Religious Protest? A Hard Time For Dissent

09/19/2011 10:14 am ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

We were in a corridor of the Pentagon one morning in the sixties. Doing a kind of impromptu peace mass in protest against the Vietnam war. So I was giving a brief homily on Jesus' parable of salt having lost its flavor. Antiphonally, an arresting officer announced through a bullhorn "You are under arrest." The charges against us were "disturbing the peace."

How had I got into this situation in the first place? Activism against racism and the war was huge global news and seemingly touched a universal spiritual nerve. Major figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Thomas Merton, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day and Richard Niebuhr -- all with highly publicized spiritual connections -- were in the news, plus a roster of lesser known women and men. So an astonishingly powerful moral voice was heard. The UN's Dag Hammarskjold wrote a powerful bestseller "Markings" that implicitly linked world events to deep spiritual exploration.

At the age of 88, with years of activism for peace and justice behind me, I can't help wondering whether the same voice is being heard today, and if not, why not. Clearly the media is no longer paying attention to progressive religious voices with intensity, for example, that put me on the cover of national magazines and positioned me on national TV in an interview with Barbara Walters. The figure of the "radical priest" who comes to "get me released" is no longer current enough to induce this generation's Paul Simon to write a song about him. What happened? Are there fewer religious activists at work, or have the culture and politics of the early 21st century conspired to make them seem less relevant?

My involvement in the radical counterculture movement began in 1961 when I participated in a "Prayer Pilgrimage" Freedom Ride in the Deep South. Our activism was a deeply prayerful protest and witness. We felt compelled by both outer events and inner stirrings of faith to take a public stand on issues of justice and their relation to both public and private faith. We took our stand at a particular historical moment and eventually prevailed.

Were we victims of our success? Perhaps. Much of what we advocated -- much of what seemed prophetic -- has been integrated into the mainstream. Yet remember: no issue is ever permanently solved. No cause has either an official ending or a formal conclusion. Inevitably there are new and varying repercussions, compelling changes and challenges and a new cast of characters. So almost 30 years after the Freedom Ride I found myself among a group of six persons arrested after appearing before the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors asking them "to hear the cries of persons with HIV AIDS in the community."

The need to put one's self on the line to create a more just world hasn't disappeared. But the left seems more than a bit disheartened, fatigued, with blunted passion. Perhaps it has become bewildered by the sheer, even raucous, momentum of the right. Whose voice is loudest? Sometimes I wonder if the left has been enrolled so long in finishing school that it's really more at home at Harvard than Harlem.

Maybe the big question is: Has dissent become simply another commodity? In the sixties it was, for us, honest prayer in action. It held significance as Christian community trying to respond to what it felt was God's will. Dissent will always be with us. It should be. It must be. Yet, really, much dissent is becoming just another voice in what appears to be a streamlined, ultra hip Tower of Babel. So many voices, so little time.

I firmly believe that we stand in need of ever fresher maturity to replace sensation and an infusion of wisdom to supplant knee-jerk histrionics. And, yes, let's develop deep listening to replace simply facile speaking. Can listening to other people, including those different from ourselves, become a dominant mode in our personal and public lives?