Christian Philosopher: Why the 2014 Protests Missed Their Mark

Year 2014 was the year of protests, proclaims the Village Voice, based in New York City, my town. The Voice's December 31, 2014 cover article starts, "As we began to look back on 2014 for the last issue of this year, we found it awfully hard to see past the demonstrators." Indeed. Protests against university fraternities and a "culture of rape," protests against the tragic deaths of two black men who were resisting arrest, protests at fast-food restaurants against minimum wages that seem to be too low, and such like, captured a sizable proportion of the news coverage. Year AD 2014 included almost a 'culture of protests,' as the Village Voice has now chronicled in an essay and photographs. So, what is really happening?

Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist.
Paul de Vries is an exclusive CP columnist. | (By CP Cartoonist Rod Anderson)

Certainly, I have no problem with protests! I have participated in quite a few over the years – including street protests, writing-letters protests, meet-with-the-politician protests, and organized prayer-vigils as potent protests. Besides, we are members of a religious movement named for protests – the Protestants!

Free speech always matters; for good reason it is guaranteed in the very first article of the American Bill of Rights. Effective protests often spawn good consequences, as we have seen particularly in our religious liberty and civil rights movements. Besides, when we do not speak up and do not in other ways also work for positive change – for justice, for compassion, for accountability – we ourselves become part of the on-going problems, even when we may clearly "think" differently and feel differently "in our hearts." The eternal truth is that behavior and belief must unite. "What matters most is… faith working, through love," as Jesus, James, and Paul taught so consistently. (See especially Galatians 5:6; Romans 1:5; 16:26; I Thessalonians 1:3; James 2:14-26, Matthew 5:1-7:29, and many other references.)

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Many of the 2014 protests have missed their mark. At the risk of oversimplification, we believe that there are two profound traits that distinguish many of the 2014 protests. If we deal with these two profound traits, we can achieve the needed social changes more effectively in 2015 and beyond.

Profound Trait #1: While the 2014 protest issues are generally substantial, the target cases have been significantly flawed. If we want real change, we can find better cases to focus people's attention.

For example, let us take the first case of protests in my list in the first paragraph – those against college campus "cultures of rape." There is no doubt that many college and university campuses are over-sexualized. The God-given hormones are in abundance in young adults, further energized in co-ed dorms with shared bathrooms and condom machines on every floor. No surprise that the Divine gifts of male and female sexuality can get polluted at our universities, and at tragic rates! Does no one take Biology 101 seriously? And our University of Virginia (UVa) – where I am a double graduate – with its superabundance of fraternities, sororities, and huge parties – is far too easy a target for ignorant people. That Rolling Stone would take what was obviously an incoherent fantasy sex story and publish it as a news report degrades its fine journalism. Even worse, many students at UVa and other places believed the fantasy story as if it were fact, and then ignorantly protested fraternity and university cultures. For shame! There is plenty of sexual abuse to protest, but this was mindless.

However, the ripple effects of the public disclosure that Rolling Stone had not fact-checked the story with even the accuser's friends, and that the "news story" was still clearly a fantasy were even more shameful!  Media commentators then decried the deceit, worrying that real rape victims might not now be so implicitly believed — yet with not a word of concern from most the media commentators for the falsely accused men, the falsely targeted fraternity Phi Kappa Psi, and the falsely tarnished great university. So shameful! Frequent cries of "Oh they are probably guilty anyway" does not cut it. Has the secular media become the new Pharisees? God help us. The Decalogue is out, but the decadent Political-Correctness is in.

Moreover, how could it be that, even weeks after its publication, the fantasy article's "reporter," Sabrina Rubin Erdely, has not yet been fired? It seems as if this Rolling Stone has managed to gather some toxic moss!

As an historical note, in September of 1969, I founded the Office of Volunteer Community Service (OVCS) at our UVa, and served as its first director. OVCS was then and continues to be – now under the name Madison House ( – a model for educating and engaging students in active social responsibility. The year AD 1969 was a time of serious student protests and unrest – similar to 2014 – so we decided to help channel that moral energy constructively. We went first to the Fraternity-Sorority Council for its endorsement – then to Student Council and the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily. Finally, with all of these precious endorsements in hand, we went to the University administration and President Edgar Shannon for his approval. Our case was strong, and all the approvals were remarkably swift. We immediately involved hundreds of students in volunteer projects in that academic year, 1969-1970. Fraternity and Sorority members and pledges were always a sizable portion of each volunteer program.

Although I have never been a member of a university fraternity, we chose to start our founding of OVCS by seeking the fraternity and sorority endorsement – and the rest is history. Rolling Stone's seeming hostility to fraternities is uninformed. Fraternities and sororities are an important civilizing influence. If there is a "culture of rape" to protest at our UVa, or any place, please get the facts straight – or else after hurting thousands of innocent people you will tarnish yourself even more.

While I do not have the space to explain here, similar points can be made with other 2014 protest issues. For example, correcting for police misconduct requires vigilance, and honest community support for police is essential to that timely process. In particular, NYPD professionalism has helped bring our NYC crime down 86% in the past 25 years. Objective gratitude for excellent police protection and getting the facts straight are two steps essential for (a) avoiding senseless hostilities and also (b) continuing to empower further improvements. Important details of recent cases involving deaths during arrests were not communicated in timely or effective ways. The police owe the public more objective facts and explanations—and more evident processes of self-correction within their departments. And protestors need less compromised target cases if our real issues are to lead to transformations.

Profound Trait #2: The very quickness with which people in 2014 believed even deeply flawed cases, and then protested in significant numbers, reveals an important fact. This remarkable, energetic 2014 behavior shows a measurably eager and substantial hunger to be involved actively in transformative issues of justice, compassion, and accountability. Our present world grossly underestimates the innate need most people have to be helping others and improving their worlds. When that innate 'need to be needed' does not have excellent, positive channels for fulfilling these needs, people become more gullible to false stories, and they are more easily manipulated into somewhat less-than-effective protests.

What is the good news? The fact that – somewhat like the present glut in world oil supplies – there is now a 'moral energy glut' that could be more wisely channeled, and with tremendous, positive, redemptive effect. Wise institutions, as our University of Virginia did in 1969, will endorse or help spawn effectual trained, accountable, and honored volunteer action  – to channel the growing wholesome passion for positive, transformative service.

Perhaps this time we should especially awaken the churches to powerfully model the truth of Jesus, James, and Paul: "faith working, through love." After all, Saving Gospel and Social Gospel are still two sides of the same, graceful, precious 'Divine Coin' that the Lord has given in such great abundance.

Dr. Paul de Vries is the president of New York Divinity School, and a pastor, speaker and author. Since 2004, he has served on the Board of the National Association of Evangelicals, representing 40 million evangelical Americans.

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