This post first appeared on Pax Christi Southwest Florida’s site.
“Nonviolence does not mean non-action. Nonviolence means we act with love and compassion.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
A little bit of rebellion goes a long way. Just ask the apostles.
In this Sunday’s first reading, the twelve appear before an angry (and nervous) Sanhedrin. The chief priests remind them that they were ordered to stop teaching people this Jesus business:
“Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching
and want to bring this man’s blood upon us.” – Acts 5:28 (NAB-Lectionary)
“We must obey God rather than men.
The God of our ancestors raised Jesus,
though you had him killed by hanging him on a tree.
God exalted him at his right hand as leader and savior
to grant Israel repentance and forgiveness of sins.
We are witnesses of these things,
as is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” – Acts 5:29-32 (NAB-Lectionary)
I read this passage from the lectern at the vigil mass Saturday, and it admittedly gave me some pleasure to take the rebellious tone. As much as we perceive of our faith through the lens of orthodoxy, we often forget that Christians have had to stick it to “the man” a few times to establish and even sustain the Church.
Less than a century ago, the Jesuit mystic/scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin professed views on evolution that were considered subversive and almost heretical by the Catholic Church, yet today they are widely accepted. Galileo had the audacity to definitively demonstrate that the earth revolves around the sun, which today places him in the pantheon of history’s great scientists. Even Martin Luther, whose activities created a schism, probably saved the Catholic Church from extinction by forcing it to (eventually) address much of the corruption that plagued it.
There was even a carpenter and rabbi from Galilee who shook the foundation of institutional religion by teaching people things about loving your neighbor and not following the law for the law’s sake.
Resistance to authority for the sake of what is right is a big part of what Pax Christi does. At the Pax Christi Florida retreat in Delray Beach last weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a number of people who have taken many stands against injustice, sometimes without the help of the church hierarchy. I am honored to join this company.
But this goes with a message of caution: we must always be mindful of why we resist. If we resist a new oil pipeline, our goal should be protecting Creation, not sticking it to oil companies. If we hold an anti-war rally, our goal should be ending war, not getting our faces on the news. If we hold a prayer vigil during an execution, our goal should be ending the death penalty, not some self-righteous sense of satisfaction.
Paul’s words for the Sanhedrin bear repeating: “We must obey God rather than men.” If we resist authority, it is to be for God’s glory, not our own.
If that is not enough to give you pause, take note of the fates of the aforementioned dissidents. The church muzzled and exiled Teilhard – who remained a loyal Jesuit to the last – so that the world was not introduced to his amazing writings until after his death. The Inquisition forced Galileo to recant his theory and sentenced him to house arrest. Luther, whose goal was reform rather than schism, was surprised to find himself living for years in hiding. Though the First Reading leaves this out, the apostles were flogged for their impudence (Acts 5:40), and all except John are believed to have died a martyr’s death.
And, of course, we know how Jesus’ ministry turned out.
Such is the Gospel life. If we choose to take up the cross of resistance, whether it be against social, commercial, political or ecclesiastical power, we must be prepared to go all the way. As Jesus tells Peter in today’s Gospel:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger,
you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted;
but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands,
and someone else will dress you
and lead you where you do not want to go.” – John 21:18 (NAB-Lectionary)