Civil Disobedience

Immigration Activists Arrested in Civil Disobedience Outside White House

Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño of the United Methodist Church in front of the White House Monday. Photo: Kara Lofton

This President’s Day, about 20 church leaders, sympathizers, and undocumented immigrants were arrested in front of the White House as part of an act of civil disobedience to protest the nearly 2 million people who have been deported under President Obama.

The core group and about 40 supporters gathered around 1 p.m. on Monday afternoon in Lafayette Park in front of the White House. They held signs that said, “Praying for Relief” and “#Not1moredeportation,” and sang hymns in between short megaphoned speeches that told personal stories. They called for immigration reform. “Not one more, not one more,” they chanted together in both English and Spanish.

The event was organized by Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño of the United Methodist Church, who was the first Hispanic woman to be elected to her position.

Tales of the Disobedient

SHORTLY AFTER his 1983 appointment as archbishop of San Salvador during the Salvadoran civil war, Arturo Rivera y Damas traveled to the United States. Rivera succeeded Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was martyred for his outspoken condemnation of the war. I asked a Maryknoll sister—who lost three community members, killed by the Salvadoran death squads—to assess Rivera’s comments to the U.S. media. “He does not have the gift of martyrdom,” she said.

That comment gives perspective to the efforts of nonviolent peace activists in the U.S., many of whom have risked their freedom, usually for short stints, as a consequence of civil disobedience. In Crossing the Line: Nonviolent Resisters Speak Out for Peace, Rosalie G. Riegle chronicles the action-to-court-to-jail-and-prison journeys of some of the last century’s most committed pacifists. While a few told harrowing stories, for the vast majority the consequences fell far short of martyrdom. This is not to belittle their efforts, but rather to beg the question: Why do so few Christians resist the violence and war-making of the U.S. government?

Riegle’s well-done compilation of 65 oral histories might prompt more people to step into the fray. To date, hundreds of U.S. pacifists have served hundreds of years, mostly in federal prison, for crossing lines, burning draft cards and draft files, and hammering on the weapons of war. At press time, three Catholic pacifists known as the Transform Now Plowshares—Sister Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed (interviewed in Riegle’s book), and Michael Walli—await a January sentencing for federal felony charges stemming from cutting fences and hammering at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

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Unlawful Entry

OFFICER MARIO normally worked for Homeland Security. On this Friday night he’d been seconded to the Washington, D.C. Metro police, who had their hands full. Not only did they have the usual “drunk and disorderlies,” but now 54 people who looked like card-carrying members of the AARP were filling up their holding cells. Officer Mario, of retirement age himself, was feeling fortunate. He’d been assigned to the women’s side.

“Ladies, ladies, ladies!” Mario said, sauntering in with a mischievous smile. “This must be my lucky night.”

The evening before, we’d all been at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church running role plays on how to “flash mob” the corporate headquarters of Environmental Resources Management (ERM), the firm hired by the U.S. State Department to provide an environmental impact statement on the Keystone XL pipeline. To the disbelief and concern of climate scientists, ERM claimed that TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline would not significantly contribute to climate change. ERM was suspected of “misleading disclosures” regarding conflict of interest and material gain from the pipeline’s completion.

Our white-haired mob of mostly grandparents converged on ERM headquarters at noon to shine a light on such shady dealings. While six silver foxes blocked the elevators by chaining their arms together inside a PVC pipe, I watched two D.C. police lift Steve, age 70, and toss him into the crowd behind me. I knew this nonviolent civil disobedience wasn’t going as planned.

For the next hour the police threatened us with felony charges, and we chanted complicated ditties on Big Oil, Mother Earth, and the merits of transparency in a democracy. Then they slipped plastic cuffs over our wrists and charged us with “unlawful entry.”

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'Forward Together, Not One Step Back!'

THOSE WHO BELIEVE in freedom and work for justice in our world sometimes grow nostalgic about the 1960s in this country, looking back at the leadership that emerged from African-American churches in the South, drawing allies from outside the region and beyond the bounds of creed. America has a vivid, living memory of faith inspiring public justice. But the civil rights movement did not just happen. The March on Washington and Selma were moments in history made possible by movements that grew out of hard work over the course of decades.

This summer in North Carolina, “Moral Mondays” at the state General Assembly have drawn thousands of weekly protesters, more than 800 of whom have been arrested for engaging in mass civil disobedience. A few weeks into the campaign, some elders started saying it felt like the ’60s all over again. The Washington Post highlighted NAACP state chapter president Rev. William Barber’s dynamic preaching. The New York Times pointed to the significance of hundreds of clergy uniting to lead the movement. MSNBC andFox News set up their satellite trucks. Week after week, thousands of people kept coming.

When reporters asked why, participants explained the concerns: 500,000 people denied health care when the legislature refused federal funds for Medicaid expansion, 70,000 people whose unemployment insurance was cut off, thousands of poor families denied an earned income tax credit, wholesale repeal of the hard-won Racial Justice Act, and diversion of public education funds through a voucher program. The reasons were legion, but they were not, by and large, unique to North Carolina. They were the sort of changes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promotes at the state level throughout the country. How, then, did this grassroots resistance movement emerge in North Carolina?

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NAACP’s William Barber Emerges as Leader of Moral Monday Protests

Photo Coutesy RNS/Yonat Shimron.
Participants hold hands at the Moral Monday demonstration last Monday. Photo Coutesy RNS/Yonat Shimron.

The throngs of demonstrators who flock to the grassy knoll outside the North Carolina Statehouse each Monday know the drill.

They listen to a fiery speech denouncing the Republican majority’s legislative actions. They sing freedom songs and chant civil rights slogans. Then they march two by two into the legislative building to be handcuffed by police and arrested for failing to obey orders to disperse.

Leading them in this weekly rite of nonviolent civil disobedience is the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the state’s NAACP chapter. Since assuming the state presidency eight years ago, he has waged numerous battles challenging local and state governments to extend educational opportunities, broaden the voting base, provide health care, and more generally lift up the poor.

New & Noteworthy

A Terrible Thing to Waste
Many U.S. children living in poverty are further penalized by struggling public schools. Nicole Baker Fulgham, former vice president of faith community relations at Teach for America, offers passionate, practical solutions in Educating All God’s Children: What Christians Can—and Should—Do to Improve Public Education for Low-Income Kids. Brazos Press

Holy Disruption
The documentary Bidder 70 tells the story of a different kind of civil disobedience: Tim DeChristopher helped save 22,000 acres of Utah wilderness by outbidding industry figures at a disputed Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction, with no intention of paying or drilling. www.bidder70film.com

Soulful Justice
In Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action, author Mae Elise Cannon profiles how the activism of seven Christian leaders was shaped by their practice of specific spiritual disciplines and offers ways to apply those disciplines in our own lives. IVP Books

Prophetic Good News
Pastor and anti-poverty worker George S. Johnson’s self-published anthology, Courage to Think Differently, testifies to, as Walter Brueggemann writes in the preface, “an awareness that the gospel pertains to every public question among us.” Includes essays by Frances Moore Lappé, Shane Claiborne, Elsa Tamez, and many more. www.adventurepublications.net

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VIDEO: People of Faith Tackle Climate Change

Rose Marie Berger writes in the May 2013 Sojourners magazine cover story, “For God So Loved the World,” that people of faith are key to reversing climate change. It will take a holy power shift to compel God’s people to care for creation and “launch an irresistible force for change.”

In creative and bold ways, people of faith from various religious traditions are doing just that. Together, they are raising their voices and taking action to address climate change.

Recently, a group of 75 people gathered in front of the White House to hold an interfaith service. Prayers and speeches from various traditions were recited, including the Muslim call to prayer from the Quran, an invocation of the Four Winds in the spiritual tradition of the First Nations, and a Christian prayer and reflection by Sojourners associate editor Rose Marie Berger. They called upon the president to act justly and heal creation from the dangers of Big Oil, Big Coal, and Unnatural Gas.

Fifteen people were arrested at the interfaith service for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. To learn more about the event and watch Rose Marie Berger in action, view this video released by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate (IMAC).

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God’s Earth is Crying Out; God’s People, Responding, Must Prepare for Jail

People of Faith Join the Forward on Climate Rally, Feb. 17. Sojourners Photo
People of Faith Join the Forward on Climate Rally, Feb. 17. Sojourners Photo

God’s creation is in danger; and to call upon the powers of the world to heal it, God’s people are prepared to go to jail. 

Perhaps most famously in our recent history, the startling sight of a religious leader in jail was embodied in the willingness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to go to jail more than 20 times in order to embody his religious commitment to racial justice, peace, and nonviolence.

As we approach the Holy Week of Christianity and Passover, we should be aware that this tradition goes back thousands of years. The movement of ancient Israelites seeking freedom from a lethal Pharaoh began even before Moses, when two midwives – the Bible carefully records  their names, Shifra and Puah – refused to murder the boy-babies of the Israelites as Pharaoh had commanded. The recollection of that moment is the first recorded instance of nonviolent civil disobedience.

When that cruel and arrogant Pharaoh, addicted to his own power, refused freedom to his nation’s slaves, his arrogance forced the Earth itself to arise in what we call the Plagues – ecological disasters like undrinkable water, swarms of frogs and locusts, the climate calamity of unprecedented hailstorms. 

Passover has kept alive and lively the memory of that uprising. So it is not surprising that the Gospels record that just before the week of Passover, Jesus led a protest against the behavior of the Roman Empire, its local authorities, and a Temple he and his followers thought had become corrupted from its sacred purpose. 

To protest against the Empire of his era, Jesus chose a time that was both appropriate and dangerous, since Passover celebrates the fall of Pharaoh. His challenge resulted in his arrest and imprisonment, and then his torture and execution.  

Both Judaism and Christianity can trace their origins to acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Indeed, for several centuries of Imperial Rome, the very persistence of Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity were collective acts of civil disobedience. 

Today, religious folk face modern plagues imposed upon our countries and our planet by a new kind of Pharaoh.

New & Noteworthy

New Abolitionists
Refuse to Do Nothing: Finding Your Power to Abolish Modern-Day Slavery, by Shayne Moore and Kimberly McOwen Yim, is a guide to how regular people, juggling the everyday demands of family and work, can become activists fighting human trafficking and slavery. IVP Books

Leaders of the Faith
Different writers pay tribute to the work and witness of Catholic sisters in Thank You, Sisters: Stories of Women Religious and How They Enrich Our Lives, edited by John Feister. These strong, faithful women are inspiring, no matter your tradition. Franciscan Media

We Will Shine
In photographs and brief essays, Shadows then Light, by Steve Pavey and Marco Saavedra, focuses on undocumented youth who engage in civil disobedience to protest detentions and deportations—and thus confront society with the deeper spiritual and ethical questions implicit in the immigration debate. shadowsthenlight.com

Holy Liberation
Raymond Rivera draws on more than 45 years of pastoring inner-city churches in his book Liberty to the Captives: Our Call to Minister in a Captive World. This is a biblically rooted vision for social action and care and advocacy on behalf of our most vulnerable neighbors. Eerdmans

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To Dust You Shall Return: In the Meantime — Acting With Gratitude and Conviction

Photo courtesy Rev. Dr Jim Antal
Photo courtesy Rev. Dr Jim Antal

My wrist was cuffed to the White House fence next to the wrist of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Our nation’s chief climate scientist James Hanson stood next to me; Daryl Hannah sat in front of us. A few feet away, also cuffed to the fence, Julian Bond stood next to Bill McKibben and Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. Altogether, 48 of us from all over America obeyed our consciences. The days of safety and silence have ended. The time of pretending is over. Humanity will be held accountable for our desecration of creation. It is happening already. 

And it was Ash Wednesday. When I mounted the platform to address the rally that preceded our civil disobedience, many were unaware that Lent was beginning. In the context of climate disruption, anyone who cares about creation can embrace the significance of Ash Wednesday. It’s a day of conscience, repentance, and conviction; a day when we take stock of our lives and our life together on the planet; a day when we confess our self-indulgent appetites, our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our obsession with consumption of every kind. For Christians, Ash Wednesday is a day to acknowledge that we are accountable to the God who gave us life and who entrusted the earth to our care.  

Ash Wednesday is a good day to be arrested, I told the crowd. It’s a good day to realign our lives with God's desire to preserve this good creation. I invited any who wanted to receive ashes as a sign of their repentance to approach me on their way to White House.

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