Why Would Clergy Stand in Front of a Train?

February 5, 2018

Everyday Peacemaking

While the headlines tout a historic victory for the Philadelphia Eagles, the story that stole my attention on Super Bowl Sunday occurred two hours before kick-off. Following the storied example of Colin Kaepernick, the Black Visions Collective movement of the Twin Cities effectively shut down the Light Rail as it shuttled Super Bowl ticket holders to the game.

It was well planned, completely non-violent, and successful in broadcasting their message to both the NFL and to the city of Minneapolis that profit at the cost of marginalized lives is unjust and intolerable.

From Oregon, I accessed the action on Facebook where I joined thousands of others in viewing the act of civil disobedience live.  As I watched the “Breaking News” coverage, three faces of dear friends and peacemaking allies suddenly filled the screen.  Two of them wore the familiar clergy collar and the third wore a look of determination.  Together, they stood in front of a train, its conductor obviously perplexed by the calm presence of the track-straddling pastors.

That’s when the vitriol began in the comment section.  Yes, folks were outraged at the inconvenience created by the action.  Yes, they were critical of Black Lives Matter and very obviously misunderstood BLM’s motivations and message.  But it was the presence of white clergy that set off an atomic melee of comments.

Why would clergy stand in front of a train?!

Get back in the church!

BLM is anti-Christ! Why do these pastors support them?

I hope they arrest and then defrock those priests!

Why is our clergy protesting with BLM?!

While there is a book’s worth of unpacking and theologizing that could be written out of those five comments alone, it’s the last one that I want to work through here. As a faith leader who frequently finds myself in the streets, in the sanctuaries, and in the hallowed halls of political power, I’ve discovered that confusion reigns regarding the connection between the Christian faith and civil disobedience.

Most dominant culture American Christians value safety above all else and, therefore, seem perplexed by people of faith involving themselves in unsafe, disruptive protests.  Some quote Romans 13:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13-15, and/or Titus 3:1-2, offer confusing commentary on how these passages require absolute Christian obedience to the government, and, therefore, condemn Christian involvement in protests of any kind as a disqualifying act of outright infidelity.  Very few see a direct line from the life and teachings of Jesus to the practice of civil disobedience in the contemporary streets.

So, to uncover that line, let’s start with a definition:

Civil disobedience is the thoughtful, well-planned, peaceful disruption of the unjust status quo. Successful actions always have a clear message, usually involve the intentional violation of the law, frequently inconvenience those who benefit from the unjust system, and often result in arrest.

Under that definition, images of historic heroine and heroes most likely flood our minds: Chief Joseph, Gandhi, Manal al-Sharif, Oskar Schindler, Rosa Parks, Rigoberta Menchu, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Aung San Suu Kyi to name a few.  The passing of time has done this crowd a favor as, in their day, they were seen as the thugs and hooligans who disrupted the status quo. Today, rather than assigning dehumanizing titles to them, we refer to them as the godparents of human rights and live as benefactors of their work.  While they are a Who’s Who of nonviolent civil disobeyers, they are not the founders of the movement.  Most of them gave credit to a first century, Northern Galilean systems disruptor by the name of Jesus.

Jesus?! A systems disruptor who stood in front of the trains of his day?! As a prominent theologian recently wrote me, “I just simply don’t see it.”  Well, if our heroes did “see it” then perhaps it’s there and worth uncovering.

Let’s start with that time when Jesus was in the temple along with the merchants who were ripping off the poor (John 2). There was a religious/political system in play and upheld by the powerful that preyed upon a common misunderstanding of the kind of worship that God was interested in (blood sacrifices vs. mercy & compassion).  The power brokers capitalized on pilgrims’ need for livestock for sacrifices by selling animals on the temple grounds at ridiculous mark ups.  The impoverished travelers were gouged by the injustice.

When Jesus saw the system of religion for profit, he literally shut down the marketplace in a calculated act of civil disobedience. He knew that the physicality of the action was necessary in order to expose both the injustice of the system and the depravity of the religious/political structure. He also knew that this action would bring him to the attention of not only the Jewish elite, but also, the occupying Roman authority. Jesus knew that this moment of civil disobedience would be an effective inauguration and that it would eventually cost him his life.

From that point forward, Jesus stood diametrically opposed to any and every system that oppressed God’s image bearers.  And while he was often engaged in the healing of souls and bodies, Jesus regularly stood in front of the trains of ludicrous, unjust religious/political systems such as the oppression and subjection of women (John 4), criminal taxation (Luke 11), capital punishment (John 8), and institutional racism (Luke 10).

Ultimately, civil disobedience along with his demonstration of a hopeful alternative resulted in a successful bi-national campaign for his state-sanctioned execution…

…and so much more.

Upon Jesus’ resurrection, his followers continued the tradition of civil disobedience for the sake of restoration. Take, for example, the moment in Acts 4 when Peter and John were commanded by the Sanhedrin not to teach nor speak in the name of Jesus.  They, and the rest of the community, were faced with a decision: obedience to the system through silence or obedience to God through civil disobedience. Thanks be to God, they chose the later.

For hundreds of years after that decision, being a Christian was itself a violation of law throughout the Roman Empire, making everyday life an act of civil disobedience for those who claimed to follow Jesus. For centuries, their refusal to obey what they perceived to be unjust laws resulted in imprisonment, slavery, torture, and death.

So why did they do it?  Because Jesus told them (Mark 13:9-11) that this restorative way of life marked by creative, costly, dignifying love would so upset the systems that they would find themselves in tension with the authorities.  He told them that their faithfulness to God would require disobedience to the system. They were clear that following Jesus for the sake of human flourishing would place them in uncomfortable scenarios and painful predicaments.  Yet, they trusted that in those moments, the Spirit would give them the words to say and actions to take that would both expose and reveal corruption as well as redeem, restore, and liberate.

Sadly, once Constantine endorsed Christianity as the central religion (311A.D.), Christian experience of civil disobedience shifted from a participation in faithfulness to undesirable. For, if your religion is now married to the system and sits in the seat of power, then, the system is understood as just, even “Christian.”  And if our system is “Christian,” then civil disobedience is unnecessary and those who shut down train tracks on Super Bowl Sunday are infidels, thugs, and hooligans who must be silenced…even if they’re wearing the collar of the clergy.

So why is our (white) clergy protesting with BLM? It’s because they’re doing the work to understand the corruption of the system and how they’ve benefited from it.  It’s because they’re discovering the discrepancy between the Christianity of the system and peacemaking way of life offered by Jesus.  It’s because they are becoming motivated by the restoration of systems as well as souls. It’s because they’re finding themselves a bit more proximate to the pain of the marginalized and, therefore, are being honored with invitations into the protest.

In light of how central the practice of civil disobedience for the sake of restoration is for Jesus and his community, perhaps a better, more important question is, “Why are so few of our clergy protesting with BLM?!”


 Author: Jer Swigart – Cofounding Director of Global Immersion Project.

Connect with Jer on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Original post on Jer’s website, jerswigart.com

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