Civil Disobedience and Discipleship to Jesus

Civil Disobedience
In 1993, Philip Berrigan, two friends and I walked on to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, N.C., through thousands of soldiers, to one of the 75 F15e nuclear-capable fighter bombers on alert to bomb Bosnia, and each hammered on it. We were trying to fulfill Isaiah’s commandment to “beat swords into plowshares.” We were each arrested, charged with two felony convictions, and faced twenty years in prison. I did about nine months in jail and a year and a half under house arrest. To this day, I’m still carefully monitored by the government, can’t vote, can’t visit prisoners, and can’t travel to several countries. Altogether, I’ve been arrested some 75 times in acts of civil disobedience against war, injustice and nuclear weapons.

A few years after I was released from jail, while running an inner-city community center for disenfranchised women and children in Richmond, Virginia, I was confronted by a charismatic, young priest whom I greatly admired. “Are you crazy?” he asked. “Tell me really: why did you do it?”

I could have explained how in our own history, every major movement from the abolitionists to the suffragists to the labor movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, had its breakthrough when good people broke bad laws and accepted the consequences.

I could have spoken about Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he urges us to obey just laws and disobey unjust laws. I could have pointed to international law and the Nuremberg Principles, as I have in many courtrooms before many judges, and explained that it is our duty to resist governments and break laws when they legalize mass murder or preparations for mass murder—as our government does it with its illegal nuclear arsenal.

But I said simply: “I am trying to follow Jesus. Jesus was nonviolent and practiced civil disobedience and was eventually arrested, jailed and executed. I’m supposed to be his follower, and in this world of total violence, injustice, poverty, war and nuclear weapons, it seems inevitable that I, too, must engage in nonviolent civil disobedience. Most of the saints and martyrs were arrested and jailed—up to Dr. King, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Tutu, and the Berrigans. They probably won’t kill us, but they sure will arrest and jail us if we work for justice and peace and resist war and empire, but the main thing is—I want to keep following Jesus all the way to the cross.”

My friend looked at me in stunned astonishment. His mouth hung open. He was speechless. Eventually, he just whispered, “Okay,” and walked away.

Civil disobedience, in a world of total violence, war, poverty and nuclear weapons, is a way for me to follow the nonviolent, civilly disobedient Jesus. I agree with Gandhi, that great practitioner of civil disobedience, that Jesus practiced perfect nonviolence, was the greatest nonviolent resister in history, and engaged in regular civil disobedience.

Twenty years ago, I published a book called The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience (Fortkamp Pub., 1994), in which I tried to look thoroughly at its theory, practice and theology. I examined civil disobedience in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in U.S. history, in the lives of our great teachers such as Gandhi, King, Day and the Berrigans, and in its details—how to prepare for civil disobedience, what to expect from arrest, trial and jail, and so forth. I also shared many of my own trouble-making experiences—from my first arrest at the Pentagon in 1984, to arrests at military bases around the country (such as West Point, the SAC base, Livermore Labs and the Concord Naval Weapons Station, the Trident Base in Florida, the Nevada Test Site, to name a few).

But as I reviewed the history, theory and practice of civil disobedience, I remember I kept coming back to Jesus and the question of our discipleship. For years, my friends and I asked each other: What does it mean to take up the cross and follow Jesus? We came to the conclusion that the cross is nonviolent resistance to the culture of war and empire; it was the natural public consequence from the state for our nonviolent civil disobedience to war and empire.

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John Dear with Tony and Shane at Greenbelt 2012

John Dear with Tony and Shane at Greenbelt 2012

I came to the conclusion that Jesus engaged in civil disobedience every single day of his public life, that nearly everything he did was illegal, that his mere nonviolent presence was a threat to empire. I used to joke that Jesus was “a one man crime wave,” walking through the Roman empire. Actually, he was even more threatening—he was a movement organizer, building a community and a movement among poor people to nonviolently resist the empire and the unjust religious system that backed it in the name of God.

As I studied the Gospels, I discovered nearly a dozen types of civil disobedience that Jesus practiced–such as his prophetic proclamation of the coming of God’s reign in general, and his reading from the book of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue in particular, as subversive truth-telling which threatened the empire; touching and healing lepers, which they thought would threaten everyone’s health; dining and associating with “public sinners,” outcasts and the marginalized;  repeatedly breaking Sabbath laws;  violating the cleanliness laws and eating codes;  visiting “enemy” territories and associating with the enemy (such as the Samaritans) and with violent revolutionaries (the Zealots);  engaging in symbolic action and political street theater (riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and fulfilling Zechariah 9:9, about the coming of a king of peace who will end war forever);  and urging people not to pay their taxes (one of the “capital crimes” for which he was “capitally punished.”)

Certainly the climax of his public work—even his life—was his nonviolent civil disobedience in the Temple, where he turned over the tables of the money changers and prevented people from engaging in the profitable big business of organized religion. The Synoptic Gospels tell the same basic story line: Jesus marched from Galilee to Jerusalem on a campaign of nonviolence like Gandhi going to the sea or Dr. King marching from Selma; entered the Temple where the religious authorities worked in conjunction with the empire and forced the faithful to pay a hefty sum to visit God; and engaged in nonviolent direct action. He did not hit anyone, hurt anyone, kill anyone, or drop any bombs—but he was not passive. He was active, provocative, dangerous, illegal, and civilly disobedient, a disturber of the peace, a troublemaker, a nonviolent revolutionary who broke the unjust laws and mores of an unjust society.

This is the person we claim to follow!

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The Gospel of John, written many years later, puts Jesus’ civil disobedience in the Temple right up to the beginning of the story (just after the wedding at Cana). There, it says he made a whip of cords and drove everyone out. That is the only place in the entire Bible where this particular, obscure Greek word is mentioned; it was a specific type of rope used to lead the thousands of sheep, cattle and animals up into the enormous Temple structure. He took that rope and led the animals back out of the Temple. Fifteen hundred years later, El Greco painted Jesus with a twenty foot whip hurting people; that is not at all how I read the text. If anything, Jesus saved the lives of the animals as well! But the real point of placing the story at the beginning of the Gospel is its allusion to resurrection: “Destroy this temple,” Jesus says pointing to himself, “and I will raise it up in the three days.”

So the Synoptics make it clear that Jesus’ final civil disobedience in the Temple led to his arrest a few days later, his jailing, trial and brutal execution. This is a great challenge to anyone who seriously wants to follow this Jesus. Are we willing to give our lives to resist empire, injustice, and the oppression of the poor? How seriously do we want to follow him?

But turns out–there was one more final act of civil disobedience left to come: The Resurrection!

The Resurrection is the greatest act of civil disobedience in all of human history.

As Daniel Berrigan once said, just as the crucifixion of Jesus was perfectly legal, so the resurrection of Jesus was totally illegal. Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes this point: the Roman authorities placed guards at his tomb with the imperial seal saying, in Dan’s words, “We’ve killed you and we put you in the tomb and now you’re dead! So stay there!” But Jesus rises from the dead, breaks the imperial seal, and indeed, breaks the law which says “Once you’re dead, you’re dead.” His resurrection is the perfect nonviolent revolution and changes everything.

To this day, the illegally risen Jesus remains at large, out and about, forming his underground movement of nonviolence, organizing for the abolition of war, poverty, empire and nuclear weapons, and the coming of God’s reign of nonviolence! Wherever people are resisting injustice and giving their lives for justice and peace, he’s there.

I’ve written much about my own experience of civil disobedience, including my prison journal, Peace Behind Bars, (available from Sheed & Ward/Rowman & Littlefield). I’m fundamentally interested in practicing the nonviolence of Jesus, proclaiming his reign and practice of nonviolence, and trying every nonviolent means possible to help end war, poverty and nuclear weapons. That means, writing, speaking, lobbying, preaching, organizing, marching, praying, fasting–and occasionally crossing the line. For me, this is all part of modern-day, post-modern discipleship.

For the Christian, working for peace and justice, and thus resisting war and injustice, means sooner or later sharing in the nonviolence and civil disobedience of Jesus.

I remember what my friend Sr. Joan Chittister wrote to me while I was in jail: “I suppose you are showing us that the only way peace and justice and social change happen is through our participation in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus.”  Amen, Sister.

That’s a hard teaching, but a helpful reminder. If we want to follow the nonviolent Jesus, then we’ll want to make the journey from baptism to community, to understanding the Sermon on the Mount, to serving those in need, to working for justice and practicing nonviolence, and eventually, sooner or later, in such a world of war, empire and nuclear weapons, to crossing the line, engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience and risking the cross and the resurrection.

I can think of no greater blessing.

John Dear is a longtime peace activist and the author of 30 books, including Jesus the Rebel, The God of Peace, The Questions of Jesus, Living Peace, Transfiguration, Disarming the Heart, You Will Be My Witnesses, Lazarus Come Forth, and his autobiography, A Persistent Peace. He writes a weekly blog at Archbishop Desmond Tutu has nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. See:

Photo Credit: Karl Mondon

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About the Author

John Dear

John DearJohn Dear is a longtime peace activist and the author of 30 books, including Jesus the Rebel, The God of Peace, The Questions of Jesus, Living Peace, Transfiguration, Disarming the Heart, You Will Be My Witnesses, Lazarus Come Forth, and his autobiography, A Persistent Peace. He writes a weekly blog at Archbishop Desmond Tutu has nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. See: www.johndear.orgView all posts by John Dear →

  • otrotierra

    Thank you John Dear and RedLetter Christians for keeping the conversation focused on Jesus.

  • Mark Munger

    John, I am just begining to review beliefs I’ve held for many years (60+) and it is posts like yours that encourage me to continue the journey. Thank You!

  • Matthew

    John Dear you are amazing and my hero.

  • Wow, this post is a bombshell of culturally sensitive Bible reading; thanks so much for alerting us regular people to the way Jesus must have come across to his Middle Eastern contemporaries!

  • bluecenterlight

    “We need, in every community, a group of angelic troublemakers. Our power is in our ability to make things unworkable. The only weapon we have is our bodies. We need to tuck them in places so the wheels won’t work.”

    Bayard Rustin

  • Buck

    Just as a thought, Jesus civil disobedience (a modern day phrase) and anyone else civil disobedience are two different things. Something to ponder. The God/Man who was perfect in act and heart, who listened and obeyed His father, and was perfect in His carrying out is Father’s orders, both in act and motive. Where as man’s civil disobedience has some shadow of tainted-ness, no matter how pure our motives we think our motives are.

    Activities are stained. And imagine this even our motives are stained. I would venture to say that even if the Lord says “Go do this or do that”, eventually that waters will be muddied, if not right off the bat.

    All we like sheep have gone astray. Except for the Great Shepard. Back to the bible.

  • Doug Evans

    How could you have possibly have missed Romans 13:1-7? Did that page accidentally get ripped out of your bible? Then try 1 Peter 2:13–17. Jesus NEVER NEVER NEVER advocated disobedience against civil authority – he advocated disobedience against false teachers in the church. Following His example you would say “Yes sir” to a policeman and “Stop that!” to someone like Rob Bell who preaches a false Gospel.

    You need to pray for forgiveness for your very unbiblical actions at Seymour Johnson and then thank every one of those Security Policemen that dragged you off because their actions saved lives, lots of lives. I know, because I was an aircraft mechanic in the USAF trying to spread the Gospel of Peace while you were following another gospel.

    If you, in your misguided frenzy, had hit a liquid oxygen tank on one of those planes the rupture would have killed everyone nearby, if on the other hand you hit a hydrazine tank (N2H4) you would have unleashed a death of unimaginable agony on everyone within 2000 yards of the aircraft. Hydrazine is a hypergolic rocket fuel used to run an electrical generator on the aircraft if the engines fail. if you were lucky it would have exploded and in less than a second you’d be standing before God with a lot of explaining to do. If it just leaked everyone around you would have died a horrific agonizing death at your hands.

    Hydrazine is one of the most toxic substances on the face of the earth, and you came within a hammer swing of unleashing it on yourself, your accomplices, and a lot of innocent people who were doing their duty as appointed by God to stop you.

    I will pray for you hoping the true message of the Gospel, a message of subservience and love finally catches up with you and teaches you that love is following Christ.

    First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)

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