I went as an observer and left as a participant.
I arrived ready to ponder; I left ready to protest.
It took family and friends to alert me that something troubling was unfolding on the streets of Portland. My head was somewhere else. After postponing our March presbytery meeting, we had finally re-organized ourselves to be able to hold a two-day presbytery meeting after an eight month hiatus. This felt like a big deal. Weeks of prep went in to pulling off this first-ever virtual meeting with worship, communion, committee reports, storytelling, position approvals, and even a little Zoom style whispering in the pews.
But while we were focused on the ecclesiastical business at hand, Portland was being targeted for a show of force in a sort of federal muscle flexing. Of course, such a statement reveals my subjective opinion. It is a fact that federal agents descended on downtown Portland to curtail the nightly protests that have gone unabated for nearly two months. It is my opinion that they were here to flex their muscles and make a political point. I say this because our city and state leaders not only did not request their presence, but have specifically asked them to leave believing that they have escalated an already tenuous and fragile situation.
Governor Brown, in speaking to MSNBC, justified her request saying, “Frankly, in Oregon we solve problems by sitting down and de-escalating situations and engaging in dialogue.” Had the federal government offered to assist Oregon on her terms, I would likely have felt different. Coming in unannounced and employing tactics more suited to authoritarian regimes leads me to believe that this is more political theater muscle flexing than community problem-solving. I believe that we have been targeted for political gain.
As I said, I went to the protest on Monday night as an observer. Family and friends had called asking if I was okay and I wanted to know what was actually happening in my own city. I went as an observer. I left as one ready to protest.
Then it hit me.
I am part of a denomination whose identity is rooted in protest. We are literally “Protest-ants.” Over 500 years ago, our ancestors were on-the-frontline kinds of Christians who challenged the pacacy over what they perceived as abuses of their power and authority. They finally said, “Enough is enough,” and put their bodies, their livelihoods and their reputations on the line. They decided that blind obedience to an authority was not faithful when that authority does not honor the privilege of office. So they did what their faith called them to do and gave us the name that has stuck with us—Protestants.
Of course, not everything in life must be protested. We do not protest for protest’s sake. We protest when authority has been abused and truth has become twisted. We protest when human life is no longer honored and human dignity is violated. We protest when politics become more about power than about people. We protest when we become pawns of a political agenda and a stage for political theater. We protest when we no longer act like a country based on democratic principles.
Is this the right time to live into our “protesting” heritage? Is this the time to worry less about security and more about justice? Is this the time to protest against every power that has perpetuated systemic racism, including church and state? Is this the time to not only work for, but to protest against?
I know that every congregation must find its own way through these questions. I know some may be tempted to dismiss this as a problem specific to liberal-leaning, progressive Portland. But do not wait until the federal government swoops into your town or city uninvited, unannounced and armed for conflict. The problem here in Portland is not the presence of federal agents. The problem is the total disregard for our local and state officials who did not ask for the “help.” The problem is the stunning erosion of our democratic processes and principles.
We have been here before. The Barmen Declaration of 1933 reminds us that the state can use force to maintain justice and peace. When force is used for anything other than that, the Church protests, draws a line in the sand and says, “No more” as the Confessing Church did nearly ninety years ago.
Even more clearly the Confession of 1967 says, “The members of the church are emissaries of peace and seek the good of all in cooperation with powers and authorities in politics, culture, and economics. But they have to fight against pretensions and injustices when these same powers endanger human welfare.”
“They have to fight against…” There it is—a reference to our protest-ant nature. When those entrusted with power and authority endanger human lives, human dignity and human welfare we are called to act, called to fight, called to protest, called to suffer on behalf of a just world. This is our confessional faith.
Despite being a Protestant, I am not a protester by nature.
But I will not stay silent while my city is being used for political theater.
I will not remain mute while a democratically elected government terrorizes its own people.
I will not stand by while those entrusted with authority shamelessly abuse their power.
We have been here before. We know what to do.
I am a Protestant. And damn proud of it.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades