Whose Orders to Follow?


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

January 20, 2019

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-20; Luke 4:1-30

         She sat down in the first row of the “colored section” of the bus but when the bus became full, she was asked to get up and move to the back of the bus. The bus driver ordered four to move back; three complied. The woman did not. The driver James Blake had her arrested; she was fined $10––which in 1955 was no small amount, especially in Montgomery.

          Martin Luther King, then a new pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, organized and led a bus boycott that lasted until November 23, 1956, when the city bus company agreed that white and “colored”––as African Americans were called––could ride the bus and be seated on a first come, first name basis. It was not the first victory that had been won, but it was a significant one and far more publicized than the quiet cases of putting a stop to white only primaries in Texas and South Carolina in the 1940s.

       In the summer of 1956, I was sent down south to spend a month with my Aunt Ruby for a “vacation.” The people who had the vacation were my parents, of course. At the dinner table I listened to the rantings of my old Uncle Evans:  “What do these n—want?” When I suggested perhaps some dignity and equality, I was told that I had spent too “damn much time up north with those n—“

         On Easter Sunday, April 14, 1963, in defiance of an injunction against 139 individuals and two organizations organ-izing a march in Birmingham issued by an Alabama circuit court judge, a crowd of about 1500 to 2,000 persons began a march that erupted into a melee. The march began after Easter services when young black girls were turned away from several white churches.  Arrested for his part in the march, King sat down to answer a letter from eight white clergy who thought that blacks were asking for too much too soon.

        As he sat in a Birmingham jail in April 1963, King wrote his colleagues in the clergy explaining how and why he chose to obey certain laws and not others. Quoting Augustine, Aquinas, Reinhold Niebuhr, and examples from Scripture, he reasoned as follows:

        One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

         Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.

         He then cited the examples of Hungarian freedom fighters and those who resisted Nazism, prophets like Amos, and, finally, Jesus himself. All of these people refused to obey unjust laws, refused to follow orders, and were castigated in their time for doing so. The legal action of Walker v. City of Birmingham that challenged the constitutionality of the circuit court’s order did not arrive to the U.S. Supreme Court until 1967, which upheld the circuit court’s order in a 5-4 decision based solely on the fact that the challengers did not file a motion to dissolve the injunction. The dissenters, Warren, Brennan, Fortas, and Douglas, pointed out that the technicality of relying on one old case did not override the right of people to assemble guaranteed by the First Amendment.

        That was then, we say, and this is now. Segregation is no longer upheld in the courts; we are not prevented from seeking redress of our grievances by lawful and legal means. But there are a host of issues facing our society today that can, indeed, will force us into making painful choices of whether to “follow orders” or “obey the law.” Now, obviously, I’m not talking about the traffic laws we all know that we ignore from time to time, such as never going over the speed limit or even not coming to a full stop before turning right on red where permitted. I’m not even talking about areas where actions can be considered fuzzy at best, such as issues of self-defense when being attacked, such as in a domestic violence situation. I am talking about something far more basic: when are we required by our Christian conscience to willfully ignore or violate a law that is unjust in that it, as King put it, “degrades the human personality.”  

         And how do we decide that a law degrades the human personality. Now, as a lawyer, I should be pretty good at splitting hairs, at arguing how a particular action is not really ignoring the law. But I am not going to speak as a lawyer. I want to address this tough question as a Christian, as a person who believes that God has made all of us, all of us in the divine image and as such, we are all equal in God’s sight. God has given us minds and consciences to examine our roles within society. There are times when we are called to engage in activities in obedience to our conscience that are clearly in violation of law. Some extremists would claim that their con-sciences, their obedience to divine will requires them to kill, and I’m not just talking about Islamic fundamentalists who blow themselves up along with several dozen others. We Christians have our own share of such people. The people who murder abortion doctors are among them

         We shudder, of course, but what about the plot to kill Hitler?  One of our favorite Christian writers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. His argument ran like this: Responsible action is how Christians act in accordance with the will of God; no Christian can ignore this demand; as Christians we are faced with a dilemma: when assaulted by evil, we must oppose it through direct action; to do otherwise is to condone evil.

         Thank God, we say, we did not live in Nazi Germany where those who opposed such evil were destroyed by the State and its laws––and its laws, passed by a majority of the Reichstag and condoned by the people. We live here in the United States where the majority of people don’t pass laws like in Germany. But, let’s think about this.

          What do we do with tree huggers and people who destroy laboratories that experiment on animals in ways that boggle the imagination? What do we do about people who set out containers of water along the southwestern border so people who are entering the country without inspection––that’s the fancy legal term for illegally––don’t die of thirst in the desert?  

       How do we decide what is an unjust law? Perhaps King gave us a clue: In 2008 unjust laws degrade the human per-sonality. They destroy us as human beings. Toward the close of the letter, King noted that there was a time when the church was very powerful, not in a political sense, but in a spiritual one. That was a time, and I quote from his letter, “when the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” The problem with ethical and moral decisions is that, although they may be based on principles drawn from our faith, each situation presents a challenge to us to decide when we will follow orders or not.

       In 2008 when Congress was debating whether or not churches would be required to report undocumented persons in their congregations or seeking aid, Cardinal Mahoney wrote in the Los Angeles Times that such a requirement violated the very foundation of Christian hospitality and that he would order his priests to violate such a law. His editorial created quite a stir and thankfully, Congress thought better of it and elim-inated the requirement from a bill that failed ultimately, anyway.

        But these questions continue to haunt us because our ultimate allegiance is not to the United States of America but to God. And the two don’t always go together. I wrestle––as must we all––with the difficulties that our time presents to us.

Scott Warren, a professor at an Arizona college and a member of No More Deaths, lived in a cabin near the Cabieta Preza National Wildlife Preserve. Over the past year members from Humane Borders and No More Deaths have discovered the remains of 32 persons in the desert. Border Patrol agents routinely destroy water jugs in the desert. Just think what that can mean.

         Warren gave food and water to two migrants who approached him for help and was arrested by the Border Patrol for aiding and abetting illegal entry. He faces five years in jail. He cites the Scripture. He has dedicated himself to God, just as Jesus dedicated himself and Hannah dedicated Samuel.

         This weekend we commemorate a man who also felt God came first. We celebrate the victories won while realizing there is much more to be done. I feed so- called “illegals” apart from representing them as a lawyer which, at least at this point is not a punishable offense as some would want it to be. Where is the line for us in caring for those who need such care?  

         When Jesus opened the scroll from Isaiah at the syna-gogue in Nazareth he was driven from his own town after stating that it was time to realize that we are to bring good news to the poor, release the captives and bring sight to the blind. There are times when we need to bring sight to the blind of our Nation. As King said, “Now is the time.”

         Let us pray: Indeed, O God, it never seems like anything is easy anymore. But was it ever? Give us vision to discern your will as we struggle to live in an age when so much seems to be uncertain. Give us courage to follow our model, Jesus of Nazareth, who followed your orders above all else. We pray in the name of him who preached the good news and tried to bring sight to the blind of his generation, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.