Part of what it means to be committed to a life of faith, part of what it means to be committed to this great and living God, part of what it means to be committed to following, as best we can, this Way of Jesus, part of what it means to be committed to love and truth, means that we know for what we are willing to suffer, if needed; we know for what we are willing to struggle; for what are willing to say “Here I stand, I can do no other”; for what would we be willing to disobey orders; for what we are willing to risk becoming social outcasts, risk shame, mockery, punishment. Being a person of faith means that if those times of choice come, we know from where we can draw strength and courage and clarity.
So, what are your deepest values and commitments? Where do they come from? What are they worth to you?
Wrestling with these questions, praying on these questions, practicing these questions – this is part of our faith life, as individuals, as a community of faith rooted in a tradition, and rooted in the reality of a living God. The answers to these questions may change according to our stage and station and circumstance of life. But we must always try to not stray too far from these questions and to be as clear as we can about. This is something to be praying on, on the regular.
Now, some folks here may have a lot of experience with taking the risk and standing up for what you know, by God, is true and good and just. And some folks here have not yet had to have this experience. And for some folks just being who you are, openly and honestly, is taking a tremendous risk that requires the deepest faith and commitment. For some folks, just surviving takes the utmost courage and faith. Some folks are even born a crime.
So, the most dramatic way that some people of faith throughout history have shown their allegiance to God in the Way of Jesus, beyond any human authority, has been in opposing and at times breaking unjust unholy laws, in defying unjust unholy authorities. There is a higher Law that at times Christians and other people of good faith have obeyed while breaking human law. This is important for us to talk about and explore, wrestle with.
I want to say from the outset that this should not be the litmus test for your faithfulness. The last thing I want is to add to guilt and inadequacy. To pile on the “shoulds.”
The other thing to consider is that if we are sincere in seeking God, if we’re sincere in trying to follow as best we can the Way of Jesus, living out the grace we find through Christ, it is inevitable that our values are not going to be in harmony all the time with the values of the dominant society. The question is how to negotiate that faithfully. Religious civil disobedience is the most dramatic example of confronting the dissonance between higher Law and human law. This is important to learn about and wrestle with and to be challenged by as a way of gaining clarity and strength and courage about our own faith, values, and commitments and how to do right by them in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
What I’m going to end up doing is sharing Dr. King’s principles for nonviolent civil disobedience, which are simply good principles to live by as someone trying to be a faithful person of integrity in our fallen world.
First let’s look at some testimonies in the Bible. You heard two stories from the Bible about folks, committed to God who for that reason committed crimes.
The first story (Acts 5: 16-18,29-30) takes place after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, when the first band of Jesus followers were making it on their own. Now, Jesus was tried, convicted, and executed as a criminal, under the law, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that his followers also got in trouble with the law. Once they had the courage and the power from the Holy Spirit, the apostles went doing as Jesus did: healing people and sharing the Good News of God’s Love restored to humanity through Christ. And like the guy they were following, they got thrown in jail for it. And when that happened, they were ready and clear: “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The law tried to kill Christ, but God made him live again, so we know we’re in good hands. As Jews the apostles were rooted in a religious tradition that contains first recorded act of religious civil disobedience in history, from the book of Exodus. (Exodus 1:8-19)
The new Egyptian king was upset because he didn’t like how many Israelites were in his country. The Israelites had been in Egypt for several generations, as a source of cheap labor, but they were still considered foreigners to be mistrusted. So the King ratcheted up the oppression and ground their cheap labor into slave labor. Then he decreed that male Israelite babies were to be torn from their mothers and killed. The midwives disobeyed, at tremendous risk to themselves. Why? Their allegiance was to God. They were not going to violate life or violate family. They were not going to obey a heinous unholy law.
These two stories of religious civil disobedience are foundational stories of our faith. The story about the midwives leads is at the beginning of the Jewish story: the next thing to happen is the birth of Moses, the Law giver. And the story about the early Apostles is at the beginning of the Christian story.
But there are a couple other parts of the bible that seem to say the opposite, seem to command obedience to governmental authority at all times. The most famous made the news this week.
The Attorney General of the U.S. tried to use the Bible to justify himself in the face of Christians of every stripe crying out against his policy of taking children from their parents at the border out of “zero tolerance” and brutal deterance – treating everyone who comes without documents as a dangerous criminal.
People of good faith these past weeks, as a matter of fact, have been arrested or have risked arrest protesting this abuse of power. As you all know, Christians and Jews have very strong and clear values from the Bible that mandate us to treat immigrants and foreigners as we would treat our neighbors and fellow citizens, which is, as we would like ourselves to be treated if we were them, which is, with love and mercy. I’ll note that these values have been in contradiction with U.S. immigration policy for a long time.
Also, talking about civil disobedience recently, this past month, also, over 2,000 people of faith have been arrested as part of the “Poor People’s Campaign” reigniting the last campaign of Dr. King’s life, seeking to change policies that worsen the conditions of those who are poor. Not to mention the issue of Christians who are anti-gay saying they should be protected when breaking anti-discrimination laws. So, whatever your take on it all, this issue of religious civil disobedience is up for us. It’s something for us to to wrestle with.
I’m on a tangent here, but I have to say for the record: with the cake-baking, I disagree in the strongest way with these Christians’ understanding of how to follow Jesus here. I don’t doubt the sincerity of their beleifs, and if they feel moved to disobey anti-discrimination laws, that’s their choice. But that disobedience should not be privileged and protected. A principle of religious civil disobedience is that you are willing to take on punishment and suffering for your principles. You don’t ask for special privileges. Anti-gay Christians are acting like a Christian pacifist insisting that they be allowed to be a solider who just stands around without a gun, with their arms folded. Christian pacifists don’t act like that and the government wouldn’t let them. The long principled history of Christian conscientious objection (C.O.) to war demonstrates a willingness to take on suffering rather than inflict it. C.O.s serve as medics or chaplains, or if they refuse any military role they wind up in jail or exile, or if they do get granted C.O. status (which is hard to do) they often must do years of alternative service. So, feel disgusted by the thought of issuing a marriage license to a gay couple? Quit your job, or get yourself fired, or get transferred to a different role. Or obey the law and beg God’s forgiveness for your tiny role in facilitating someone else’s happiness.
Anyhow, going back to the Attorney General. He’s trying to justify his use of state power by plucking out a bit from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome: Romans chapter 13:1-7. This says we must be subject to government authorities because all government authorities are ordained by God. This would seem to be against religious civil disobedience. It would also seem to be totally against democracy. In a democracy we don’t accept the divine right of kings; we don’t believe God ordains kings to do whatever they please. Rather, we see governmental authority as deriving from the consent of the governed. Laws and the people who make them and enforce them are all accountable to the people. That’s democracy, let’s not forget it.
Let’s also not forget that Romans 13:1-7 has a bloody history. Jeff Sessions is in not in good company here. This was the favorite bible passage of the Third Reich. It was a go-to for the Apartheid regime in South Africa. It was the go-to for American preachers who justified slavery.
I once met a South African priest, a white Anglican, who gave a sermon during apartheid where he cut the legs out from this biblical justification. Romans 13:1-7 does not pertain to an unjust regime, he preached (and he’s right). The next Sunday police surrounded his church and arrested him and everyone else in it – from babies to elders, all thrown in jail together. (I could’t imagine to think to ask him if they were cruel enough to separate the children from their parents.)
If we actually read the book of Romans there’s a lot of reason to be suspicious of how the beginning of chapter 13 gets used. First of all, Paul himself, who wrote the letter, kept getting thrown in jail. If he was preaching obedience at all times, he sure wasn’t practicing it.
But we just need to read on in chapter 13. Verse 8: Let no debt be outstanding, except the debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. Verse 9 and 10: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” What kind of law is he talking about here? His concern is for a higher law. That higher law is bound at times to run afoul of human law.
If we read a little before chapter 13, the end of chapter 12, this is pure Jesus. 13:1-7 doesn’t sound like Jesus. But all the stuff surrounding it is clearly Sermon on the Mount material.
“Romans 12: 9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another.Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[c] Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Amen? Let’s follow those marching orders.
What Paul is saying here actually maps on to Dr. King’s principles of Nonviolence: 1. PRINCIPLE ONE: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is active nonviolent resistance to evil. It is aggressive spiritually, mentally and emotionally. 2. PRINCIPLE TWO: Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. The end result of nonviolence is redemption and reconciliation. The purpose of nonviolence is the creation of the Beloved Community. 3. PRINCIPLE THREE: Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. Nonviolence recognizes that evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people. 4. PRINCIPLE FOUR: Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. Nonviolence accepts suffering without retaliation. Unearned suffering is redemptive and has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities. 5. PRINCIPLE FIVE: Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. Nonviolence resists violence of the spirit as well as the body. Nonviolent love is spontaneous, unmotivated, unselfish and creative. 6. PRINCIPLE SIX: Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice. The nonviolent resister has deep faith that justice will eventually win. Nonviolence believes that God is a God of justice.
Nonviolence, then, respects the rule of law and seeks to transform those laws even as it is willing to disobey unjust laws.
In closing, let’s end with the questions I raised at the beginning. We’re in this together: For what we are willing to suffer, if needed? For what we are willing to struggle? For what are willing to say “Here I stand, I can do no other”? For what would we be willing to disobey orders? For what we are willing to risk becoming social outcasts, risk shame, mockery, punishment? What are your deepest values and commitments? Where do they come from? What are they worth to you?
We’re in this together, friends, helping each other work it out. For that I give God thanks.
(Delivered June 17, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Exodus 1:8-19 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them. The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the kind of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. They are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
Acts 5: 16-18, 29-30 “The inhabitants of the towns around Jerusalem flocked into the city, bringing with them their sick and those who were troubled by unclean spirits. And the apostles healed everyone. At this the high priest was roused to action, and he and his supporters (who formed the party of the Sadducees), moved by jealousy, arrested the apostles and had them put in jail. … ‘We gave you strict orders,’ the high priest said, ‘not to teach in Jesus’ name. Yet you have actually flooded Jerusalem with your teaching. And you want to make us responsible for this man’s death.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.”
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