I have recently heard members of my Church family question whether civil disobedience is necessary. I even heard one say in so many words this is not what Jesus did. To you, I offer, prayerfully, an education. I offer this because some of you have unfortunately been educated to see Jesus as some kind of somber passive cardboard character. Some of us still think Jesus is best played by a sad-eyed, Jeffrey Hunter-esque actor. This is not the Jesus of the Christian New Testament. Jesus’ entire ministry was one of protest. It is important here to separate out protest and civil disobedience from looting and setting fires.
Jesus walked through Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Crowds gathered, and some began to walk with him from place to place. Matthew describes them as great crowds (Mt. 4:2-25). We’re told in one story 4,000 were fed and in another 5,000 were fed (Mathew, Mark, Luke). These numbers argue scholars do not include women and children, so the numbers might be significantly higher. I can well imagine some would have seen this as disruptive. Jesus did not tell the people to go home and sit in their locked homes. He let the masses grow.
Everyone loves the story of Palm Sunday when Jesus is revealed and praised as King (John 12:12-19). To this triumphal entry, the Pharisees responded, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him” (John 12:19). This act is again disruptive. Jesus enters the seat of Judaism under Roman rule and allows shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blesses is the king of Israel!” Is that not disruptive. Does that action not represent a protest of both the current civil and the religious governments?
Jesus did not mince his words. He did not hide behind words of civility. Twice in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus calls the current religious leadership a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 12:34, Matthew 23:33). He calls judgment down on Scribes and Pharisees, calling them hypocrites and “whitewashed sepulchers” who appear on the outside to be righteous but are actually full of hypocrisy and wickedness (Matthew 23:27-28). I can well imagine these words were shouted, not mumbled. I could also point out the disruptive nature of all prophets, but I will leave that to you to search your Hebrew bibles. I submit this is the same effect of the blue uniform, the badge, the taser, and the gun. While appearing on the outside to represent justice, these items are being used to perpetrate acts of terror.
Do you want to talk about civil disobedience? Religious disobedience and civil disobedience are the same thing here because Jesus disrupts Jewish law. Jesus sat next to and had a conversation with a woman who was also a Samaritan and a prostitute. Jesus let a woman of ill-repute touch him. Jesus invited himself into the home of a tax collector. Jesus accepted invitations into the homes of Romans. Jesus’ disciples picked corn on a Sabbath. The list goes on. Do your research and look up the scriptures.
Jesus got away with protesting openly for a while. Jesus got away with being disruptive, using not only his words but his actions and his mass-appeal, for a while. Jesus got away with practicing civil disobedience for a while. Then he was arrested on trumped-up charges, tortured, and crucified. Jesus, of course, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
The end of the story, for others, it is not so glorious. The same people who are fond of hiding behind “What Would Jesus Do” scenarios also like to publicly tote around their support of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King, marched, gained a crowd, was civilly disobedient walking where he shouldn’t go with too many people. He spoke the truth, prophetically outing an unjust society. Some of us watched on television as this pacifism was met with attack dogs, tear gas, and lethal responses from both the police, the government, and citizens. King’s non-violence was rewarded with violence and jail. King’s family’s reward for a non-violent approach was growing up in a single, female head of home without a father and becoming a young widow.
This reward of death is the same whether Black protest uses the non-violent approach of King or the aggressive approaches of Malcolm X or the Black Panthers.
When I review Jesus’ life, it is clear that his statements concerning peacemaking do not exclude acts of civil disobedience, being a disruptive force, shining a light on evil deeds, or condemning systems that support those evil acts. If you think Jesus was not political, I advise you to read your bible without a movie idol Jesus’ in your head. If you believe Jesus did not protest, the same advice.