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.


  1. Hey James! Enjoyed the post. I like your question: “How do you inspire lasting, sacrificial determination in people who have nothing to gain from success?” I think we do have something to gain from the success of others. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letters from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I think those who take up these distant protests sense the truth in King’s words. The first part of your question is key: “lasting, sacrificial determination.” How do we keep the stamina to last (often for years) when it’s not us who are being persecuted? And, how do we keep the attention span of others? Great thoughts!!!

  2. James,

    You raise some interesting questions, however I think you missed an important one. “Do these compassionate activists speak on behalf of those feeling the sting of injustice?” A new book called Fighting for Darfur highlights the accomplishments and the shortfalls in compassionate, international advocacy. I think the biggest challenges is finding a way to elevate the voices of those facing injustice with integrity. The connected challenge is communicating that the injustice to a distant brother or sister can also be an injustice to us all. In Season of Blood, about the Rwandan genocide, the author says that what happened in Rwanda ‘diminished all our humanity’ I think conveying that is quite hard.

    All that to say, thanks for the good questions. I offer no answers, only more questions.

    For full disclosure. I’m probably one of the Congo associated compassionate advocates.

  3. Jay, good point. I can see that there is something to gain, but what is it? Is it the alleviation of some empathetic discomfort? Is it a small increased sense of global security? I’d love your thoughts on what this looks like at a really practical level.

    Houston, great question. Perhaps a more basic version of your question is, CAN these compassionate activists speak on behalf of those feeling the sting of injustice? Your thoughts? Would it be more effective to support them with strategies to raise their voices locally? Also, it often seems to me that an injustice faced by someone in Congo, Burma, or North Korea is not really an injustice to me. Not in anything like the same way that it is to them. What do you think?

  4. James,

    I’d agree that police brutality in the Congo does not impact my life in the same way that it does the 13 year old that was thrown in solitary for calling the police on a crooked electric company. I would be naive to think that I am suffering in a similar fashion to him. However, through a variety of measures, I can make efforts to reduce the likelihood that this boy will continue to suffer or that his children might suffer. The solutions are holistic. They must ultimately be driven by internal actors, but those actions can be supported by external pressures from government or economic sources. So no, our experiences are not comparable, but I think I do lose something by not doing what is within my power to reduce the experience of injustice by others. Finally, I think that external actors CAN speak on behalf of others, but whether they always do would be a quite different question.

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