The word “protest” may sound negative. To “protest” something is often reduced to being against it. And thus “protest” can be accused of falling into our pandemic of polarization or us-versus-them identities.
But this, I suggest, is a superficial understanding of protest, an accident of its deeper, positive meaning. And this meaning points us to the core of our moral vocation as humans created for beloved togetherness.
“Protest” marries two words: “pro” or being for and “test” or a difficult challenge intended for our growth. In this vernacular sense, to protest means to commit oneself to something challenging that serves our wellbeing. It’s a willingness to endure difficulty for something that truly matters. (This connects to the Latin pro-testis or standing up as a witness.)
The late Desmond Tutu beautifully embodied this nourishing, creative meaning of protest. Tutu relentlessly opposed apartheid, a system that degraded and separated people based on their skin color and ancestry. But Tutu was equally known for his deep laughter, irrepressible joy, and indomitable kindness. How was Tutu’s paradoxical way of protest possible?
Tutu’s fierce resistance to apartheid was driven by a fiercer love. Deeper than anything he was against was a positive well of creative conviction or what he was for. He said it like this:
“[T]here are no ordinary people… Each one of us is a very special person, a VSP far more important and far more universal than your normal VIP… All, everyone, everything, belongs. None is an outsider, all are insiders, all belong.”
And thus Tutu protested apartheid without succumbing to the corrosive bitterness of hatred. Across decades of painful struggle, he didn’t fail his VSP test by crumbling into seeing others as enemies, insulting and attacking them as apartheid would have him mimic. His joyful kindness remained defiantly rebellious as the divine center of his life.
In this way, Tutu teaches us something essential and urgent: authentic protest requires much more than targeting what we’re against. It requires clarifying what we’re for — and then remaining relentlessly committed to that love across every test. I suspect this is the only way for protest movements to avoid ironically re-entrenching the very things that they often claim to oppose: humiliation, oppression, violence.
Protest, then, takes us to the very heart of spirituality and ethics. It invites us to wrestle with life’s ultimate questions: What is truly worthy of our love? And what does this love require us to resist? And how do we love and resist faithfully and effectively as finite creatures in mutual relationship? What is good, what is evil, and how do we practice morally meaningful lives?
I believe Tutu’s VSP vision presents a love that is worthy of our ultimate commitment: every other is a very important person — what various theological and humanistic ethics have called our neighbor. And this love requires us to protest othering or any ideology and system that depends on seeing others as unrelated or less than ourselves. And this protest-able love leads to embodied practice in our everyday lives as our creative, critical yet constructive vocation. The outcome, after years or decades or longer, is healing rather than polarization.
I conclude with three questions for our reflection:
- What do we love? What is our protest for?
- What tests will our love face? What might tempt it to turn into the very thing it claims to resist?
- What spiritual practices can help strengthen our love to build the resilience we need to protest across our entire lives?