Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Time's Person of the Year: The Protester

As it does every December, Time Magazine just announced its Person of the Year.  In honoring The Protester, Time acknowledges that protests, once a crucial part of social movements, had become passe.  The essay argues that, whereas a culture of protest shaped the Sixties, by the time the next generation had come of age, a general consensus had emerged on the primacy of market capitalism and Western-style liberal democracy.  It was not until the past few years, when the excesses and shortcomings of these frameworks became evident, that protest re-emerged as an important instrument of change.

Obviously, our effort has little to do with liberalization in the Arab world or political protests here at home. Yet it does require us to affirm and take on the identity of protesters.  This can be scary and uncomfortable. It is always much easier to side with the status quo; "Go along to get along," as the saying goes.  Protesters are seen as troublemakers and mocked as idealistic and naive.

But let us not forget that the protest tradition is a noble one.  Even our broadest Christian category, "Protestant," hearkens to this tradition: pro testa, "For the Word."  Baptists have long protested in support of the values they hold most dear: soul competency, liberty of the conscience, the separation of church and state, etc.  Yet as the culture of (yes, mostly white) suburban evangelicalism has become so uniform, monolithic, and conformist, we have moved away from our noblest protest traditions.

I say it's time to reclaim them.  Our cause is just and our argument is simple: rather than complaining about various turns of events (unfavorable personnel turnover, curriculum decisions, gender issues, etc.), we are challenging the institutional arrangement that is at the root of all these problems (BGCO ownership and control of OBU).  This is no panacea.  Even after BGCO control is ended, there will still be thorny issues to work out.  We may not have to endure the dreadful consequences of fundamentalism, but there will always be challenges.

But let's be honest.  If we fail, all this is a moot point.  OBU will go the way of the fundamentalist Bible academies.  It won't happen overnight, but we'd get there eventually.  In some ways, the wheels already appear to be in motion.  We forget just how much Southern Baptist institutional and academic life has changed in the past 30 years.  Without intentional intervention, the slide into all-out fundamentalism will happen on its own through regular attrition of the faculty, administration, and trustees.

We're here to make sure that does not happen.  We're protesting against an institutional arrangement that no longer serves its constituents very well.  Don't be ashamed that you are going against powerful people's wishes.  Be proud!  You're engaging in an essential aspect of Baptist, and Protestant, life.  You were Time's Person of the Year in 2006 just for being you.  But to claim that title for 2011, join the protest!

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