Reflection: Strategic Civil Resistance as a Lenten Discipline
By Maurice L. Harris | Diocesan Communications Minister
Fifteen years ago, I was an officer at a conservative, Midwestern bank. At that time, the company was refusing to provide benefits for same-gender domestic partners. In response, a couple of us implemented a strategy of civil resistance. We started an employee movement that grew in number, as well as influence, until executive management finally delivered a new benefits plan. However, victory came with a cost. Some were ostracized for their association with “out” co-workers, and all of us were at risk of losing our jobs.
I reflected on this experience recently when asked to teach a Lenten study on strategic civil resistance. During Lent, we focus on the life, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. It could be argued that sacrifice and resurrection are also the primary stations of strategic civil resistance.
There are many ways one could define strategic civil resistance. I started by visiting the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (2017), which defines civil resistance as a nonviolent way for people to fight for their rights, freedom, justice, and self-determination. That’s a good start. Nonviolence is crucial. But there is more to it.
In forming my own working definition, I sought a Christian context. In Mark chapter 3, for example, Jesus resisted injustice by performing a miracle on a day that it was forbidden to labor. In John chapter 9, Jesus healed a blind man and used the ensuing controversy to lecture the Pharisees on the true nature of blindness and sin—demonstrating, again, a kind of resistance. And, when Jesus commissioned his disciples in Matthew chapter 10, he delivered essentially a treatise on civil resistance.
There is an inherent element of not just resistance but also purposeful disobedience. Jesus doesn’t just resist authority, he breaks the rules at times, yet with a spirit of non-violence and compassion. Resistance also comes with an expectation of sacrifice. In Matthew, Jesus warns his disciples that “they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me…” But, it is through this sacrifice that the Spirit of God can speak through us. In keeping with our Lenten theme, some might say that in order to experience the resurrection, one must first make a sacrifice.
Thus, my working definition of strategic civil resistance is “withdrawing cooperation from—and purposefully disobeying—unjust, oppressive systems, with a spirit of non-violence and sacrifice, in the pursuit of God’s loving, liberating, life-giving mission.”
This is so important because of the often-overlooked requirement of sacrifice. I was reminded this week that “sacrifice” simply means “to make sacred,” as if to alleviate the pain so often associated with it. But I must add to that view, whenever we encounter sacrifice in the scriptures, it demands the giving up of something valuable in the sacred-making process. Sacrifice can be a painful thing.
Unfortunately, throughout the history of social movements, there has been a mistaken belief among some activists that oppressive systems can be changed without sacrifice. For example, in his book Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins (1864), the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont, argued that slavery, was “authorized by the Almighty” (p. 8) although he considered the practice morally wrong and no longer useful to society. Rather than supporting abolitionists, however, he condemned them for resisting the law, proffering instead a plan for gradual, voluntary change by the States. The flawed notion that oppressive systems will surrender to justice on their own terms is what we today call gradualism. Think of this as seeking resurrection without sacrifice.
Likewise, on April 12, 1963, eight Alabama Clergymen—including two Episcopal bishops—released a media statement (Carpenter et al., 1963) decrying the actions of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights activists. They blamed the nonviolent protesters for inciting hatred and violence, rather than acknowledging the reason for the nonviolent protests. They felt it better to comply with oppression and injustice rather than stir the pot.
As an aside, I’m picking on Episcopal bishops because this reflection was originally prepared for an Episcopalian audience. Just like parents pass along genes to their children, forbears of organizations pass along cultural DNA to subsequent generations. So, it’s helpful to know what disorders might be lurking in our genetic makeup.
In King’s famous response, a letter from Birmingham jail, he explained, “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth” (King, 1963). Essentially, King rebuts gradualism. The clergymen wanted peace, they may have even wanted racial equality. But they ultimately desired a resurrection without a sacrifice.
So, what does this mean to us today? As we meditate on present systems of injustice and oppression, we might ask ourselves these questions:
- In what unjust, oppressive systems are we actively or passively involved?
- What are we prepared to sacrifice in the name of Love?
- What does resurrection, the desired end, look like?
To aid us on our journey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1999) offers these rich phrases in his poem “Stages on the Way to Freedom”:
Choose to do what is right, not what fancy takes,
not weighing the possibilities, but bravely grasping
not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there
Come away from your anxious hesitations into the
storm of events,
carried by God’s command and your faith alone.
Then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.
May it always be so. Amen.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1999). Stationen auf dem Wege zur Freiheit—Stages on the way to freedom. In E. Robertson (Ed. & Trans.), Voices in the night: The prison poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Carpenter, C. C. J., Durick, J. A., Grafman, H. L., Hardin, P., Harmon, N. B., Murray, G. M., … Stallings, E. (1963). Public Statement by eight Alabama clergymen. The Birmingham News, 12.
Hopkins, J. H. (1864). Scriptural, ecclesiastical, and historical view of slavery. New York, NY: W. I. Pooley.
International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. (2017). What is Civil Resistance? Retrieved from https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/what-is-civil-resistance/
King, M. L. (1963). Letter from Birmingham jail. In M. L. King (Ed.), Why we can’t wait (pp. 77–100). Retrieved from http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/
This article was originally published in the author’s blog, PITObread: A spiritual perspective on Personal, Interpersonal, Team and Organizational Leadership. Read more at http://pitobread.com.
Maurice L. Harris has served in various leadership capacities at large corporations and small businesses across several industries, as well as in community organizations dedicated to social change. He is presently the Diocesan Communications Minister for the Episcopal Church in Vermont. Harris earned his Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership from Mount Saint Joseph University and is currently working on a PhD in Ethical & Creative Leadership at the Union Institute & University. He and his husband reside in Brattleboro, Vermont, and are members of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.