Protest and Resistance: As American as Cornbread and Biscuits
In tumultuous times, it helps to look back. Way back. The traditions of free expression and resistance to authority are part of the root stock of the American experience.
What is a pastor to do? Some church members are making posters and marching in protest. Some are irritated by the protest and questioning other’s patriotism. And these folks are often members of the same congregation! We are entering a new season of American protest and anxious reaction to it. I am not the protesting type, but I can share a story as a reminder that protesting is nothing new and is sometimes the way we learn important realities of which we had been previously unaware.
On the last Sunday of October, the 29th, many Christians around the world will be marking the 500th anniversary of a small protest that became emblematic for the Protestant Reformation. On All Saints’ Eve, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther, a learned monk, nailed a statement titled “Ninety-five Theses upon Indulgences,” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther objected to the lavish, wealthy leaders of Rome manipulating the poor religious German people out of their money. That moment in history was ripe for a symbolic gesture not unlike Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955.
The protest of the Protestant Reformation went on to have a tremendous influence upon the development of our own country because the first waves of colonists were Protestants protesting the overbearing rule of the British crown. Let me say that protest to injustice is not uniquely Protestant or American – it is a very human response that can be found in almost all cultures, religions and nations. Yet we have had an especially close relationship to protest in the American experience. We’ve inherited two resilient and powerful traditions of response to injustice from the Protestant Reformation. Let me call them protest and resistance, and let me begin with protest.
The Boston Tea Party protested the economic burdens of British rule. Indeed the protest words of “No King but King Jesus” gave voice to the egalitarian spirit of the revolutionary colonials. Early proponents of civil disobedience in the new nation from Susan B. Anthony to Henry David Thoreau continued the tradition. The abolitionist movement was led by men such as Fredrick Douglass, Charles Henry Langston and John Mercer Langston. A Baptist minister bearing the name of the 16th century monk, Martin Luther King Jr., became the greatest leader of civil disobedience in American history and sparked the civil rights movement. A Jesuit priest named Daniel Berrigan was among the leaders of Vietnam War protests. In 1968 the American Indian Movement was founded to protest police harassment and racism. Other traditions of protest include everything from the temperance movement to the anti-child labor movement to women’s rights to miner strikes to the pro-life movement to the gay rights movement to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to kneeling professional football players. This list only scratches the surface but should help us remember that protest is as American as apple pie. Authorities have always been offended by protest. It goes with the territory. One need not agree with the content of every protest to recognize the legitimacy of protest as an important part of American culture.
Yet there is another type of response to injustice that is related to protest but is also unique. Cultural resistance is also rooted in the Reformation, and I am the resisting type. In the same time period that Martin Luther was nailing his statement to the church door, other people were moving away from centers of power, corruption and conformity to marginal settings where they created new communities to reflect their values. In 1536 John Calvin fled Paris for the wilds of Switzerland, where other Protestant communities were being formed by leaders such as Ulrich Zwingli and William Farel. Calvin eventually landed in Geneva and constructed new civic, educational and religious institutions that had more representative leadership. He influenced the next generation of leaders, who took his ideas to France. He also influenced John Knox and William Whittingham, who did the same in Scotland and England. Other leaders of the radical reformation took even stronger measures of separation, and their progeny continue to exist in Amish, Mennonite and Brethren communities.
This resistance tradition still abides where I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The children of Scotch-Irish Presbyterian immigrants formed my church 175 years ago. Before that, in 1758, their parents established the original church, three miles from the “new” one. These resisters fled the British Empire to come to the American colonies and create communities far from the crown’s overbearing grip. Their response to economic injustice was not protest as such, but rather getting enough geographical distance between themselves and the British to construct their own lives according to their own lights. It is a quieter tradition and its story is not as well known. But there are some fascinating tales tucked away in these mountains.
In 1771 a band of 100 families living in the region of Sycamore Shoals near present day Elizabethton, Tennessee, gathered to formally separate from Britain and became the first colonists to declare their independence. They wrote up articles of incorporation as the Watauga Association and leased land from the Cherokee for 10 years. Their protection against the crown was the distance from the coast, the rigors of the Appalachian Mountains and British fear of the Cherokee. Their response to political and economic injustice went largely unnoticed outside of their own community. Their story is not told in school textbooks even though one of their leaders, James Robertson, eventually moved west and founded the city of Nashville.
The cultural inheritors of this resistance make up a minority report to the dominant American success and progress narrative. Their ancestors labored to maintain their rural communities during the Industrial Revolution. Now they are adapting to sustain themselves amidst the new overbearing pressures of a global economy that once again reward centers of power and wealth while plundering marginal communities. Their leaders are footnotes in the American lexicon. But we can remember the agricultural and sociological writings of Liberty Hyde Bailey, the environmental advocacy of Horace Kephart, the political advocacy of Harry Caudill, and the voices of writers like Edward Abbey, Patricia Penton Leimbach, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Carol Bly and Barbara Kingsolver. This list only scratches the surface but should help remind us that resistance is as American as cornbread. And resistance always offends elites.
What is a pastor to do in this turbulent time? I reckon that many of us will do what we usually do – listen. Listening may be the most important thing that we can all do now. After we have listened, we can also tell our stories and remember the stories of those who came before us. In the hearing and telling, the inheritors of protest and resistance find they have much in common. These stories shed light on the way forward and remind us that we have traveled this way before.
Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.