legal right to exercise my religious conviction that same-sex couples can marry. Religious people must get political about issues that impact our values and beliefs. It is why this Fellowship financially supports and participates in social action and justice initiatives, such as the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement you heard about earlier.

Now’s your chance to speak. I’d like you to pair up with someone you’re seated near. Preferably with just one other person so that you each have time to talk. If possible, not someone you know. Introduce yourselves, then for about 3 minutes each, I want you to discuss the prompt on the monitor. I’ll ring the bell when you should switch who is sharing. After your conversation, I’ll ask for a few of you to briefly share. Here’s the prompt:

Briefly share a personal experience with public protest advocating for a social change, positive or negative. [EX: Why did you protest; how did it affect you; would you do so again…]

If you have no personal experience, share what holds you back or what would prompt you to become actively engaged in a social justice issue.

Is there anyone who would like to BRIEFLY share some of what you talked about?

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I hope you continue to explore your own sense of, or level of, embodied values, and what, if anything, might need changing.

UU President, the Rev. Susan Frederick Gray, said at last year’s UU General Assembly that this is no time for a casual faith. White supremacy, climate change, criminal injustice, economic inequality, et cetera, are threatening the health and wholeness of far too many. We must embody our faith in visible, impactful ways.

May we in this Fellowship not be casual.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

  1. How has your personal life situation affected your engagement with social justice issues?
  2. What does it mean for you to make a real commitment to social justice and change?
  3. How can we better embody our values while balancing the tension between personal safety or comfort?
  4. Have you ever felt compelled to take up a cause that would radically alter your daily existence or threaten your comfort or security? If so, did you feel liberated, empowered, constrained, or something else?