Last Monday, I stood on the third floor gallery of the North Carolina State Legislative Building and watched as 57 of my brothers and sisters were arrested by North Carolina General Assembly Police on the floor below for an act of civil disobedience. As I watched from above, the folks down below sang hymns, prayed, and some even cracked a joke or a smile with the police beside them as the officers zip-tied their hands and led them out of the building, including one guy that I live with. No violence, no hate, no anger; just joy and a deep conviction that something had to change.
Before I dive into my reflection on this event, some background information might help to frame this conversation. In the last statewide election the Republican Party won majorities in the North Carolina House of Representatives and the Senate, and as well as the Governor’s office. Since then the legislature has been proposing numerous bills that many religious folks see as fundamentally opposed to the calling and commands of Jesus Christ. Over the past four weeks, the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP has been gathering many people spanning race, age, political leanings, and even religion to protest laws that directly harm the well being of the marginalized in our society. The movement, called “Moral Mondays” is gaining attention and strength and is at its core a statement of strong faith in a time of uncertainty–socially and politically. And as far as I can tell, Christ is at the center.
For a few years now I have been reading and talking extensively about justice, mercy, compassion, love—many words found at the heart of this movement. Yet often those ideals never quite broke into my daily routine, into the actions that fill my life. I felt, and quite honestly still feel, tension between two (for lack of a better word) types of Christianity. I grew up without much cause to interact with the poor of this world, blissfully unaware of Jesus’ calling to protect them. But even when that command became clear, its importance understood, I still found an incredible barrier, self-made, between my community and Jesus’ community; the two didn’t match. Personally it seemed that regardless of how much I wanted to take a part in the vision of the gospel, I couldn’t escape my upper class, economically homogenous bubble and do anything meaningful in the lives of my marginalized brothers and sisters. Stuck, I ended up not doing much at all. This paralysis seemed here to stay.
Stepping into Durham and the Rutba House, the intentional community where I have been living (for more on the Rutba House, the School for Conversion, or new monasticism, see newmonasticism.org), I suddenly witnessed a community that matched so much more closely my understanding of the lifestyle articulated by Jesus. Here are people that actually live their lives for others, people that take the endless theories and make them a reality right here in Durham. I have witnessed firsthand a Christianity that rests on Jesus—his actions, words, and commands—and it has been wonderful. The self-made barriers between the rich and the poor, the ones in my life, seem to have no place here; everyone is a child of God, born in His image. And it is the recognition of Imago Dei, present in us all, that pushes us toward taking direct action in the lives of the poor, sick, and oppressed.
“For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Matthew 25.35-36
What sticks out to me in this passage is that we see the righteous (the people to whom Jesus was speaking) take direct action to address to needs of others. This action wasn’t “start a prayer group” or “have an altar call;” it was feeding, inviting in, clothing, tending to the sick, and visiting prisoners. They were actions that address immediate needs, resulting in immediate, tangible results. They were actions especially relevant to people like myself, those of us that have much to give, reminding us of another saying of Jesus: “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10.8). They were actions supporting the least of our society, much like the action taken by those 57 people arrested last Monday
I can hear, and have heard, the questioning response to arrest as a means of social change: “We agree with your sentiments, but there are less extreme ways to make your case,” or “Couldn’t you just talk with the legislators instead of breaking the law?” I have heard these questions and often asked them myself because I too look at this complex situation and wonder what about the role of Christians. When we have prima facie obligations to both the law and the poor, what happens when they conflict? Which one is more important? While I don’t presume to have a monopoly on the answers to these questions, I do think a Christian argument can be made for arrest as a legitimate action in response to injustice. It seems to me that arrest is just another way for us to take direct action in defense of “the least of these.”
I often forget that many books in the New Testament were written from jail, penned by Paul as a prisoner. Just this morning I read of the arrest of Paul in Acts 21 that eventually led to his ability to talk to Felix, Festus, and Agrippa. The stories of North Carolina and Paul are not a perfect fit, for few analogies are, but in both we see arrest as a means to rattle the cages of the decision makers in power. How else could Paul have gotten an audience with those officials? How else can the people reach the ear of their representatives and let them know that the voiceless are being pushed even further to the margins.
We are reminded as well of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a time period I’ll be reading about for much of the summer, and a movement that began with the arrest of Rosa Parks. When laws violate a fundamental right, and in these cases a Christian truth, civil disobedience is an admirable response, and one that can truly affect change.
As the men and women were being lead away by the police to the Wake County jail, I stood outside with Reverend William Barber, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, and hundreds of others chanting, “Forward Together, Not One Step Back.” This solidarity, communicated by all, was a unity explicitly rooted in a type of love first commanded, and then demonstrated, by Jesus. His crowd was the lepers, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors; today they are the impoverished, the disenfranchised, and even the incarcerated. Our duty, my duty, as Christians is to extend love to them, and when the time comes to stand up for them, even if that standing (non-violently, I must add) leads to our arrest. Like King, Gandhi, and many others before us, some unjust laws should not hinder us from living life like Christ.
It is truly incredible to be in a community like the Rutba House. In the coming weeks I am sure that these themes will be revisited as my own tendency toward inaction is gently revealed. There is much to learn, and much to digest, but this journey has been deeply rewarding thus far and I’m sure the excitement will continue!