Do Not Tolerate the Intolerable: Public Shaming Can Be a Justice Action

Sarah_Huckabee_Sanders_01by Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Jesus of Nazareth publicly shamed those leaders he saw were committing injustice in his time, calling them out (Matt. 23:13). Jesus didn’t hesitate to be confrontational. “You hypocrites!” he cried out.

Members of this current administration have recently been publicly shamed, and also denied service at a restaurant, to call them out. I believe these are justice actions.

For example, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service at a Virginia restaurant, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, Pam Bondi, the Florida Attorney General who has supported Trump throughout his tenure, and Stephen Miller, a Senior Trump Advisor, have all been recently heckled in public places.

Today, I am persuaded that this kind of prophetic witness is needed in light of the intolerable words and actions of this current administration and that it stands in the same line as the prophetic witness of the biblical prophets and Jesus of Nazareth. The massive amount of systemic cruelty, especially to immigrant children, and the extreme bigotry that has incited prejudice and even violence against minorities, is intolerable. When these are combined with consistent lying and undermining of constitutionally guaranteed rights, as this administration has done, these actions must be confronted. They cannot be allowed to become normalized.

This isn’t normal. This isn’t right. And when you collaborate with it, you should be called out.

When used nonviolently, these kinds of actions can be legitimate forms of justice protests. Professor Gene Sharp, often called the “grandfather of nonviolent direct action,” compiled a list of 198 Tactics for The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Both publicly “taunting” officials and withholding services are on the list. Sharp was often criticized by traditional pacifists for including so many confrontational actions in his work on nonviolence, but as he often argued, this method is called nonviolent direct action. It is designed to make the injustice visible everywhere and to everyone. Injustice loves to hide in the shadows and not be seen for what it is.

Theologian Dorothee Soelle, who grew up in the Germany that had been so morally corrupted by the Nazis, has written powerfully about why societies cannot tolerate the intolerable. For example, in her book The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity, she counsels against tolerating massive intolerance. She argues, in her profound way, that “if we love heaven, we find ourselves less and less able to tolerate hell.” (pp. 69-70).

Make no mistake. For a child to be ripped from her or his parents’ arms and locked in a cage is the very definition of “hell on earth.” This administration has admitted plans to build concentration type camps on military bases for persons trying to enter the United States. The President has advocated denial of due process for these individuals. How much more evidence do you need that what America is becoming today is intolerable?

Do not tolerate it.

There are those who have argued that while verbal protest, such as heckling administration officials, is a legitimate form of justice action, withholding service is not. The counter argument is that this form of denial of service is like the denial of service used to discriminate against racial/ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people and should not be replicated, even in the service of justice.

Actually, I do not believe these are the same. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was denied service not because she belongs to a persecuted class of people, but specifically for her own actions. She can, in fact, change those actions, i.e. stop collaborating with this corrupt administration by consistently lying for them, and then she could receive service. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sarah Huckabee Sanders was ‘judged not on the color of her skin, but on the content of her character.’ And it was her character that was found wanting. I think, in fact, it is particularly apt that Sarah Huckabee Sanders has experienced how alienating denial of service can be, and I hope she might learn from that not to do it to others.

We must refuse to go down this road any further. Societies that learn to tolerate the intolerable end up like ancient Israel under the Romans, or Germany under the Nazis.

Instead, interrupt it with techniques of nonviolent direct action.

Today we are seeing 2 of the 198 possible actions we can take to refuse to let this Trump regime normalize cruelty and injustice.

There are many others. Check them out.

Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite—Professor of Theology and President (1998-2008), Chicago Theological Seminary


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