The Distant Protest

Many of my friends want to end wars. But not wars that involve the US military, and not wars that threaten their own security. They want to end wars in Uganda and Congo, in Burma and North Korea. They want to end wars not because those wars affect them personally, but because they affect so many others. They are compassionate activists–compactivists, if you will.

In every case one of their primary strategies has been to build awareness in the US about the tragedy and bloodshed and injustice that these wars inflict upon their distant victims, and then to channel that awareness into productive action towards peace. I see two key challenges that they must overcome in order to be effective.

First, the path to justice is cleared by the unwavering commitment of the loyal few. Historically, these loyal few have been either the victims of some injustice, or defectors from the perpetrators of that injustice, or a community of both. Now, in unprecedented numbers, activists are calling for peace in places with which they have no material connection, for people with whom they have little association. The challenge is, how do you inspire the sort of unwavering commitment necessary to overcome injustice in people who are not themselves affected by the injustice you are trying to overcome? How do you inspire lasting, sacrificial determination in people who have nothing to gain from success?

Second, non-violent action has been the cornerstone of the greatest justice movements in history, from Gandhi’s march to the sea to the Greensboro sit-ins to Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. But in each case above, the non-violent protestors were largely the victims of the violence they were protesting, occasionally joined by sympathetic would-be oppressors. We have few if any examples of non-violent actions taken by distant actors that produced measurable strides towards justice. The strategies being tested today are to use non-violent means to spur the US government to intervene on behalf of justice. I wonder, however, if non-violence can be effectively transmitted through the blunt tool of government. And I wonder how just it is for the US government to intervene in foreign affairs even to promote justice, seeing as it will always seek first the interests of the US. Government is never impartial.

I am reminded of a proverb that says, “A community flourishes when men plant the seeds of trees in whose shade they will never sit.” Today’s compactivists aim to end injustices whose sting they have never felt. Maybe that is when the world flourishes. I wish them godspeed in solving the challenges above and creating a more just and peaceful world.