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Civil Disobedience and the Struggle for Justice

Civil Disobedience and the Struggle for Justice

Tuesday, August 14, 2012 — Week of Proper 14, Year Two

Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Seminarian and Martyr, 1965

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 979)

Psalms 97, 99, [100] (morning) 94, [95] (evening)

Judges 13:1-15

Acts 5:27-52

John 3:22-36

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/index.html for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

But Peter and the apostles answered (the high priest and council), “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)

Peter and the apostles are engaging in civil disobedience. They have already been jailed and “ordered not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.” (4:18) Some of them have already been placed in prison twice. It is obvious that from the law’s perspective, what they are doing is illegal. Peter appeals to a higher judge and court, to more universal principles.

Today is the feast of Jonathan Myrick Daniels who followed the call to join a movement of civil disobedience on behalf of civil rights for black Americans in 1965. He was jailed in Selma, Alabama. A few moments after being released, he saw a man with a shotgun approach cursing sixteen-year old Ruby Sales, a black girl. Jonathan moved to shield her from the gunman and was killed by the gun’s discharge.

Jonathan Myrick Daniels is one of forty-one persons remembered at the Civil Rights Memorial as being among those who lost their lives in the struggle for black civil rights. In our Episcopal Church calendar he is remembered on this day, the anniversary of his martyrdom.

We cannot count how many have been killed as witnesses to Christ since the days of Peter and Stephen. We remember many of them in our calendar and stories, but countless others live in the memory and presence of God.

The church has always honored and extolled those who were willing to risk prison, exile, impoverishment, violence and death for the sake of obeying God rather than human authority. We give thanks to those who are willing to stand up for justice.

A few months ago a group of young immigrants who are without legal papers in this country stood before a forum of over 700 people in our little town. They are all graduates of universities — bright, gifted, and articulate — and they are risking detention and deportation for the sake of helping us put human faces on the people some call “illegals.” More recently a group of undocumented people very publicly rode a bus across much of the country in the tradition of the 1960’s Freedom Riders to bear witness to the injustice of our immigration system.

Martin Luther King said, “Everyone has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” “An injustice wherever it is, is a threat to justice everywhere.” He quoted future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, “A justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I’m proud of my parishioner Dave Williams who has a lawsuit demanding recognition of his same-sex marriage in California which is not legally recognized at home. I think of all of those who have been bullied, harassed, threatened, beaten and killed because of their sexual orientation or their gender identification.

I see another more subtle threat to justice these days — a threat to economic justice. For the past thirty years the wealthy and powerful have manipulated the political and economic system to their advantage. They have created a massive concentration of wealth and power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. The greed and manipulation of the elite in the financial industries provoked the recent economic meltdown that has injured so many and threatened the foundations of government and economic stability. While cloaking themselves in the guise of freedom, the wealthy and elite have declared a silent war on the rest of us and upon the government, the only thing that can stand up to them on behalf of the poor. They are attacking the safety nets and programs of compassion and opportunity that offer a hand up to the unfortunate. Who will stand up to them?

At the heart of every struggle for justice is the call of love. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. We give thanks for those whose love is so great that they are willing to risk their own security and lives for the sake of justice for all. May we recognize and respect their struggle and continue their work in our generation.

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Bill Dilworth

As important as civil disobedience is, I'm not sure it's really what Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels was doing in 1965. After all, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had ended segregation in the US, but many places in the South (most?) ignored it. In a very real way Daniels and his colleagues were obeying the relevant law and calling on White Southerners to do the same; those who defended segregation were involved in uncivil disobedience.

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