A confrontation in an elevator made headlines during the tumultuous Senate confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh, now a United States Supreme Court associate justice. Arizona Senator Jeff Flake was met by two young women, one of whom, Maria Gallager, shouted at him: “I was sexually assaulted, and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter. Don’t look away from me. Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happens to me.”
Public dissent in the halls of Congress.
The Kavanaugh saga prompted Yale students to stage sit-ins calling for investigation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh, a Yale alumnus. In response, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. sent 300 Liberty students to Washington to offer public support for the embattled judge and, Falwell declared, to “counter what the Yale students are doing.”
This October, the Reverend Dr. William Barber II, North Carolina pastor and a director of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, received a $625,000 “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation on the same day he was arrested in Chicago for protesting at McDonald’s national offices in support of increasing the minimum wage for Ronald Mac’s employees. Barber persistently urges religious Americans to become “the moral defibrillators of our time.”
A dissenter at once affirmed and incarcerated.
Bill Moyers writes: “American dissent is older than the nation itself. Some of the first settlers were of course religious dissenters from England — referred to at the time with a capital ‘D’. However, suppression of dissent has just as long a history — one need look no further than the mandatory church attendance laws put into practice by those very same early settlers.”
If dissent is essential in a democracy, can it be taught – and, better yet, learned? What models exist for disseminating the pedagogy of dissent?
Dictionary definitions of dissent include:
to differ in sentiment or opinion, especially from the majority;
to disagree with the methods, goals, of a political party or government;
to take an opposing view; and
to disagree with or reject the doctrines or authority of an established church.
In Early Romanticism and Religious Dissent, Daniel White writes that the term “dissent” was initially used to describe 17th-century Protestant sectarians – Separatists, Baptists, Quakers, Seekers, Ranters, Levellers and other religious minorities – that opposed “secular morality” and the state-privileged Anglican Church. It classified certain Christians who were “dissenting from something” doctrinally, politically and morally in response to the official religious establishment. Dissenter-oriented groups were described by the novelist Daniel Defoe as Christians who were “straightned (sic) in their Consciences,” and “spoke from the Heart to the Heart,” preferring the spontaneity of the Spirit to the prescribed rituals of the Book of Common Prayer.
“From the start, Jesus turned implicit dissent into explicit gospel by extending God’s grace to those beyond the margins.”
In Dissent in American Religion, historian Edwin Scott Gaustad surveys the continuing imperative of dissent. He writes: “Should a society [whether church or state] succeed. . . in suffocating all contrary opinion, then its own vital juices no longer flow and the shadow of death begins to fall across it. No society – ecclesiastical or political, military or literary – can afford to be snared by its own slogans.”
Dissent, he adds, is at once “irritating, unnerving, pigheaded, noisy, and brash. It can also be wrong.” Yet it “may also be a manifestation of the unfettered human spirit.” Mirroring comments by Reinhold Niebuhr, Gaustad concludes that “consent makes democracy possible, dissent makes democracy meaningful.”
Prophets teach us dissent. Jesus certainly did. It began in the synagogue at Nazareth, “where he had been brought up,” Luke’s gospel says, “armed with the power of the Spirit.” They honor the homeboy by passing him “the scroll” and he reads from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
He has sent me to announce good news to the poor,
To proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind;
To let the broken victims go free,
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NEB)
Linking his own dissent with that of Isaiah, Jesus audaciously declares, “Today in your very hearing this text has come true.” From that moment on, he never hesitates to offer dissenting alternatives to the ethical, cultural and religious “norms” of 1st- (and 21st- ) century life. He taught others to do that too, sending them out to challenge their culture with the prophetic word that “The kingdom of God [God’s New Day] has come near you.” The implications for justice are clear: Good news to the POOR; release for PRISONERS; Recovery for the DISABLED; freedom for the VICTIM!
From the start, Jesus turned implicit dissent into explicit gospel by extending God’s grace to those beyond the margins. Prophets inspire and infuriate, modeling and instructing us in dissenting identity and action.
Conscience also instructs us in awakening the spirit of dissent. In 1521, Martin Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor to answer charges of heresy. Catholic theologian Johann von Eck confronted him: “Martin, how can you assume that you are the only one to understand scripture? Would you put your judgment above that of so many famous men and claim that you know more than they all? I ask you, Martin, answer candidly…do you repudiate your books and the errors they contain?”
“Baptist founders insisted that, Christian or not, religious liberty was essential for freeing individuals to follow their own consciences.”
Luther responded: “Unless I am convinced by scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot, and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither safe nor right. God help me. Here I stand. Amen.”
The Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy indicates that “through our individual conscience, we become aware of our deeply held moral principles, we are motivated to act upon them, and we assess our character, our behavior and ultimately our self against those principles.”
From its 17th-century origins, the Baptist movement communicated the need for and power of freedom of conscience, beyond control of governments or state-privileged religious establishments. Early Baptists boldly argued with their opponents (and each other), insisting that only through religious liberty was such debate possible, since there was a thin line between disagreeing with persons and silencing them in the name of God or government.
Indeed, references to conscience as a foundation of dissent abound in 17th-century Baptist documents. In Religions Peace: or, A Plea for Liberty of Conscience (1614), Baptist Leonard Busher wrote: “And as kings and bishops cannot command the wind, so they cannot command faith; You may force men [and women] to church against their consciences, but they will believe as they did afore, when they come there. . . .” Baptist founder Thomas Helwys extended liberty of conscience to non-Christians and atheists alike: “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure.”
Baptist founders insisted that, Christian or not, religious liberty was essential for freeing individuals to follow their own consciences.
Learning dissent is never easy. One person’s prophet is another’s anti-Christ. One person’s conscience is another’s bigotry. Sometimes dissent can get you damned.
Sometimes (like now?) silence can too.