In his book on prophecy, Commandments for the Long Haul, Daniel Berrigan offers this advice. Prophetic gestures aren’t always politically effective. Often they accomplish nothing that’s practical; but he adds: If you can’t save the world at least you can save your own sanity.
Sometimes that’s all that can be accomplished by our protests against injustice. Moreover struggling to salvage our own sanity is not as privatized as it first appears. When we protest something that’s wrong, even though we know our protest is not going to practically change anything, the sanity we are saving is not just our own. We’re also saving the sanity of the moment.
Commenting on the current activism on the issues of human rights and the environment of Booker Prize winning novelist, Arundhati Roy, art critic, John Berger, says this: “Profound political protest is an appeal to a justice that is absent, and is accompanied by a hope that in the future this justice will be established; this hope, however, is not the first reason the protest is made. One protests because not to protest would be too humiliating, too diminishing, too deadly. One protests (by building a barricade, taking up arms, going on a hunger strike, linking arms, shouting, writing) in order to save the present moment, whatever the future holds. … A protest is not principally a sacrifice made for some alternative, more just future; it is an inconsequential redemption of the present.” In essence, it preserves some sanity in the present moment.
But it may be inconsequential in terms of practically changing anything. Most everything remains the same. The injustice continues, the poor continue to be poor, the international scene continues to threaten war, racists continue to be racist, the environment continues to be ravaged, corruption continues to go unchecked, and dishonesty continues to get away with its lies. And so people go on marches, go to prison, go on hunger strikes, and sometimes even die for protesting, while the injustice, corruption, and dishonesty go on. At a certain point, logically and inevitably, we need to ask ourselves the question young Marius, in Jean Val Jean’s, Les Miserables, asks after his friends have died while protesting and nothing seemingly changed: What was your sacrifice for? Was this worth dying for?
Those questions are valid, but they can have a positive answer. They didn’t die in vain, for nothing, for an impractical idealism, for a naïve dream, for something they’d have outgrown had they lived longer. Rather their death was “an inconsequential redemption” of the present moment, meaning, its practical effectiveness may be immeasurable, but the moral seed it sows inside that moment will eventually help produce things that are measurable. All the women who initially protested for the vote never got to vote. But today many women do get to vote. The moral seed they planted in their inconsequential protests eventually produced something practical.
Sometimes you might feel pretty alone in making your protest and it might seem that you’re working only at saving your own sanity and bewailing only your own diminishment and humiliation. But no one is an island. Your diminishment, your humiliation, and your sanity, are part of the immune system of all humanity. Everyone’s health is partially dependent upon your health; just your health is partially dependent upon everyone else’s.
And so protest is always in order and is indeed mandated by our faith. We may not remain passive in the face of injustice, inequality, racism, indifference to the poor, indifference to the Mother Nature, corruption, and dishonesty. We need to sow moral seeds into the present moment. How?
Not all of us (perhaps even most of us) are called upon to take up placards, make public protest, have ourselves arrested, or lay down our lives for a cause – except when the injustice or corruption is so extreme as to merit that. Normally, for most of us, our protest must be real but need not be the witness of martyrs.
I very much like a counsel proposed by Archbishop Paul-Andre Durocher of Gatineau, Quebec, in an issue of America magazine. Commenting on the tensions that exist today between our Christian faith and the complex challenges that come to us from the world, Durocher, after first acknowledging that there are no easy answers, offers this counsel: “The first step is to acknowledge them [the tensions]. Second, to understand why they arise. Third, to accept and even embrace them. And fourth, to commit to living a mature Christian faith in spite of those tensions.” (America, April 30, 2018)
In the face of all that’s happening in our world, some of which goes against everything we believe in and hold dear, sometimes all we can do is to hold our own moral ground, humbly, prophetically – and perhaps quietly.
And since that’s all we can do, it’s surely enough.