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Managing Dissent

The Democratic National Convention in Boston last week was devoid of drama. The nominees were already decided, and there was no fierce floor fighting over the party platform. Everything was a done deal before the first red, white, or blue balloon was inflated.

The same will be true for Republican National Convention which begins Aug. 30. Conventions have become little more than carefully staged campaign commercials.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Not that it has to be this way. At a location removed from the convention thousands of protestors gathered to express dissenting views about the war, the economy, the influence of big corporations on American politics and anything else that was on their mind. There was real drama at this meeting because the event was not scripted for prime-time television. Sadly, these dissenters and their message were muted by their relative invisibility. You see their meeting took place miles away from the convention in what security folks call “free-speech zones.”
 
There is something cynical about calling these protest areas free-speech zones. Part of the idea behind the freedom of speech includes the right to assemble peacefully in order to speak. Sometimes the message is tied to a location, a certain visual image that reinforces the message. Forcing protesters away from their symbolic target, in this case the Democratic or Republican national convention, actually serves to silence or at least dilute the dissent.
 
Unfortunately, we are told, it’s a new day. The events of 9/11 have made it necessary to curb access to important people and symbolic venues. We know now we are vulnerable to terrorists, and certain freedoms must be curtailed in order for other freedoms to be protected. But such reasoning does not make any sense. We do not remain free by restricting freedoms.
 
Besides, freedom has always been a risky proposition. Living in an open society has both benefits and dangers. But at one time we believed the benefits outweighed the dangers–we believed freedom was worth the risks. Now we are not so sure. Maybe some freedom is a little too risky.
 
We can kid ourselves this way if want to, but the joke will ultimately be on us and our way of life.
 
There is no way we will protect our political process by limiting access to it. We need those dissenters there; we need to hear what they have to say. Almost every idea in history that has advanced human rights and human dignity began as a dissenting opinion.
 
Which includes, by the way, the Christian faith. Christians have been on the wrong side of political majorities almost from the beginning. From the moment Jesus told his followers that we are in the world but not of the world, dissent has been part of our legacy.
 
In his exceptionally important book, A Genealogy of Dissent, Professor David Stricklin traces the history of American Christian protests against dominant political majorities. From slavery to civil rights, from the war in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Vietnam to concerns about the poor, Christians have laid their faith, and some cases their lives, on the line opposing the powers that be. Of course, the founder of the Christian movement was something of a dissenter himself.
 
Although you have to wonder: What would have happened if Jesus’ message to the money changers had taken place in a free-speech zone somewhere outside Jerusalem? Chances are we would never have heard about it. Of course, that may be the point of free-speech zones in the first place.    
 
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.