Gospel Obedience

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 65, Pentecost 2013

John Dear SJ

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.

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. I want to keep following Jesus all the way to the cross.

I have come 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 have studied the Gospels, I have discovered nearly a dozen types of civil disobedience that Jesus practiced: his prophetic proclamation of the coming of God’s reign and his reading from the book of Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue as subversive truth-telling that threatened the empire; touching and healing lepers, which others 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 theatre (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: Jesus marched from Galilee to Jerusalem on a campaign of nonviolence like Gandhi going to the sea or King marching from Selma, Ala. He 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.

The person we claim to follow

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 that 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 for the coming of God’s reign of nonviolence. Wherever people are resisting injustice and giving their lives for justice and peace, he’s there.

John Dear SJ is a peacemaker, retreat giver and author, resident in the US and visited NZ in 2009 at the invitation of the Catholic Worker. This is a summary of an NCR article, 26 March 2013.

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