ISSUES OF FAITH: When do we disobey?

HERE ARE TWO quotes to think about:

“Civil Disobedience, noun: Refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government.” — Merriam Webster

“One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. [ … ] And a society composed of men and women who do not bow too much to the conventions is a far more interesting society than one in which all behave alike.” — Russell, Bertrand, “The Conquest of Happiness”

First, civil disobedience is a healthy part of American culture; its long history goes back to at least the Boston Tea Party — a means of rejecting taxation without representation, the idea that those who paid taxes should have a say in how much they were and how they were spent.

Another touchpoint for this form of disobedience was Thoreau’s night in the Concord jail; the Sun Valley Museum notes that, “in 1846, the essayist, philosopher, abolitionist, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail after refusing to pay tax money that would support the war President James Polk singlehandedly waged against Mexico.”

And on and on through the Civil War and beyond. It’s not merely criminality: it’s also a matter of the why of the matter.

Civil disobedience has always been a matter of someone objecting to an unjust law and therefore refusing to obey it, but key to this kind of act is the willingness to pay the price. One night’s jail? Years in jail? Death? All have occurred with these types of crimes, the idea that one cannot be forced into injustice, and the act of punishment that may follow, is part of what amounts to a public performance of one’s unwillingness to allow such laws to go unquestioned.

God knows, back in the early days of Act Up, Chicago (a group formed to protest the impossibly high costs of early HIV medication) fought hard. And as the good Christian boy I was, I took part in “die-ins,” in which folks unable and unwilling to pay outrageous costs for medications that needed to be taken every day or risk developing resistant forms of the virus fought back.

Yes, we were obstructing traffic. Yes, we were breaking the law by refusing to move on when ordered to do so by very unfriendly police officers. There we were, all covered with our red, red fake blood while other protesters marked the outlines of our bodies with chalk, just like you see on every crime show you’ve ever watched. And we were sometimes led away, for our refusal.

Some of us were pretty privileged.

I remember one protest in which I was one of the few not arrested (to my shame); plenty of other people were. I should have been. Somehow, those arrested, unlike me, were not white guys (I was 17 at the time and had just moved in from the western suburbs of Chicago). They were Puerto Rican, Black and women, especially lesbians, who acted in support of those of us who identified as male and gay, then not a good option. That summer was also the summer in which a number of my friends got gay-bashed merely for being gay and refusing to stay in the closet.

But we were willing to go to jail if need be, and those who did faced all sorts of dangers. An arrest could lead to parents finding out about one’s sexuality or gender, but it could also lead to deportation.

Not all the participants in the die-ins were documented citizens, but all those arrested were my heroes. I saw myself in them, though, actually, I had little to fear. My skin color and class protected me.

But I was there, as were many of my friends, because of being both gay and also churched. We felt then, and I still feel now, that there’s always a need to put one’s self at risk.

I was pretty innocent back then, and I don’t know how long my resolve would have lasted, honestly, but I was prepared to try.

I’ve marched for gay liberation — part of what I know as my Christian call as a deacon — all over the Western world, including being a member of Chicago’s first ever pride parade.

In the church right now, we either just celebrated Pentecost or will soon (depending on whether one is a Western or Orthodox Christian), the coming of fire and the Holy Spirit.

Though not all the people protesting were Christian, by any means, those of us who were definitely read our stories alongside those of the early Church and its persecution, and saw them as linked.

A book from this period made the connection in its title: “Jesus Acted Up,” as indeed he did.

And this was more than just not fitting in or of resisting public opinion.

I quoted a selection of Bertrand Russell at the start of this column; it’s from his “The Conquest of Happiness,” a short text intended for the general public (much like C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”).

This is an example of the kind of public discourse that used to be common in the modernist period in which lamented the lost and unattainable past — often marked by the phrase still familiar to Boomers today, “In my day…,” which could only lead to either nostalgia or to homage to a beloved past.

The kind of tyranny Russell was talking about seems very tame to this protestor.

A society described as “composed of men and women” is already mired in conventionality, even in Russell’s day. And why should keeping oneself from being arrested be a delimiter?

Civil disobedience — where you do risk jail — has always had a long history in both British and U.S. culture, as well as in the wider world, and worth going against public opinion, even at the risk of incarceration.

Ask Thoreau and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Both suffered greatly: in Dr. King’s case, to the point of death.

Sometimes to be Christian, or religious at all, or even not uniformly religious for that matter, as in the case of Jews and gay folks and people of color in the Third Reich, means to go well beyond civil disobedience.

Those who wish to change society must risk death as we fight for change.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a deacon resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia.

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