Prophetic Pepper Spray, Suffering, and the Revolutionary Kingdom: UC Davis and #OccupyWallStreet

Suffering.  Not something that is glorified in itself in Scripture, but the glory is in the cause suffered for.

Suffering, most often, is the result of circumstances uncontrollable to the victim.  Born into: an abusive home, a third world ghetto, a warzone, disease, broken family, poverty, famine, or _____________.  Changes: job loss, regime change, governmental budget cuts, bad diagnosis, death of loved one, war, restrictions lifted off of big business, house burns down, bankruptcy, robbery, physical or economic oppression, or ___________.  Suffering inevitably happens when circumstances reflect the brokenness of the kingdoms of the world.

Suffering of another sort exists.  This suffering results when circumstances provoke action.  Passivity perpetuates suffering.  Action exposes the root causes of suffering.  One question must be asked: What sort of action in the face of suffering will we take?

One sort of action reflects a first century reality – that of zealots. Zealots, exhausted by Empire overlords, chose the path of violent resistance.  Such a response to the circumstances of one of the greatest examples of “99 to 1” in history is found in the early Roman Empire.  Without a middle class of any kind, at least 97 percent of people in the Empire lived in poverty.[1]

Fed up with the pattern of suffering of the Jewish people (with the exception of those who compromised to line their pockets), zeal filled these men with violent rage.  They vowed to bring the glory of God back to their people and land by force.  Only then would justice be served.  These attempts ultimately failed to produce lasting change.

Another sort of action presents a possibility in circumstances of suffering.  Paralleling another first century path, the way of Jesus, is a vision of nonviolent prophetic resistance.  Jesus taught his followers this response to suffering in places like Matthew 5 where he taught to “love your enemies,” to “go the extra mile” to “turn the other cheek” (exposing the dehumanizing systems of the day), and to “pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus demonstrates here that a third way exists between violent zealotry and unempowered passivity.  Ultimately, this is the pathway to the cross.

Jesus modeled nonviolent resistance as reflected in 1 Peter 2.19-24. Here, Christians are encouraged to “bear up under the pain of unjust suffering;” to “suffer for doing good;” to endure after the pattern of Christ’s suffering as “an example… [to] follow in his steps.”  Following Jesus in this way remembers how when he was insulted “he did not retaliate” or make “threats.”  “Instead, he entrusted himself to God who judges justly.”  And what was the result of this approach to the circumstances that caused suffering (both physical and spiritual)?  The world was changed… forever.

Paul describes one aspect of the victory of Christ on the cross.  He states:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.  Colossians 2.15

Why did Christianity grow as it did following the death and resurrection of Jesus?  One reason certainly includes the fact that those who were suffering under the thumb of the Empire understood that Christ’s sacrificial act, enduring the full wrath of the powers of the day (both in physical and spiritual manifestation), exposed the oppressive evil of the kingdom of the world.  The suffering of Jesus on the behalf of the suffering people around him, shamed the governing authorities that put him on the cross.  Suffering begets suffering – but when subverted – raises the awareness of the cruelty of systems of Empire.  Movements like this create momentum that not even persecution can blot out. In fact, persecution fuels the refining fires of passionate justice.

Source: HuffPost

This is what took place this past Friday.  I don’t know any of the peaceful protesters at UC Davis personally, so I can’t say that they were intentionally following the example of Jesus.  Yet, they chose to take peaceful action in the face of a nation and world that is suffering.  This nonviolent prophetic resistance resulted in further suffering as they endured the prophetic fumes of oppression, doused by weaponized pepper spray.  Whether they knew it or not, in that moment with linked arms of solidarity, they were imitating the outstretched arms of the greatest Revolutionary in history.

Suffering for good in the first century and today disarms the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them.  Zealotry destroys credibility and results in no change.  Actions that model Jesus’ call to expose the dehumanizing systems of the world through enduring their wrath; these are what revolutions are made of.

[1] Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 10.

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  • Tucker M Russell

    Thanks for sharing Kurt.  Instances like this show in a poignant way why nonviolent resistance is the only way to redemption, but also how difficult a calling it truly is. 

    When I watch this video I am outraged, angered, and appalled.  The instinct to retaliate rises in me.  Yet I know that if the protesters had responded with violence, all the world would see is a mob riot.  If the protesters had responded violently, it would have obscured and enabled the injustice of the system. 

    • @3eb5ab61432db8dda7c1d7aeb9f26264:disqus … thanks for your thoughts bro.  I find myself with that same temptation.  Retaliation is part of our distorted DNA I suppose.  But, in spite of such instincts may we strive to look more and more like Messiah!  Thanks again for your thoughts!

  • JM

    Kurt, I’m still not convinced that the Occupy movement is “good” necessarily (and thus I have to question the validity of the Peter reference).  Of course I think that it’s “understandable”…but as a whole I think much of it is misguided or misdirected anger. I think if any place should be Occupied it should be Capitol Hill. But that is perhaps beside the point.

    Other than claiming to represent the poor and oppressed (which I have questions about), how does the Occupy movement differ from other secular social protest movements or political movements (for example, say, the Tea Party or the anti-WTO anarchist protests from a few years ago)? Would you say that those protests similarly reflective of the Gospel?

  • Arch_man81

    With all due respect, I see absolutely no connection between Jesus and these students at UC Davis.  While the video certainly makes it appear that these young men and women were undeservedly ” doused by weaponized pepper spray,” I wasn’t there, and by your own admittance, neither were you, so it’s hard for me to pass judgment on the police officers.  However my take obviously differs from yours – I have seen very little “good” from my observation of OWS, so my bias (admittedly) is to assume these students probably got what they hoped for – attention.   While there may in fact be many good people involved in the OWS movement, all I’ve personally witnessed is selfishness, ignorance and immorality.  Therefore I see no need to try to connect anything having to do with this “cause” and the cause of Christ.   Guess we’ll have to agree to disagree? 

    • Ian

       I wasn’t there, and by your own admittance, neither were you, so it’s hard for me to pass judgment on the police officers. 
      Did you watch the video? The video leaves really no room for questioning. The police officer was definitely out of line. I agree that quite a bit of OWS is fueled by anger and bitterness and political outrage more than they want to admit. Too much expensive technology for me to believe that most these university students are economically disadvantaged. But the problem is real and I’m glad that someone is saying something, even if it is mostly college students who just want to feel a part of something revolutionary. 
      The next step I think OWS needs to take is to love with their words too. 

      • Arch_man81

        We obviously have two different lenses…  All I see is a bunch of college students acting like fools.  The students who were sitting and pepper sprayed were obviously being egged on by the crowd, and while they may not have deserved to be sprayed my guess is they got exactly what they wanted.  Now they can cry and scream and pretend to be victims while their classmates all stand by with their ipads and smart phones.  Enough with the entitlement crap.  If you want a revolution then bring it about the way Jesus did.  I would love to see this kids sell their toys to feed the homeless, or give up spring break to minister to orphans and prisoners… Let’s be honest Ian, there is nothing at all like this in the gospels, period.

        • Ian

          I was just disagreeing with you suggested that maybe the police officer wasn’t out of line. I agree though that what they are doing isn’t at all like what Jesus did. The Bible promises that we will be persecuted, but here’s the kicker, because of our faith. Not because we sat down on a sidewalk. I’m sure you will agree with that Arch. But I don’t want to entirely demonize these kids (that’s weird for me to say because I’m their age). While I think that a lot of this is pretty silly, it’s not quite as evil as many want to make it out to be. 

          • Arch_man81

            American citizens (of any age) have the right to assembly and the fredom of speech.  My thing is they also need to respect law enforcment, which I believe is one of the most difficult and thankless jobs in the US.   I WOULD BET EVERYTHING, that these students were asked to stop blocking the road before they were sprayed… So I didn’t intend to demonize the demonstrators nor did I mean to justify the police…

            Much of what I have seen of OWS has been despicable (my opinion), and doesn’t help their cause in any way.  (As an aside, I agree with much of the original platform of OWS – although the movement is now so far from this it is laughable).

            My main point was simply what you (Ian) and I agree on (i think) that some are making an illegitamate coupling between the cause of Christ and OWS…  that’s all.

          • Ian

            Agreed that the linking between them is pretty weak. Not the same overall goal and not the same methods. 

        • How can you say that you can not pass judgement on the police officers because you were not there but then proceed to pass judgement on the students that you do not know? And there is no crying and screaming pretending to be victims. There was no reason to use a weaponized pepper spray on these students. These students think that what is going on is wrong and are standing up for it. 

          • Ian

            Of course they were indirectly asking for it too. Doesn’t justify it, but they did kinda want it to happen.

  • Great stuff Kurt. While I am not quite sure what I think about Occupy and of politicizing spiritual values (Micah 6:8 and how social change truly happens),  I am sure that if Jesus were doing social movement this way, this is how he would do it. If we can learn to do justice this way, non-violently, then we can truly become peacemakers, instead of what so many others want of us, peacekeepers.

    The police forces around this country are going to have to find some serious repentance in some of their actions toward Occupy. As Richard Rohr once said about America, “We won’t stop fighting wars until we repent of one of them.” Violence breeds violence, we learn that from Samson. My fear is, and this is the admiration of these protesters, is that there will be greater riots they cannot contain because of the brutality driven to these people.

    Good stuff Kurt. Always have great perspectives.

  • Bob

    Occupy is not peaceful. They may not be violent but they are not promoting peace and it’s inaccurate to say this movement is peaceful.

  • Michael Bond

    Your blog makes you sound very naive. Getting pepper-sprayed is nothing compared to First Century Judea. I’ve been maced and tear-gassed and it is nothing compared to getting beaten or whipped. These people, who are not Christians, would laugh at you if you asked them whether they are trying to follow Jesus.  Perhaps you need to spend a couple of weeks in Ethiopia talking to people who eat maybe every other day and then compare that existence with the pampered teenagers at UCD, most of whom are just bored and looking for a little adventure.

    • He admits in the post that he does not know if they are doing it to follow Jesus’ example. Also, your argument of needing to go to Ethiopia is a very slippery slope. We could sit here and be in an argument about which form of oppression or violence. The point is that oppression and violence is wrong. Are these students better off than most of the world? Yes! But do they still have something worth fighting for? Yes! The amount of budget cuts for education and the raising of tuition is astronomical. There are causes I would rather fight for but that does not invalidate their battles.

      • Michael Bond

        “Oppression and violence?” You have no sense of proportion. Death and violence have nothing to do with spoiled teenagers out for adventure. Maybe you don’t know enough, but pepper spray is nothing like the mace or tear gas I’ve endured without any real hurt. Unlike people who are actually oppressed or killed, the UCD students can and should take on Governor Jerry Brown and  the Democrat-controlled legislature of California for choosing to spend scarce state funds on trains to nowhere and the Dream Act while cutting the University of California, of which I am a major supporter and where I  earned two degrees.

        • If possible I would prefer to have a respectful discussion on the matter. Where is your argument that these are spoiled teenagers out for adventure. Sure there may be some who are merely protesting for the sake of protesting but that is by no means the face of the movement. I don’t think it’s a matter of proportion and I’m not sure how you experiencing mace and tear gas has anything to do with this. Maybe you have a higher pain tolerance than most but the point is that there was no reason to resorting to using the pepper spray at all. As we have seen, nothing good has come from their action. The peaceful nonviolent protesting is winning in this battle and I am sure it will continue to do so.

          In your wording it appears that you are blaming this specifically on a “Democrat-controlled legislature” this is not a matter of political party. And the Dream Act has little to do with this matter. In fact, the Dream Act would be a positive turn in educating hard working people in this country and work towards off setting the ridiculously high cost of higher education. 

  • Anonymous

    Here’s my own take on the whole pepper spray incident.

    It brought to mind for me Acts 5:41 when the apostles rejoice after being flogged by the Sanhedrin “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” It’s easy to mock the protesters for “whining” when you’ve never been pepper-sprayed from the safety of your laptop keyboard. One thing’s for sure. Pepper spray doesn’t defuse anything.

    In a way, the protesters did get what they wanted. They were counted worthy of suffering for their beliefs, which is something that few of the haters in our lazy Internet-addicted society will ever do.

  • Jacqui Norman

    Amen. Thank you Kurt. For more on the non-violent resistance taught by Jesus, I highly recommend Steve Chalke’s book The Lost Message Of Jesus is WONDERFUL.