Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

Holy Disobedience (Anna Floerke Scheid)

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Not a day has gone by since the Inauguration of President Donald Trump that one group or another hasn’t taken to the streets in protest. Indeed, political resistance is getting so trendy that Pepsi tried to commodify it. At the same time, remarks that appear all over social media and regularly in the comments sections of online news stories reveal a different trend. Many Americans view practices of political resistance as, at best, mere nuisances, and at worst criminal thuggery, viewing rallies, marches, civil disobedience, and other forms of political resistance with a great deal of suspicion, derision, and even hostility.

It is surprising that so many Americans dismiss or deride practices that have repeatedly been used effectively and with relatively little violent force to advance civil and human rights. The founding acts of our nation were forms of political resistance: colonists opposed to British rule destroyed private property, tossing cargo crates full of tea into Boston Harbor; they declared themselves independent and began to disobey British laws long before the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired. These practices also won American women the right to vote and American people of color the right to swim in pools, play in parks, sit in restaurants, go to schools, and demand equal justice under the law alongside white folks. Marches, protest, and civil disobedience are, as they say, “as American as apple pie.” Given our history, Americans should understand that some forms of disobedience and disruption are virtuous. Still, among at least those confessing Christians who remain unpersuaded to affirm political resistance in the light of our nation’s history, they might do so in light their religious commitments. Christianity has consistently affirmed and encouraged political resistance, disruption, and holy disobedience against injustice. Indeed, Christianity has inspired generations of Christians to resist socio-political injustices with holy disobedience.

Christians who engage in political resistance come by our rebellious streak honestly. The gospels depict Jesus as a person who, from a very young age, was intent on obedience to God, rather than any human authority. At age twelve Jesus secretly remained behind in Jerusalem following his family’s pilgrimage to the temple there. After three days of searching, his parents found him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk. 2:46). They were “astonished” at their son’s disobedience: “Son,” his mother asks, “why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety!” With seemingly little sympathy and a touch of sass Jesus replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” (Lk. 2:48)

Verbal conflicts with acute socio-political overtones between Jesus and the religious elite of his day occurred throughout Jesus’ ministry. Whether quarreling about taxation, the company Jesus kept, or whether one could work on the Sabbath (by healing folks and picking grain), Jesus regularly collided with religious authority figures. At one point in the Lukan account, Jesus responds to a dinner invitation from a Pharisee by berating him at length for all the ways that the Pharisees upheld laws that burdened ordinary people. In that passage, Jesus accused them of a half dozen forms of hypocrisy, and no fewer than six times in about four sentences does Jesus declare “woe” upon them. He also calls them ignorant fools, and accuses them of obstructing the way to salvation. Just to top it off, he calls them inheritors of their ancestors’ penchant for murdering prophets (Lk. 11). Again, all of this in the context of a dinner party at which he is a guest, so this should give us a pretty clear sense that Jesus does not hesitate to challenge leaders or laws that are unjust. Jesus didn’t even take a break from holy disobedience to enjoy a dinner party.

A critical turning point in Jesus ministry, and one which many biblical scholars agree brought him to the attention of Roman authorities, was the event that Christians refer to as the cleansing of the temple. This was perhaps Jesus’ most dramatic act of resistance to injustice. Archeologists think that the marketplace occupied the area of the Temple Mount known as the “Court of Gentiles” – an area around 1000 feet long and 700 feet wide. I mention the size because I think it is considerably larger in reality than it is in most Christians’ imaginations. I think we normally picture a table or two. It was filled with booths, people selling food, sacrificial animals, and other items that Jews who had traveled from long distances on pilgrimage would need to participate in the Temple rituals, and to replenish their supplies before their journeys home. The only coinage accepted in the temple was the Tyre – hence there were currency exchanges available for those who needed to change money. Of course much like today, the currency exchanges would charge a hefty fee for their service, and the cost of the goods sold would be driven up to increase profits. The activities amounted to economic exploitation of those who had made pilgrimages to the Temple in order to participate in the religious rituals prescribed by their faith.

All four gospels depict how Jesus reacted. He drove out the livestock, the sellers, and the bankers. He upended their booths and scattered money and goods all over the place. No one would have an easy time figuring out whose goods or cash were whose after the disruption. In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes a whip out of cords to drive people out. In Mark he “does not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple,” which was likely being used as a throughway for the traffic of goods. Some scholars suggest that Jesus must have set his followers to guard the perimeter so as to keep angry traders from coming back in. After the “cleansing” Jesus sits down in the former marketplace and begins to teach and heal people. The cleansing of the temple is no less than a massive act of civil disobedience, led by Jesus himself. Jesus saw injustice in the temple marketplace and he shut it down.

In imitation of their teacher, early Christians disciples embraced holy disobedience. The institution of the Imperial Cult under Augustus involved the deification of the Emperor and required making sacrifices to Rome’s civic gods. Christians who refused to obey this law could be put to death, and many were. These were the days of the Gladiatorial “games,” of the public killing of prisoners for sport, and even of the marching of Christian children dressed like lambs into arenas of hungry lions. Note that political murderers almost always find ways to mock their victims’ belief or ideology as part of their torture. Dressing Christian children like lambs as they marched them to their slaughter was, of course, a way of ridiculing their faith in the Good Shepherd.

There are many stories to be told about Christians committing holy disobedience from its earliest days until now, but a particularly compelling story concerns Perpetua, a noblewoman, and Felicity, her slave. The two women were arrested along with several others, and they are among the best known early Christian martyrs because they wrote down their experiences while in prison awaiting their executions and somehow managed to smuggle the accounts out to be preserved. Again, in an effort to mock their beliefs, the Romans attempted to force them to wear pagan ceremonial garb to their own executions. “When they were brought to the gate, and were constrained to put on the clothing— the men, that of the priests of Saturn, and the women, that of those who were consecrated to Ceres…[Perpetua] resisted even to the end with constancy. For she said, We have come thus far of our own accord, for this reason, that our liberty might not be restrained.…that we might not do any such thing as [wear the garb of those dedicated to pagan gods].” The Roman authorities relented, and the martyrs were permitted to wear their own clothes to their execution. Perpetua and Felicity, disobeyed laws requiring them to worship the Roman Empire and its gods, endured prison, state-sanctioned torture, and public flogging, state-orchestrated attacks by wild animals for the purposes of other people’s entertainment, and eventually death by sword. Their holy disobedience resulted ultimately in their canonization to the Sainthood in the Roman Catholic tradition.

More recently, some Christian activism has begun to coalesce around the protection of undocumented people at risk of being deported and the civil and human rights of refugees. Many Christian churches have committed themselves to illegal noncooperation with the current administration’s immigration orders. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy recently encouraged activists to engage in holy disobedience:

…[W]e have 200,000 Catholics who are undocumented. We simply can’t stand by and watch them get deported…We must all become disruptors. We must disrupt those who would seek to send troops into our streets to deport the undocumented, to rip mothers and fathers from their families. We must disrupt those who portray refugees as enemies rather than our brothers and sisters in terrible need. We must disrupt those who train us to see Muslim men, women and children as forces of fear rather than as children of God. We must disrupt those who seek to rob our medical care, especially from the poor. We must disrupt those who would take even food stamps and nutrition assistance from the mouths of children.

Generations of Christians have followed the lead of Jesus in holy disobedience. Stories like Perpetua’s and Felicity’s standout among thousands of stories of Christians choosing paths of holy disobedience – from the earliest martyrs, to the peace churches of the Reformation, to the U.S. civil rights movement, to the South African Council of Churches, to the liberation movements of Latin America, to the bloodless revolution in the Philippines. We can trace political resistance through Christian history back to Jesus, as easily as Roman Catholicism can trace apostolic succession. Jesus’ disciples are unsurprised when their holy disobedience is mocked and dismissed, when it is met with derision, and even violent repression. Jesus who we imitate told us exactly what to expect when we resist the politics of exclusion and poverty, violence, and greed.

Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves. But beware of people, for they will hand you over to courts and scourge you…and you will be led before governors and kings for my sake…You will be hated by all because of my name…do not be afraid of them…What I say to you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops…And do not be afraid …even all the hairs of your head are counted.

Anna Floerke Scheid is Associate Professor of Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. She teaches and researches in the area of Christian social ethics with particular attention to issues of violent conflict and peacebuilding, as well as racial justice and African theologies of inculturation. She is the author of Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation, (Lexington Books, 2015), and her essays and articles appear in Horizons, the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, and Teaching Theology and Religion.

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