Sunday Worship, January 16, 2022 - IS WITNESSING ENOUGH?

Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Texts:  Micah 6: 6-8; Luke 4: 14-30

On July 23, 1846, the constable of Concord, Massachusetts, arrested Henry David Thoreau for failure to pay the state poll tax levied on male citizens between the ages of 21 and 70 as a protest against his country's involvement in the Mexican War.  That was the war of conquest wherein the United States took over most of the southwest relegating Mexicans and Native Americans to a secondary class.

 Although the constable offered to pay the tax if Thoreau was short of money, Thoreau insisted that he refused to pay on principle. The constable then placed Thoreau in the local jail. Thoreau spent only a single night in jail because his tax was paid, much to his disgust, by one of his relatives.

The famous but apocryphal story is that when his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson asked why he was in jail, Thoreau replied with the question of why Emerson was not in jail.  This famous act of witness led Thoreau to write his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which has influenced history far more than his single act of civil disobedience which had no effect on the Mexican War, which remains a blot on our national history.   

Civil disobedience always looks better in retrospect.  It is essentially an act of witness.  Our English word witness has two different meanings:  first, from the Old English wit, a witness is someone who has knowledge of a fact, such as a witness in a court case; the second meaning, however, is what we need to explore, namely, the word as used in a theological or religious sense.  The Greek word for witness is martyr, which we now use as someone who is willing to sacrifice the self for a cause, even unto death.

 People have used civil disobedience in many ways.  Gandhi took Thoreau and used it because he believed that British sensibilities would eventually be outraged at the way Indians were treated in response to their refusal to bow to the Empire.

He organized Indians to refuse to pay the salt tax imposed by the British; he and over 80,000 Indians were sent to jail for their nonviolent non-cooperation including the refusal to purchase British goods.  In the 1930s, he encouraged people to spin their own cloth for clothing instead of purchasing British cotton, which had an enormous effect especially during the Depression.  Any of you who have seen the magnificent film made about his life should remember the British soaking nonviolent witnesses with urine.

Gandhi lacked what King had: television. Who can forget those images of Bull Connor’s dogs and the fire hoses turned on peaceful witnesses or the images of mounted policeman at the Pettus Bridge in Selma?  Some of you are old enough, like me, to remember the debates that raged in our churches at the time about the use of nonviolent witness for desegregation.

Many ministers seemed to forget that the earliest Christian martyrs, witnesses for their faith, also engaged in nonviolent non-cooperation in their refusal to sacrifice to the Emperor not because anyone really believed he was a god with the exception of crazy Caligula, of course, but because he was the symbol of the state.

But is witnessing enough?  And what do we mean by that?  Rather than looking at the question of whether witnessing per se is efficacious or not, I want to have us examine the theology of witness and what it demands from us as a people of faith.  There are two different questions, I think, regarding witnessing to the point of civil disobedience.  The first is when is it justified?  The second is: When is it required?  

Like Martin Luther King, who is commemorated and celebrated tomorrow, I would agree that it is justified when laws are immoral or unjust.  The segregation laws of the Old South were both.  They were later declared to be unconstitutional as well, but that is a legal question.  I don’t want to look at that end of the argument because from the time of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 stating separate train cars for Negroes and Whites was constitutional until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, segregation was legal.

When is it required?  This past year a remarkable woman died.  Sister Megan Rice was a quiet nun who worked with peace activists against nuclear weapons.  Committed to the belief that you cannot hug children with nuclear arms, she joined Plowshares, a group committed to witnessing against nuclear weapons.

In her late eighties she was imprisoned for a pretty harmless action, hanging banners, praying and spraying peace slogans on a bunker wall. The government attorney accusing them of felony sabotage described them as “habitual offenders.” Sister Megan simply said she did what was required by her faith.  She disobeyed the law entering the compound and praying for an end to nuclear weapons.

Civil disobedience is required when a law violates conscience.  But then, we ask, whose conscience?  The conscience of a white supremacist?  We cannot deny that they, too, have beliefs, although we would find them wrong, indeed, immoral and un-Christian.  These are really difficult questions for us as people of faith because our allegiance is not ultimately to a country or a creed but to God.  Micah and the other prophets understood that and not only prophesied against the injustice in Israel and Judah but practiced civil disobedience as well.  Jeremiah was in prison more than once and Elijah and Elisha were always one step ahead of the authorities.

When Jesus opened the Scripture to Isaiah 61, he just wasn’t whistling Dixie, as the saying goes.  Preaching good news to the poor did not just mean telling them to wait for the sweet bye and bye.  It meant then setting at liberty those who were oppressed; it means the same thing now.

Jesus’ selection of the Isaiah passage was a direct challenge to the establishment of his day.  Good news to the poor meant and still means economic redistribution; release for the captives and liberty for the oppressed meant and still means freedom.  The question for us becomes how we work towards the promise of God to build the kingdom where the promise becomes a reality.

There are times when we may be required to break the laws of the state in order to obey the law of God.  We make these decisions with great trepidation, to be sure. As people of faith we must struggle with these issues and make our decisions accordingly and by what We believe the Gospel require hard decisions.  The civil rights movement wasn’t something that began and ended; as a society we still face questions of the exclusion of certain people from our society.  As we think about these issues, we need to examine them in light of the Gospel and then make our decisions as to how we will engage the principalities and powers of this world.

Let us pray:  Eternal God, who has created us as sentient and thinking beings, guide us, we pray, in making difficult decisions in response to your call for an inclusive and welcoming society, one modeled in the image of your kingdom of justice and mercy. Amen.