Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Have You Been To Jail for Justice? A Sermon

Have You Been To Jail for Justice?
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 16th, 2010

Acts 16:16-34
John 17:20-26

The via transformativa or the way of justice making is the spiritual path we are exploring during Spring. This is the path of the prophet, the activist, the doer. This is the path that invites and inspires each of us to be agents of change. This is the path for those of us who are not satisfied with the way things are but are interested in what they may become.

The icon of the via transformativa in modern times, particularly in this country might be Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an advocate for justice, for civil rights, and for compassion. Speeches, marches, and demonstrations were the steps he took on this path. The goal of his transformative vision was for America to be what it declared itself to be, to live out its vision and its creed, "that all people are created equal."

King as a Christian also embraced Jesus's vision that all would be "one".

This path is a dangerous path. It is dangerous in a couple of ways.

Those who travel the via transformativa can if they do not also take the time to travel the other spiritual paths (the paths of delight, letting go, and creativity) end up burned out, bitter, and self-absorbed. Change rarely happens the way we want it or at the speed we want it. That can lead to disappointment and disillusionment, sometimes even despair.

This path requires great humility. We are not omniscient so we cannot see from all points of view. We must keep ourselves centered and open to different voices.

Martin Luther King is an example of one type of action. But we travel the via transformativa in many ways. Whether we teach minds, care for bodies, work as public servants, care for our loved ones, whatever we do, we are bringing some kind of blessing to Earth and to life. We are all activists. We all travel this path as we travel all the paths. We are a blessing or a vehicle of blessing to others. That blessing, that love has to come from some where.

The activists among us and within us, are those who need the practices of meditation and laughter just so we don't take ourselves too seriously. The activists and the doers are the ones who need the inner peace workshop we have coming up next weekend. Or something like it.

We may not think we do, we might like to think of ourselves as Iron Man or Iron Woman but really we are made of blood, flesh, bone, and feeling. We are tender, wounded, beautiful human beings and each of us needs nurture and care. So we do have to be conscious and mindful about taking that time to engage in those practices that nurture our Spirit, whatever those practices might be for you.

So, you activists, if you need a note from your minister to give yourself permission to take a mental health day consider this the note. Earth needs you. Allow Earth to care for you too.

It is no fun fighting for justice unless you have fun.

One danger of this path is burn-out. But it has also been said that it is better to have burned out than never to have burned at all.

Earth needs those who will take risks and act on behalf of compassion and justice.

The via transformativa is also dangerous in that there are forces that resist transformation. These forces are powerful, entrenched, ruthless, and intent on maintaining the status quo. It doesn't matter what institution you are trying to transform, these forces of inertia are present. When pushed too hard, these forces bite back. This is why Martin Luther King and those who demonstrated and marched for civil rights found themselves on the wrong side of the law time and time again.

In 1963, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama. From his jail cell he wrote what is arguably the most articulate and passionate defense of civil disobedience ever written. It is called the Letter From Birmingham Jail. King wrote:
I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was "legal" and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was "illegal." It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country's antireligious laws.
If you count seminary, I have been in the ministry for more than twenty years. In all of that time, on the front burner of our denomination has been discrimination against gay and lesbian people. It is written into the constitution. We have had studies and votes and fooled around and fussed about and quoted the Bible, good Lord have we quoted the Bible (mostly misquoted I should say), and we still don’t have justice. I know we don’t have justice because I get emails from young people whose parents have not accepted them because of religious convictions.

There is no solution to this except to remove the discriminatory laws. There is no way to satisfy the principles of justice and equality on one hand and to satisfy those who want to keep some people as second class citizens on the other. The moderates tell us we want peace. We want to keep everyone at the table they tell us. There is a difference between the peace that comes with justice and the peace that comes with the oppressed simply keeping quiet.

King understood this too. This is from his Letter From Birmingham Jail:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says:

"I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
There will be tension at the upcoming General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which happens to meet over Independence Day this summer. We need to remove the discriminatory language. The time is now. To quote again King from that same letter:
Justice delayed is justice denied.
Until that time when discrimination is written out of our constitution, some of us will defy that discrimination and treat all people with equality and dignity.

We will have fun and be stylish while doing it. If you know how to knit you might help the cause by
knitting rainbow stoles for our General Assembly commissioners.

When I think of the call to the via transformativa I think of the late Howard Zinn. He said:
Our problem is civil obedience.

Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. And our problem is that scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the schoolboys march off dutifully in a line to war.

Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.

That's our problem.
One of my favorite scenes in the Bible is of Paul and Silas in prison.

The story from Acts is filled with supernaturalism. There is a great deal of fantasy and hyperbole, but there is a likely a kernel of history. Paul gets thrown in jail because of this verse which is central to Paul’s theology and philosophy. It is Galatians 3:28:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
All great reformers (Buddha, Jesus, Paul and so forth) challenged inequality. They challenged racial inequality, gender inequality, and economic inequality. Paul was thrown in jail because he challenged the ways of Empire that profited from these inequalities. The historical Paul was not about religious superstition. Nor was he about being passive in the face of social inequality. Paul was framed by later writers who wrote in his name. The historical Paul regarded women in leadership as equal to himself, regarded slaves as free, and challenged all rules that made distinction between ethnic groups.

No wonder he was thrown in jail. The communities he started and fostered challenged the way Empire did business. Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg have helped us discover the historical Paul. I recommend their book, The First Paul.

Acts is filled with supernaturalism. It has its own spin on the story. In the words of Dominic Crossan it hides as it reveals. For all of that it does capture the joy of disobedience.

While our heroes, Paul and Silas are in prison they are neither bummed nor grumpy. They sit in jail and they sing loudly. Raucous songs they sing. They sing for freedom. They sing from joy. No jail can hold this joy. The via transformativa must be fun. Don’t take this path if you are not going to enjoy it.

In that spirit, the late, Molly Ivins gets the last word:
“So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”


  1. I have heard many times that some people are concerned about violating G-6.0106b, not because they don't think it is the right thing to do, but because they're worried about the possible punishment.

    I've heard the same excuse given by some members of churches as to why they refuse to join MLP. Yeah, I know, I roll my eyes at that one too. Punishment? For joining MLP?

    Yet recently seen in several letters to the LayMAN and to Presbyweb that the poobahs of the far right have decided that actually attempting to enforce G-6.0106b is too much work. Heck, when even Jim Berkeley, from the PCUSA wing of the Republican Party (aka IRD), clearly states that enforcement is a waste of time, when writer after writer clearly state that even filling out the fill-in-the-blank forms at the back of the Book of Order is too much work, I have to ask: What the heck are people waiting for?

    The anti-gay wing of the church has already decided that enforcement is a waste of time. We know that they will not go after Elders or Deacons, they never have and they never will.

    We know that their charges against ministers never go anywhere.

    So, while we shouldn't worry about the possibility of being punished for standing for what is right, in this case there isn't even any real possibility of punishment. None. Zero.

    Eventually people will have to realize that this tiger has no teeth. Their threats of discipline go nowhere. Their threats of schism are a lie. The Emperor has no clothes.

    When are people of good will just going to gnore the homophobes and get on with the business of being the church?

  2. Right. Even if someone fills out a form. No one is going to jail. It is church court. We have come a ways since the church had power to actually punish people.

  3. I love this! Thanks for this. It's a message we can't hear enough.