“The Morality of Civil Disobedience”
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 14, 2016
University Baptist Church
So, the grab bag topic for this Sunday is “the morality of civil disobedience.” I suppose I could pause from this topic and give honor to Thor Kommedahl and his 96 years on this earth and his 65 years of marriage to Faye and his presence in this church for even longer than that. We’ll do that more fully at the celebration of life service on Thursday. But the question for this day goes to the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Thor lived it in his life. It is about priorities. What is most important? How your presence makes an impact on this world and those who are left behind.
Priorities are on my mind today, too. Our family is dealing with Kim’s diagnosis of breast cancer. We are taking things one day at a time and we feel surrounded by the love of this community and our extended family and friends. This sermon is not to talk about all of those issues. But these days, our family discussions around the dinner table have a lot to do with priorities. On what are we going to expend our energy? Who gets to decide how we spend our time? To which gods are we going to bow? Who holds hope and who holds fear? Where do we find answers to the questions that dog us? As Mary Oliver suggests, what are we going to do with our one precious life?
And so we look at the choices that we make. The decisions that we make, the things we do, where we spend our time and our treasure, expresses what we believe. And of course the question of morality comes even as we contemplate mortality. It’s all about how we want to be counted, how we want to be counted upon. We want to live moral lives and we want our decisions and our actions to matter. And so, we look to hold our obedience to a set of moral priorities that hold our deepest beliefs. The conundrum is that we do so when there are forces that conspire against us. Some of which we have control over and some that we don’t. This is about what control we do have and where our obedience lies.
There’s a difference between disobedience and civil disobedience. Disobedience is what crime is about as well as anarchy. Libertarians and anarchists are two sides of the same coin. Both hate being constrained by laws and rules. They think everything would be fine if the government left everyone alone. There is the sense by some that laws are made to be skirted. We see citizens and lawmakers dance around the law. When it’s for selfish gain, then it’s hardly civil. It’s just plain greedy arrogance. One of the things the candidates have pointed out is how much the other has broken the law or skirted regulations. Who is more trustworthy? Is it okay to break the law if you are a powerful person? There is little civil about it, but it is somehow societally acceptable, or at least expected amongst our elected leaders. That ought to say something about our morality as a country.
Civil disobedience comes from a place of desperation. A wrong has been committed. Negotiation for redress has not brought about favorable results. Those in positions of domination wish the problem would just go away. Let’s turn the TV channel to something more entertaining and let’s not talk about what makes us uncomfortable. Civil disobedience in its purest sense, is a tactic to bring about change. It is always done nonviolently, and always with the goal of spurring dialogue and change. That is the moral basis of civil disobedience.
Today’s scripture reading is the inspiration for civil disobedience and holy obedience. When I was in seminary, two cats that lived on my floor and chased away the mice were named Shiphrah and Puah. In my Biblical ignorance I asked my classmates where they got their peculiar names. “You mean you’re a Baptist and you don’t know about the two most important people in the entire Bible?” I realized I was in for yet another lesson in women’s witness in the Bible that my upbringing had conveniently ignored. They told me to read the first chapter of Exodus and learn the names of the women, Shiphrah and Puah.
We know the setting. Four hundred years passed between the Genesis drama and Exodus. The power shifted. The Hebrew people were foreigners and became slaves to the King of Egypt, Pharaoh. The Bible says that the more they were oppressed the more children they had. It is no accident that the largest families tend to be the poorest among us. More children means more people to take care of you in your old age—more options to get out of poverty, not to mention the out and out hope that a child brings to any situation.
The Egyptians were afraid of the teeming masses of Hebrews, so they increasingly oppressed them. But it did not stop them or break their spirit. Pharaoh feared a slave uprising, so he instituted a program of ethnic cleansing. He declared that all of the female Hebrew babies should live, but all of the male Hebrew children must be thrown into the river and killed. And he made the Hebrew Midwives Shiphrah and Puah accomplices. I am sure there were threats and fines and maybe even death if they did not follow orders. But the midwives, the bible says, feared God. They feared God more than they feared Pharaoh. Feared God, respected God, honored God. They answered to a higher authority. They did not heed the orders of evil. They stood up to Pharaoh because they respected God more than the king. They were obedient to God, not the civil authorities.
When the king saw that there were more male babies running around the camp, he called the midwives and said, “why have you done this?” What follows is one of the best come-back lines in the Hebrew Bible. Shiphrah and Puah said to Pharaoh, “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and are delivered before we get there.” Don’t you just love it? “They don’t need us. Therefore we can’t comply with your order.” The first act of civil disobedience.
One of these male children whom Shiphrah and Puah refused to kill was later named, by Pharaoh’s own daughter, Moses. Thereby setting the stage for the central theme of the Hebrew Bible: freeing people from bondage and following the leadings of God, even when it opposes the civil authorities.
Now fast-forward 1400 years. Jesus did his liberating ministry and refused to be silenced. The authorities strung him up and executed him as a sign to not mess with Rome. A generation later, the Apostle Paul was writing to the Romans and he says something that is very un-Jesus-like. (Paul almost never quoted Jesus, by the way). He says that we are to be subject to civil authorities. We are not to oppose them because God has put them in power. It was not one of Paul’s finer theological moments. He was concerned that people were going to get themselves killed if they opposed Roman rule. He feared Rome, but conflated Rome with God.
People love to quote Romans 13 if someone engages in civil disobedience. It’s a social control vehicle. You are not being a good Christian if you oppose the rulers, so goes the trope. Your civil disobedience is immoral, because you are breaking the law and since the leaders were instituted by God, they have to be moral. And so, we end up with a dispute amongst good people about whether the act of breaking the law is moral.
Faithfulness is about obedience to the liberating Gospel and remaining obedient to that gospel when the powers and principalities need redress. It’s always moral to hold to a higher ideal. The question is, is the method of civil disobedience moral or not? It depends on the action.
When I was doing my work with Soulforce, we learned a lot about civil disobedience. It was a method developed by Gandhi in India. It was refined by Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and it remains an effective method of causing dramatic tension. It’s often street theater and it’s designed to be disruptive. It pushes people out of their comfort zone and creates a dynamic tension out of which change can occur. It seeks to take the moral high ground. It does not demonize people. It focuses on unjust actions. It leaves room for transforming enemies into friends. It recognizes that good people can make wrong decisions. It’s about redemption. Civil disobedience is part of a nonviolent strategy, but it is only used when negotiations have broken down. It’s a way to get people back to the negotiating table.
When I was in San Francisco, we always made sure we were off the road around 5pm on Friday afternoon. That’s when Critical Mass took place. It was bikers taking to the streets to advocate for safe bike lanes and to protest the way that bicyclists were killed. It was effective. How can you get mad at a happy band of bicyclists escorted by police with whom they had negotiated their route? Now there are dedicated bike lanes across the cities.
When I was interviewing for the pastor position at UBC, they conducted a background check. The lawyer said to Paula Moyer, chair of the search committee, “Do you realize he has been arrested six times for civil disobedience?” She said, “Yes, and we find it endearing.” Says a little about UBC.
My first arrest was in 1986. I was part of the Pledge of Resistance. We were trained in Nonviolence and if Congress passed funding to the Contras fighting in Nicaragua, then we were going to occupy the offices of our congress-people until they withdrew funding. My congressman was insulted by our actions and told us that staging adolescent die-ins in offices of public officials would never replace sound thinking on international policy. We responded that had their been sound thinking, we would not have to resort to this. My congressman back then was John Kasich.
I was arrested in San Francisco, protesting the demolition of former military housing in the Presidio when there was such a homeless problem. I was arrested at several Southern Baptist Convention meetings, protesting their policies that excluded and demonized our LGBT sisters and brothers. We willfully broke the law, in what we deemed as voluntary redemptive suffering. We were willing to pay fines, go to jail, be inconvenienced on behalf of those whose life is an inconvenience to those in positions of domination.
They were heady times and we always knew we were right. People break the law in order to highlight an injustice and push the conscience of the community to a better, more moral place. It is designed to be disruptive. It is seldom convenient, just as oppression is not convenient. And it can stir up backlash. It can cause good people to disagree with each other. But out of the chaos comes creative thinking about how to move forward. Yes, sometimes it’s messy.
But what happens when the action is not focused? What happens when the people are not trained in nonviolence? What happens when the action becomes the focus instead of the desired outcome? What happens when the desired outcome is unclear? It’s awkward to be in a crowd that turns angry. And then the chanting becomes “no justice, no peace, prosecute the police.” The crowd becomes the judge and jury. Then there’s the group of well-meaning white folks who shut down 35w right near University Avenue a few weeks ago. They were demanding the elimination of the police department. And then they refused to talk with the press. It seems they were not the best tacticians.
Black Lives Matter was taken to court by the City of Bloomington for occupying space in the Mall of America. They were not disrupting business. Mall security closed down businesses. They were just making their voices heard. But it was seen as too disruptive. This fall, we have been invited to be a part of a Guinness world record handbell performance at the Mall of America. Most of us will likely be white. We will be standing in the way of commerce, but I highly doubt that the City of Bloomington will be disturbed by our presence there. This is the disconnect that civil disobedience seeks to address. And I for one am happy to be a part of the dialogue.
My friends, we come from a long Biblical line of redemptively disobedient people. Are there things to which your allegiance to God puts into question your obedience to the status quo?
Is there some burning truth that you know that sets you free and puts you at odds with acceptable religion? Is there some decision you have made that you wish you had chosen differently? Are you looking for role models for creative action? If so, I suggest you look at Shiphrah and Puah. They refused to do violence and they somehow were spared incarceration. In fact, they were given inheritance, which in Biblical times was more precious than gold. That’s the priority that I see in the world today. That’s how I want to make a difference.
I’m going to let my friend and fellow Sacred Harp singer Kit Canright have a word here. She wrote me an email in response to my this week at UBC teaser that I sent out on Monday.
I've done my share of civil disobedience and may well do so again. But I hope, as I've gotten older, that I am doing so more wisely. Civil disobedience should not be entered into with glee or with anger, although anger may precipitate it. Rather it is something I would enter into with sadness for the need to do so. And prayerfulness.
In the end, it’s all about priorities. It’s about how we want our lives to count for something. I will always eschew violence and promote peace. I will check my privilege and maybe even use my privilege to help make things better for someone else. I will try to make my words mean something. I will try to be brave like Shiphrah and Puah, like Thor, like Kim and use the best tools at my disposal for the greatest good. It’s never too late to be wise and brave and kind. That’s my takeaway. That’s my morality. That’s my priority.