Civil Disobedience

A Turning Point

The year 1968 was very significant in my life, and a decisive one for the nation. It was the year when the hopes borne by the social movements of the 1950s and ’60s were dashed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

If Robert Kennedy had lived to become president on the inside (as he surely would have) and Martin Luther King Jr. had lived to lead a movement from the outside, the U.S. and the world might be very different today. But the most hopeful political leader of his time and the most important movement leader of the century were both struck down, and 1968 was the turning point when it felt like everything began to go wrong in America.

I vividly remember my feelings at the time. I was a student at Mich­igan State, actively involved in the civil rights and antiwar movements. King had been the leader of the movements that had captured my imagination and commitment as a young activist and Kennedy was the only politician who won my political trust. I was getting ready to take a break from college to work on his presidential campaign when he was killed, and I remember being devastated by the loss.

Since 1968, it has felt like the door has been closed to real social change in the U.S. Since 1968, we have been wandering in the wilderness. This marks 40 years of that wandering, a passage of time I have been pondering of late.

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Sojourners Magazine April 2008
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The Foolishness of the Cross

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks of the cross and ties it to the meaning of discipleship: "If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).

Think for a moment what the cross meant for those who were listening to Jesus and for those who were reading Mark's gospel some 30 years later. Ched Myers puts it this way: "The cross in Mark's day was neither religious icon nor metaphor for personal anguish or humility. It had only one meaning: that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters." Myers goes on: "The cross was a common sight in the revolutionary Palestine of Mark's time; in this recruiting call, the disciple is invited to reckon with the consequences facing those who dare to challenge the hegemony of imperial Rome."

With this ominous invitation, the cost of discipleship got much, much bigger. Embracing Jesus means embracing that cross. Mark doesn't say it, but I suspect that after these words, the crowds around Jesus got smaller.

Paul takes up the theme of the cross in his first letter to the church at Corinth: "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). Taking up the cross and following Jesus not only entails great cost, it is also viewed by the world as an utterly foolish thing to do.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2007
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Plowshares Action

Catholic priest Carl Kabat and military veterans Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli led a Plowshares direct action against nuclear weapons when they entered the E-9 missile silo in North Dakota last June to symbolically disable a nuclear warhead by pouring their own blood and hammering on the silo lid. They face up to 30 years in prison. “I believe Jesus led us to do this witness based on his teachings of intervening for the sake of the poor,” Boertje-Obed said in a press release. “These weapons are killing us and the poor today.” There have been more than 80 Plowshares disarmament actions since they began in 1980.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2006
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Justice for Immigrants

When was the last time you heard a Catholic cardinal calling his flock to civil disobedience? That’s what Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony did in March 2006, urging his people to make room “for the stranger in our midst, praying for the courage and strength to offer our spiritual and pastoral ministry to all who come to us.” The strangers to whom he was referring are the then-estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living on the margins of our society. While much of the immigration debate has been focused on border security and the job market, Mahony added the moral dimension.

He and many other religious leaders were particularly concerned about legislation passed by the House in December 2005 that would impose sanctions on anyone who assists undocumented immigrants. If such a bill became law, it would criminalize social service workers and others—including churches and faith-based organizations—who provide compassionate or humanitarian aid to undocumented people. The crime would be a felony, potentially punishable by stiff fines and up to five years in prison. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mahony said that if such a bill is enacted, he will instruct the priests in his diocese to defy the law in open civil disobedience.

Prior to coming to Sojourners, I spent 17 years living and working in one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Los Angeles. I was privileged to direct the Bresee Community Center, a faith-based organization that provides educational programs, job training, health care, and basic social services for young people and their families. Through the years, I developed personal relationships with hundreds of children and families who didn’t possess a piece of paper that afforded them legal status in this country. If the law approved by the House had been enacted while I was directing Bresee, I would surely have been eligible for jail.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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Secrets Uncovered

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. This is a month to explore truth-telling. With Easter providing the median of these five weeks, we travel in utter darkness and then on to the brightest light of salvation. The worst of human nature and the best of human love are revealed along the way.

In these readings, the awe of the mystical Johannine gospel and letters meets the justice in the prophetic words of Jeremiah and Isaiah and in the unified, egalitarian early church community of Acts. Ultimately, the mystical and the prophetic form one unifying truth in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus in John 20 and Luke 24.

The whole truth? In contemporary America, we have a silent compact that we will not challenge the constant barrage of untruthful or less-than-truthful things that we are told each day. Are we awash in official secrets and corporate deceptions? These scriptures remind us that the redemptive power of the good news remains covered up a lot of the time, too.

Two groups populate these passages. Religious leaders (and sometimes apostles) put a sheen of religiosity and rhetoric over lethal conniving and cover-ups. The chief priests look for a way to arrest Jesus “by stealth” and to kill him (Mark 14:1-2). Meanwhile, prophets and preachers—and the Son of the Blessed One—reveal both unseemly secrets as well as truths that illuminate the way to salvation for all.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.


April 2

In Death, Life

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

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Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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