By What Authority? Part 1

The Bible and Civil Disobedience / Divine Obedience – Part 1 of 3

(from Ched Myers, Sojourners, May 1983)

[Note: Part 1 focuses primarily on the Old Testament]

Call to Worship:
L: Come! And trust that which brought you here.
P: Come! Riding on the grace of the wind.
L: Come! Floating on the river that feeds your soul.
P: Come! Walking on the path that unfolds before you.
L: Come! Be present in this sacred moment.
All: You are welcome in this holy place.

"Never Turnin' Back"

Resistance to human sovereigns is as old as civilization itself. The belief that God alone is sovereign accepts acts of resistance to ruling political authority as part of the fabric of the salvation history of Yahweh. Let us listen as the readers take us through a biblical survey of familiar stories that point to the politics of resistance and non-cooperation.

Readers: (allow a brief pause between each example)
In looking at instances of open, nonviolent acts of resistance to structures of authority in the Bible we find two fundamental forms. The first, defensive disobedience, involves those actions aimed at protecting persons from aggression or injustice often through non-cooperation with a law or policy; modern examples include draft or tax resistance.
Defensive disobedience in the Bible:
1. Exodus 1:8 - 2:10 – Hebrew midwives defy an order by Pharaoh to participate in genocide; then the mother of Moses takes her baby "underground" to save his life.
2. Matthew 2 – The baby Jesus is also threatened by state-sponsored extermination of all infants, is saved by the civil disobedience of the Wise Men and goes underground to escape Herod.
3. The Book of Esther – This story, containing three notable instances of non-cooperation involving Vashti, Mordecai and Esther, may have been a kind of handbook for the persecuted Jewish community in its deliberations on concrete strategies of resistance.
4. The Book of Daniel – A veritable charter of civil disobedience by a religious minority including Daniel's solitary witness (ch. 6) and the group resistance of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (ch. 3).

Silence (about the time of three slow, deep breaths)

Readers: (allow a brief pause between each example)
The second form of nonviolence, offensive disobedience, involves those actions intending to expose moral, legal, or political contradictions in existing policy through confrontation and engagement such as nonviolent direct action at nuclear weapons facilities today.
Offensive Disobedience in the Bible:
1. Exodus 20 – The Exodus event is the most massive action in defiance of a ruler; many Christians living under occupation, military dictatorship, or state-sponsored repression draw inspiration and hope from the Exodus narrative for their own liberation struggles.
2. Ezekiel 33 – At the center of the prophetic tradition is the conviction that the Word of God must be spoken, especially when it portends bad tidings that will never be gladly received by the authorities. Ezekiel is the prophet in the Watchtower calling the authorities to moral and legal accountability much like Martin Luther King Jr.'s resistance to segregation laws demonstrated the absolute incompatibility of apartheid with the U.S. constitution.
3. I Kings 22 – The court prophet Michaiah defies imperial expectations for a favorable prediction on the eve of a military adventure and is thrown in jail.
4. II Kings 1 – The prophet Elijah refuses to tell a king what he wants to hear despite attempts at military intimidation.
5. The Book of Jeremiah – Jeremiah is perhaps the greatest practitioner of symbolic actions to denounce evil: burying the linen girdle (ch. 13), smashing the earthenware jar (ch. 19), wearing a yoke to protest military alliances for national security (ch. 27). His actions often get him tortured and thrown in jail (ch. 20, ch. 32).
6. Joshua 2, Hebrews 11:31, James 2:25 – Rahab the harlot is given a firm place in biblical history by her politically partisan resistance.

Whom do you know personally who is following the path of Divine Obedience? What are other examples of defensive and offensive nonviolent action?

Offer prayers and thanksgiving for Divine Obeyers;
Communal Response: "Grant (him / her / them / us) Courage"

"God of Grace"

Other Resources:
Allow the Water, Len Desroches
To Wake the Nation, Tom Cordaro
By What Authority, Ched Myers