Editor’s Note: This piece by Jamie Arpin-Ricci is part of the conversation on February’s Theme – Civil Disobedience
As with many other teenagers, when I first learned of the idea of civil disobedience my imagination stirred with all sorts of ideas. To be quite honest, my motives were far from noble, inspired more by the idea of legitimizing disobedience and rebellion than by any sense of selfless sacrifice. Yet as I matured into adulthood, I began to encounter the stories of those who paid dearly for their civil disobedience and the faith and convictions that motivated them to do so- people like Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Mandela was released from prison a few days before my thirteenth birthday. I remember the event only passingly, overheard on the evening news and casual conversation around school. It was several years later that I became more aware of Mandela’s story, an encounter that disrupted my cozy ignorance forever. This man spent 27 years in prison. The shallow rebellious impulse to try my hand at some form of civil disobedience crumbled in the light of such self-sacrifice. Mandela was blessed enough to be released and continue to live a long life. He has always been mindful that so many like him were not so fortunate and lost their lives for their radical commitment. I could not help but ask myself, “What motivates men and women like this to be willing to pay such a price?”
Since that time decades ago, my life has slowly been transformed by that question. Time and again the answer found me landing squarely before the person of Jesus the Messiah. A figure who had been introduced to me as the means to my private salvation from hell suddenly exploded into my life as a radical example of selfless sacrifice and costly obedience. And if I were to call Him Lord- which I was always taught I must- then more than an example to admire, He represented a path I must follow.
How did Jesus- and the women and men who radically followed His words and example- gain the courage to make such incredible sacrifices for others? What motivated Jesus to choose a disobedience to the empire and the brokenness in the world that would ultimately cost Him His life? As cliche as it might sound, the answer was one so simple, I had learned it in my first days of Sunday school: Love.
The incredible disobedience of Jesus to the powers that be was not primarily defined by an aggressive confrontation of evil, though that surely had its place. Instead, rather than primarily being disobedient, Jesus was being radically obedient to the law of love, even and especially unto death. Jesus was not primarily resisting an evil empire, but instead living into the present reality of the kingdom of love in the midst of a sin-broken world. Jesus did not primarily cleanse the temple in Jerusalem out of anger at the evil and corruption present, but instead because only in such a cleansed place could He welcome the poor and the broken and offer them access to a loving, restoring God. Jesus did not primarily violate the purity laws by touching the leper to defy the legalists and moralists, but instead saw that the power of love and compassion- both in the simple intimacy of a touch and in the power of miraculous healing- are far greater than the power of sin and death.
This fundamental distinction must be the formative lens through which we see and embrace any form of civil disobedience today. While the secondary motivations for such action are valid and important, they must never supplant the central motivation of love at the heart of such action. Love reminds us that at the heart of all we do are relationships that God desires to reconcile, far more than He desires to judge the guilty. Failure to embrace this same emphasis exposes are failure to see our own culpability before that same Judge who chose love over judgment for us.
Further, such love reminds us that our action cannot be primarily motivated by pragmatism. Following the ways of Jesus in non-violent, self-sacrificial love can and ultimately always will transform lives. However, that ultimate victory is quite often only achieved at the far side of the cross. We do not embrace civil disobedience in the face of injustice because it works, we do so because it is right. Martin Sheen, who has been arrested many times for civil disobedience borne out of his obedience to Christ made this clear:
“I honestly do not know if civil disobedience has any effect on the government. I can promise you it has a great effect on the person who chooses to do it.”
Allowing pragmatism to govern our radical obedience to Christ and our disobedience to unjust laws and systems will only offer us endless excuses to not make such costly choices. Jesus accepted no such allowance, for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”. Why? Because God’s love for us came before His own life. Such is the example we are called to follow. Neither is such costly obedience & disobedience optional for Christians. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was completely “…convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
In Luke 9:51 we read about Jesus final journey to Jerusalem: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Jesus knew the fate that was in store for Him. He knew that His loving obedience to His Father and His love for all of us would lead Him to the cross- to suffering and death. Yet, in the face of His own fear of such a fate, He was resolute in the direction that love had dictated. If we are to be followers of Jesus, we must willing set our course and resolutely follow the path of love, even and especially as we know it leads to the cross. For only beyond the cross can we hope for the joy of new life.
Jamie Arpin-Ricci is a writer and pastor of Little Flowers Community an inner city church plant in Winnipeg, MB. He is the author of “The Cost of Community: Jesus, St. Francis & Life in the Kingdom” (IVPress, Nov 2011). He blogs regularly at www.missional.ca .
Photo by: Orde Eliason