Making space for the little things

Wednesday, 28th February 2007 at 0:23 UTC Leave a comment

I wrote this article a few weeks ago, and thought I’d share it.

Last Saturday I went to a protest near London, and over the next 3 weeks, I’ll be going to two in London itself. February/March is often a busy time for activists, and anyone who knows me will be totally unsurprised at my heavy schedule. But between these events, there’s something in particular that I feel is worth reflecting on.

Last Saturday, the protest I went to had less than 300 people on it. In three weeks, I’ll go on a protest with maybe 6-700 people on it. A long way for such a small event? Why should it matter? What is it that makes me feel its less worthwhile going and being 1/300th of a crowd than being 1/100,000th?

Neither of these are popular issues, either; they don’t bring the smug comfort of knowing that, regardless of parliamentary outcomes, a majority or thereabouts of all British citizens agree with me. Saturday, for instance, was a ‘No Borders’ demonstration outside Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre, home to some 500 of the kind of people the Daily Mail would have us believe are stealing our homes, jobs and hospital beds; asylum seekers, to give them the polite term. I feel the an enormous sense of injustice as I stand outside the centre, but its hardly the ‘in’ issue of today.

In the meantime, just under two weeks away, there will be a major Stop the War/Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march to protest at plans to replace Britain’s ageing nuclear weapons. Judging by the numbers of coaches booked from this end of the world, I’m reckoning on 200,000 people being there, maybe more, which would make it the largest UK protest since Make Poverty History in July 2005. Usually this would be the kind of march I’d put lots of effort into publicising, let alone going on. Its an easy sell, many people generally agree, you just have to convince them its worth giving up a Saturday and going. As it happens, I’m only going because I happen to be in the capital at the time anyway.

Yes, there’s the tactical issue of how much different the protest would be without me. While any of these could go on without my being involved, for the anti-Nuclear march, my absence would be a 0.0005% difference; is it worth a 400 mile round trip just for that? The usual perspective is to see things the other way: big protest, more likely to make headlines, the fun of being in a bigger crowd, the sense that the issue is validated by the number of people following it. How about we do things the other way round: make an effort to be part of something small, to turn out when others don’t feel its worth it, to take a stand on issues that aren’t going to make us quite so many friends.

I’m reminded of some of Jesus teachings when I write about this. There’s the Pharisee and the tax collector: the Pharisee chooses the spot where the lime light is strongest to make his appeal for justice, and does it according to earthly terms. The tax collector chooses a less prominent (read: newsworthy) spot and a less ingratiating approach, admitting faults others would feel too embarrassed to mention (and locking up innocent people for seeking refuge in our land should surely be embarrassing).

Another is of the mustard seed; its so small and yet capable of becoming so big. Small matters to God, and its through small things (like Gideon’s army) that God often works. Yet we have a tendency to get involved in the big things, the hype, the crowds, ignoring the little things that are equally important if not more so. Its easy to follow Jesus into Jerusalem, but near impossible to follow him back out to the hill. Jesus hardly strikes me as wanting to go for big: a feeding trough, 12 disciples and a donkey ride into Jerusalem are hardly the selections of someone going for ‘big’ things, nor for popular, conventional ways of doing things.

Its not that I’m saying we should try things which are too small to ever possibly make a difference, but perhaps we need to stop focusing on the big, in-vogue campaigns and start looking at the hidden, forgotten issues that make us feel angry; perhaps those we feel extra angry about because of other people’s indifference towards them. And if its not campaigns, then whatever it is, we should ask ourselves if being world-famously big is really all its cracked up to be, or whether we should go for something smaller instead.


Entry filed under: Activism, Theology.

Confessions of someone who does know better

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