Human trafficking. Unsafe working conditions. Homelessness. Today’s headlines are dominated by stories of injustice. But as awareness of injustice grows, so does the protest movement that says it must end.

Wendy SwanLt-Col Wendy Swan is command president of women’s ministries and chair of the Moral and Social Issues Council, Hong Kong and Macau Cmd
So why should Salvationists engage in protest? Lt-Colonel Wendy Swan, a Canadian officer serving as command president of women’s ministries and chair of the Moral and Social Issues Council, Hong Kong and Macau Command, recently completed her PhD thesis at King’s College London, proposing a theology of protest for The Salvation Army. In this interview with Kristin Ostensen, associate editor, she discusses protest as political holiness and why the Army shouldn’t be afraid to upset society.

How do you define protest?
Protest is a visible, public response to an issue. There are two parts to that. One is making some form of pronouncement—saying, “Something’s not right here. This is not the way God wants the world to be.” The pronouncement calls for a halt to whatever the injustice may be. But when you take out the injustice, what are you going to replace it with? The second component of protest is an announcement—saying, “This is how God wants us to live. This is how it should be.”

How important is it for Salvationists to engage in acts of protest?
I think it’s non-negotiable. We say we are followers of Jesus, and he protested injustice wherever he found it. His love compels us to share that love in pragmatic ways. Do our protests need to look identical? Absolutely not. We live in different contexts, families, neighbourhoods—Jesus never said we had to be cookie-cutter Christians.

As Salvationists, how does our call to holiness drive our call to protest?
God calls us to be holy as he is holy. It’s not optional. When we say yes to Christ, we believe that Jesus comes to live in us by his Spirit, and that means we’re going to live differently. If Christ is in us, as we are in the world, then we become the visible, physical representation of him in the world. Even though we are not of the world, we’re called to be in the world. Jesus died for this world, not the next one.

In the 1990s, The Salvation Army established an International Spiritual Life Commission which, in its final report, issued a number of calls to action. One of them states, “We call Salvationists worldwide to restate and live out the doctrine of holiness in all its dimensions—personal, relational, social and political.” The word “political” comes from the Latin word polis, which means community. If we are a holiness people, that must be evidenced in how we respond to injustice in our community. Protesting, then, is part of our understanding of political holiness.

We often think of The Salvation Army as being “apolitical.” How does that impact our call to protest?
I think there’s been a misunderstanding around what it means to be political and apolitical. Should a Salvationist be involved in politics? Absolutely. Politics is about community. Everything is political. What we are is non-partisan, which means we do not align ourselves with a particular political party. Catherine Booth wrote about this subject in 1883, in a pamphlet called The Salvation Army in Relation to Church and State. She says, “Work with whoever you can in order to resolve the issue, and when you’ve resolved the issue, don’t align yourself with a particular political party; just carry on to the next issue.” In other words, use your networks, be intentional, but focus on the issue.
God hasn’t called the Army to be like everybody else. We were never meant to be respectable.
How did Jesus protest the injustices of his time, and what can we learn from him?
In the beginning of his public ministry, we are told in Luke 4 how Jesus understands his mission: he is anointed to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free. There’s no messing around, no soft-spoken words. There’s a lesson for us there. He was prepared to identify, in public, his mandate. I think he was saying, “When you look at my life, you need to find these things in it.” I wonder if Salvationists today are prepared to do that.

When we look at the life of Christ, we also see that Jesus protested injustice as he found it, in his everyday dealings with people. He saw situations where people were not flourishing—he saw how women and children were treated, how Israel looked at its neighbours—and he addressed them. He observed, he acted. His example challenges me. Do I really see people? And what do I do once I’ve seen them?

Interestingly, many of those who were angered by Jesus’ protests came from his own community—the religious leaders who didn’t want him to mess up the status quo. And sometimes, that’s what happens within the church. Protest makes people uncomfortable because once an injustice has been identified, you either choose to ignore it, or you choose to do something about it, but you can’t pretend you don’t know about it.

In your thesis you talk about how protest is, by its nature, sacrificial. What do you mean by that?
Sacrifice is never done on behalf of myself. Sacrifice is about self-emptying; it’s saying “no” to self so that I might say “yes” to others. Protest means saying “no” to the selfish part of me that says, “That’s your business and this is mine.” Instead, it’s giving of yourself, in a physical way, on behalf of others. We know there’s a cost involved in sacrifice. Are people going to disagree with us? Is it going to be tough? Could there be persecution? Perhaps, but I’m prepared to face that, out of my own gratitude for what Christ has done for me. And so, when we act on behalf of others by protesting, we are doing what Jesus did. He gave his life, he sacrificed all, so that we can be saved.

Lights in Darkest England matchboxLow wages and dangerous conditions at match factories in England prompted The Salvation Army to open its own match factory in 1891, producing “Lights in Darkest England.” This act of protest forced other factories to change their practices
Christ’s sacrifice happened at a particular point in history, but the effects of that are still felt today because Jesus is continually at work reconciling the world to himself. So, in a theological sense, protest is a way to participate in God’s redemptive activity in the world. We are not bringing salvation as Jesus did on the cross, but because he has invited us to participate with him in this world, our actions can also be redemptive. We can demonstrate to the world the scope of salvation—it’s not just your soul, it’s also your body. You are a whole human being. When God redeems you, he wants to redeem it all.

Can or should Salvationists ever engage in civil disobedience as part of an act of protest?
I’m not going to say yes or no, but I will say that when you look at the life of Jesus, on occasion, he chose to do so. In Mark 2, when Jesus and his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees call them out for doing something unlawful. But Jesus is doing it to prove a point. He is saying, this law is hurting people who are already marginalized. By saying that people can’t work on the Sabbath, you’re making it harder, if not impossible, for these people to eat, and you’re marginalizing them even more. And that’s wrong. By breaking the law, Jesus was physically, visibly drawing attention to this issue. How else would people have paid attention if he hadn’t done it that way?

Is the Army too “respectable” or “safe” today? Does that sometimes prevent us from protesting and seeking societal reform?
Absolutely, there’s a danger in being respectable. God hasn’t called the Army to be like everybody else. We were never meant to be respectable. Over the course of its history, the Army has done some fabulous work—people have given sacrificially, all across the globe. The danger comes when we begin to believe our own hype; when we begin to believe that we really are wonderful. I’m not saying that’s happened, but the danger is always there. And last time I checked, the job is not done—we are perhaps more aware of injustices now than ever. So if being respectable means that we no longer seek people on the margins; if being respectable means that we act in such a way so that we don’t upset anybody—we’re in trouble.
Protest makes people uncomfortable because once an injustice has been identified, you either choose to ignore it, or you choose to do something about it, but you can’t pretend you don’t know about it.
I was in a conversation one time, in an ecumenical setting, and someone commented that “Christians should never go to a pub.” I said, “Why not?” and they said, “Because it’s that kind of place.” I countered, “Well, wouldn’t that be a good place to be to have conversations with people?” That interaction reminded me that there’s a danger in becoming so sanitized that we pull ourselves out of the world. We don’t want to be “tainted.” But when you read Scripture, Jesus continually sent his disciples out into the community to meet people where they were.

How should Salvationists respond to people, or even governments, who oppose our protests?
Richard Mouw, former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, speaks of “convicted civility.” It means maintaining your conviction while still nurturing a spirit that is kind. I like that because when people push back, our natural response is to get angry and offensive, and I don’t believe that approach accomplishes much. You’ve got to keep the communication channels open and believe in creative possibilities. Two steps forward, with one step back, is still one step forward.

How can we fight back against the pessimism which says “nothing will change, so why bother”?
One practical consideration that can guide us when we protest is the idea of approximate justice. If you hold to an all or nothing approach, it is easy to become discouraged. Approximate justice says that some justice is better than no justice. Making the world a better place is not our mission, it’s God’s mission, and he calls his people to join him. It may be a hard slog but it’s going to work, and in the end, we win.

The act of protesting can transform the world. How can it also transform us?
It gives us a pragmatic, experiential, invigorating understanding of what holiness is. It’s the reality of John 10:10, where Christ says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” I know, intellectually, that the Spirit is working in me, but when you place yourself in the gap, in whatever way that you protest, you realize that this is what it means to be a believer. It’s living right and righting wrongs. In Chinese, we have three characters for The Salvation Army, and the literal translation is, “Save the World Army.” That’s what protesting is—it’s participating in saving the world!

Ultimately, we know when we’re supposed to do something. We just do. We get the nudging, and then we have to choose: Are we going to do something or not?

*Photo (top): Australian Salvation Army officer Cpt Craig Farrell is arrested after participating in a Love Makes a Way protest in October 2014. With permission from territorial headquarters, Cpt Farrell joined the group’s peaceful occupation of the offices of Richard Marles, a member of the Australian parliament, to protest the country’s treatment of refugees (Photo credit: Love Makes a Way)


On Tuesday, June 9, 2020, Debora Donini said:

Please read all my comment I agree on everything and it’s totally ok to march in any protest that fight against injustice any..! (So LGBQT as well!) Yes! Personally I chose my own path of protest against any injustice ..another path My question in regard to protest and the Army is: I didn’t see the Army marching for other important issues of our society as well! pro life Or immigration for example and I’m wondering why... like I said I wouldn’t march in any protest but if I do.. then why only some injustice and not others? Didn’t see a march against the border ‘wall’ to Mexico (why? This is extremely important and I was horrified about the thought of such separation and discrimination! )as well! I don’t see anyone marching for social and economical injustice. We truly live with too much benefits and capitalism in this country!..:-( I’m very concerned and confused .. about picking and choosing...:-( that’s why I chose another path...for those wondering that’s the peace path..I’m totally for non violence, non arms, peace and no.. wouldn’t march for peace as well! )

I think each one needs to be free choosing which path to fight for injustice .. there is not just one way! Jesus is the Way!


On Tuesday, June 9, 2020, f laing said:

the army must be careful in its right to protest "PEACEFULLY. disobeying such items as curfews (issued by politicians (not by police and then having groups disobeying will normally result in violence. should the army condemn the violent nature that these protests result in as shown in numerous news videos . unfortuneately many honest marchers suddenly find they are drawn into situations that they find unable to get out of and are then find themselves supporting areas of protest that they might not agree with. It only took one week for a parade 2000 years ago to radically change their mind over our Lord Jesus we are still just as human today as they were at that time


On Monday, June 8, 2020, Natalia DeBoer said:

Thank you for making me think. So much to pray for and a deeper contemplation for what aspect of social justice I am called to contribute to. Blessings and peace.


On Thursday, August 2, 2018, Diane Ury said:

I’m grateful for your insights expressed with such power and clarity. Thank you for helping me learn how Holiness relates to the phrase “social Justice”.


On Monday, July 16, 2018, Phil said:

In response to Denise's closing comment. Jesus would neither hurl insults @ a Gay Pride parade, nor would He march in it. God never contradicts himself and Jesus' participation would be a huge contradiction.


On Wednesday, June 27, 2018, Chris Congoo said:

Well spoken and written Lt-Col Wendy Swan. I am very concerned about our silence on issues which affects our communities. Poverty in our communities are raising. We need to be more connected. If we do nothing great people will perish.

Democracy, generally, is the rule of many or the people (in Latin, it literally means “rule of the people”), while under a dictatorship, only one single person or a small elite make major political decisions, usually without consulting the people first, and often rule with an iron fist. While democracy generally tolerates alternative viewpoints, dictatorships tend to stamp out any and all political opposition through either incarceration or murder.

Who are the most disadvantaged people in this Country?


On Wednesday, June 27, 2018, Jaclyn Wynne said:

For me this article is well timed. I have been feeling a bit of grief for our army as of late. The army USED to be on the cutting edge of justice, love and mercy and now it often seems that we are too careful, we base what we do on public (read donor)opinion. I've read of officers and soldiers being arrested in the early days of the army for doing the right thing. There is also a great book by Gordon Moyles called The Salvation Army and the Public which highlights the fact that the Salvation Army was at the high of it growth and influence at the times when it has been hated the most. We ought to stop caring what people think and start caring about bringing justice to those in this world who are being mistreated.


On Tuesday, June 26, 2018, denise said:

It never ceases to amaze me how some people are so sure about what is right and wrong - black and white and so sure that they follow the "law". I think we should be fighting for GRACE to be shown to all - that is social justice - not fighting against people for legalization of our faith - e.g. fighting against LGBTQ rights and against legalization of Cannabis. How about fighting against discrimination, power structures that keep people oppressed, criminalization of people who use substances, are poor, have mental illnesses, are immigrants. And yes, Jesus did break the law of His day - He may be divine, but he opposed laws that were not in keeping with unlimited Love and Grace. We are going backwards and focusing on two or three issues that we seem to be using to prove we are so righteous and others are so sinful. Somehow we have taken it upon ourselves to decide that Christians who believe differently or interpret differently are absolutely wrong. At what point did we stop growing and learning and realizing that the Bible is a continuous revelation? Yes, I believe Jesus would march in the Pride parade, not hurl insults at it.


On Tuesday, June 26, 2018, Sergii said:

Thanks for the article. With all respect just wanted to defend Jesus (although He doesn't need that :))). He never broke The Law as He is The Word - The Law (Torah) Giver Himself: (In Mark 2, when Jesus and his disciples pick grain on the Sabbath, the Pharisees call them out for doing something unlawful. But Jesus is doing it to prove a point. He is saying, this law is hurting people who are already marginalized. By saying that people can’t work on the Sabbath, you’re making it harder, if not impossible, for these people to eat, and you’re marginalizing them even more. And that’s wrong. By breaking the law, Jesus was physically, visibly drawing attention to this issue. How else would people have paid attention if he hadn’t done it that way?). Instead He established the value of human life and fundamental human needs above the requirements of Sabbath. Pointing at that view of The Creator Himself He said: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." Again the message is: human most fundamental needs are above work prohibitions of Sabbath and The Temple priestly regulations, as if God's Mercy supersedes God's Justice. Another observation is about this point: " is hurting people who are already marginalized". Yes at times The Law does hurt people but it is in a different context as Paul stated: …11For sin, seizing its opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through the commandment put me to death. 12So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good. 13Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Certainly not! But in order that sin might be exposed as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful.… Romans 7:12. What really hurts and even kills marginalized people at Jesus' times and still today: religious hypocrisy, absence of interest to the Torah (The Divine Teaching) Commandments and Regulations and desire to replace it by perverted additions of local cultural values (The Torah in general has been denied and even the word itself replaced by the word - Law by early church fathers and standardized later by Rome and Byzantine).


On Tuesday, June 26, 2018, Chris Thomas said:

I'm kind of inclined to agree with my fellow USA Central Salvationist, Justin Steckbauer on abortion. While I agree with a lot of what the writer is saying here, and while I certainly do applaud her for addressing what is an inconvenient but important topic for many so eloquently and lovingly (albeit rather vaguely in regards to a lot of specific social justice issues), I think it's important to note what should be at the heart of addressing social justice, or social injustice, which is impacting and improving lives so that we can achieve equality for all so that all are able to live out their God-given calling and potential. Key word there (besides God of course): Lives. If we can't stand for life, even when it's personally inconvenient for us and disagrees with our political leanings and personal convictions (I'm guilty as charged when it comes to not being open to addressing certain issues because of this), then how can we really be sincere and credible when it comes to other social justice issues? If we can't stand for the most vulnerable among us, the unborn, don't we just look phony when we talk about social justice? I'm not at all saying that the author is implying that we shouldn't speak out or do something on abortion as I do not know where she stands on this, but my question remains the same in a general sense to my fellow salvationists.


On Monday, June 25, 2018, A/CSM Steve Henderson said:

I agree with several of the USA officers who reponded. In thid ssge of Political Correctness,Intersectionality, and the constant politicalization of religious freedoms as hate,bigotry,discrimination via social media outlets, The Salvation Army can not fiscally afford to stand up & protest in full uniform & carrying the flag as it once did & sadly we here in America can thssnk then leadership in place during the 1900's when nationally the army was silent publically on racial inequality


On Monday, June 25, 2018, Concerned said:

If anything my initial reaction to this was whether this same officer has ensured that his corps is thriving and growing, but that if he is not a corps officer that he is fully engaged in the existing ministries of the Army, fully performing for the extension of God's kingdom and assisting where he can, all the while ensuring that his Biblical knowledge is current and extensive, and that his passion for souls and the lost extends to the "uttermost". In short, and cynically, where has he found the time???

As I read the comments of others I was struck by the fact that you did not see Army officers on a march to stop abortion on demand or to oppose same-sex marriage when these were the issues du jour. There has been no comment on the impending legalization of marijuana in Canada nor indeed on a myriad of other issues facing society today.

This is a misguided venture and one at which an Army officer does not belong.


On Monday, June 25, 2018, John Stephenson said:

I am in general agreement with what Wendy Swan is saying here. The Swan's were stationed here in Winnipeg for a few years and I became aware of them and their views through my interactions with Cadets at CFOT and students at Booth University. While I know we may differ somewhat in our theological leanings I do believe we have similar thoughts regrading social justice issues. I, many years ago when an Officer , had issues with a D.C. relating to my clearly stating views on some social justice issues and my somewhat rebellious ways in the eyes of leadership in TSA then eventually led to my wife and I leaving Officership and ministering elsewhere for a number of years. I then spent over 20 years working in our Provincial Corrections system as a Correctional Officer through to Chief Correctional Officer. Many times in that function I saw and helped deal with ways things are done to make a better system for those in custody. In many ways Wendy is suggesting we work for similar changes in how TSA does ministry .I for one look to Micah 6:8 for guidance on these issues-humbly walk with God, love and practice justice and mercy. That will eventually lead to public protesting as an individual.

When I look to TSA history this is what happened many times. Today we have drifted away from our original purpose in many places. And the original purpose involves being down in the bushes along the road to Jerusalem as the Irish Rovers sing. We at times, many times, as an organization seem to seek respectability when we should be fighting on the battle lines against many social injustices However we need to be sure that we stand up for God's Absolute Truth in some areas also. This will put us one both sides of the secular social justice movement at times .

Thanks Wendy for your openness on this subject.


On Sunday, June 24, 2018, Eugene Gesner said:

Two things. First, Jesus did not deal with injustice everywhere he met it with protest. Remember, Jews were to carry the pack of the Roman soldier another mile. He was a friend of tax collectors, notorious for overcharging. The second point is influenced by this, be careful what “injustices” one protests. I am certain that there are perceived injustices that do not warrant protests. I can remember that at one time, officers were discouraged from joining abortion protests and the Army still seems to ignore this today. If we can’t bring ourselves to protest on what should be as clear an issue as life, why should we protest other issues? I hope if this is moving toward a policy, that we are very careful how we use it.


On Sunday, June 24, 2018, Justin Steckbauer said:

Sounds great. Let's organize some pro-life rallies, biblical marriage protests, and speak out for religious freedom.


On Sunday, June 24, 2018, Robert Deidrick said:

In the USA officers would probably be reprimanded if we were arrested for unlawful disobedience.There also is a fear of losing funding and appearing political.On some subjects or issues we are quashed and to remain silent.I would have to say that I have mixed feelings on the subject. Thanks for your article.


On Sunday, June 24, 2018, Steve said:

We're on thin ice here, and tip-toeing around specifics on hard issues, human trafficking aside. In the post modern world of relativism, "injustice in our community" is controversial because morality is subjective, in the eye of the secular beholder i.e. "Security from fire" is a safety issue objectively true enough. But, In Darkest England, six year old kids were drunk prostitutes and there were few a working for any wage period. The interview is a bit shallow and therefore leads me to suspect that left leaning incrementalism is lurking about underneath the scholar's thesis at worst, and at best, the substance of interviewee's protest flounders in do little moderate ism. Hardly a "fisher of men."


On Sunday, June 24, 2018, Karl Brettig said:

Thanks Wendy. Great article! Made us a bit less nervous about our upcoming symposium in South Australia on Power & Compassion - the roles of faith-based organisations and government.


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