THE BLOG
10/31/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2013

Putting the Protest Back in Protestant: A Historical Critique of Black Protest

In March, 1529, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, called a council of the religious leaders and the princes to deal with the growing rebellion against the established church.

On April 19, while the diet was still in session, six of the princes and representatives of 14 cities, citing freedom of conscience, joined together to present a written protest against the diet's position. In this document, they declared that because each person is responsible to God, they couldn't agree to abide by the will of the majority.

At this point, Ferdinand, the emperor's brother, who was presiding, not only refused to accept the document, but adjourned the diet. No more diet!

Not willing to let that stop them, the reformers sent their "Protestation" along with an appeal to the emperor, Charles V, who responded by having the bearers of the document tossed in prison.

In the nomenclature of that time and place, that protest document was called Protestatio, and hence, the entire group of reformers came to be branded "Protestants."

Thus, we who belong to any of the denominations that have sprung from the Reformation root have our beginnings in a protest -- a protest movement, if you will.

As we celebrate the spirit of the Reformation, I wonder if we look at the fact we are linked to a protest. No singing, no marching. So how do you feel about being linked historically to a protest? Probably you've never thought about that, but you may have some reaction when you think of protests that occur in our society today.

Think of any of the major political or social issues in play in our country and you can probably recall that at some point, groups have organized to march or rally in protest against one side or the other of the issue. Some of those protests stay within the bounds of decency and legality, but others turn vituperative and/or violent. So maybe being the inheritor of a movement born in protest gives us pause.

A Historical Critique of Black Protest

Throughout history with protests, slave revolts were paramount in the struggle of freedom as found with Denmark Vesey (1822) and Nat Turner (1831), which caused greater slave codes, laws in each U.S. state defining the rights of masters to become greater. These codes gave slave owners absolute power over the enslaved Africans. In our history, there have been dire consequences until the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The element of protest that stimulated government response is found in the changing nature of the audience.

This change will occur by enforcing our criminal justice statement through the changing of laws and the overall system. Even with the success of Voter Rights protests, Fannie Lou Hamer suggests, democracy was not even a discussion. This middle-aged SNCC field worker reflected, "I had never heard until 1962 that black people could register to vote... I didn't know we had that right." She did not even know that there were state and federal constitutions until the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) workers began their registration campaign.

The issue of southern suffrage was achieved only when the audience was attentive, sympathetic and involved in the party conflict as found in the Diet of Speyer. However, protest is not limited to angry chanting and in-your-face demonstrations. In fact, in the 16th century, protest was understood less in the sense it is today and more in terms of being a positive witness. Luther and his friends may well have sung, "We Shall Overcome" had the tune and lyrics been available. But in one notable scene, all Luther did was to say, "Here, I stand!"

Indeed, the reformers understood themselves as witnessing to the authority of Scripture, to the idea that every person could pray directly to God on his or her own behalf, and, as previously mentioned, to the idea that we are saved through faith and not through works.

That was then; this is now. To us today, all of this seems a long way back, and we may well ask what significance, if any, it has for us.

In fact, each time we recite the Apostles' Creed, we affirm our belief in "the holy catholic church," which, when written with a lowercase "c," refers to the body of beliefs and traditions we have received from the very first followers of Jesus, the apostles. That apostolic faith is the basis of the universal catholic church, lowercase "c," that encompasses all of our Christian denominational and sectarian identities. This is the vision of the final report given by the former Presiding Bishop, Mark Hanson of greater streams of ecumenicism as we embark on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

But there's sometimes value in looking at history to understand how we ought to live our faith today. And that in light, belonging to a tradition that was born in positive witness is a great thing.

Against that, there's the positive witness of our faith in God's promise that sin, destruction, evil and hatred are all temporal things, doomed for ultimate oblivion, while righteousness, goodness and love are eternal and will prevail in the final outcome of this world. So what is the message of the Reformation simply this: We belong to a movement born in witness to the positive power of faith in Jesus Christ. We continue to have the privilege of making that witness, a protest of positive faith and light, given in a world in turmoil and darkness.