When Civil Disobedience is really Christian Obedience

In Church by Caris Adel8 Comments


“Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to reestablish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve been thinking about the question Diana posed last week – why is there so much talk about obedience? 

I was always taught an obedience that was basically a morality list.  And if that’s the case, then the goal is perfection.  And for every time I’m imperfect, then I just need to look at the list again, redouble my efforts, and get another pep talk of a sermon, times infinity.

Which, if Christianity is just a self-help group, works out great.

But is the point of following Jesus to be socially acceptable, to simply be socially moral?  If I just work on my own flaws and failures, and am not actively hating my neighbor in my heart, is that good enough?

How does not watching ‘bad’ movies or mainly listening to ‘Christian’ music, or supporting the right kind of politics, etc., help me love others?

If obedience is reduced to basic morality, which cuts across the ages and doesn’t matter the culture or location, how is that incarnational?

Be nice, be less selfish, don’t yell as much – all good things for all people in all times.

But is that really all we’re called to do?

I’m not so convinced that following Jesus is really about how moral I am.  It seems to me that obeying him is something that should change me, on behalf of others.  Or, being as MLK Jr., said, ‘neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.’

It seems like we need to reestablish what it means to be obedient, what it means to love God and love others.

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.  The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.  In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.” – MLK Jr.

This kind of a creative life, one that is risky and dangerous, seems to be more of an incarnational type of life.  Because there is no simple list of rules for living like this.

No ‘try harder’ sermon or ‘spending 20 minutes with God’ can change the world.

What really strikes me about MLK Jr. is that his work for civil rights was the incarnated ‘how’.  It was his form of creative living for a particular point in time – with echoes we still need to hear today.

I think about Jesus and obedience and the fact that I learned about MLK Jr. in school under the context of civil disobedience.

He was disobedient against civil laws, against the rule of man, but I’m just now realizing that his secular disobedience came out of deep obedience to Jesus.  It seems to be quite an indictment of the church’s collusion with empire that such a compelling modern-day example of devotion to Jesus is not celebrated in white churches.

I read his justified, harsh words for the church, but I also see his immense love for that church, and for those who hate him, and the only thing I can think of is John 6 – this is a hard teaching, who can accept it?

We settle for easy morality and call that Christian obedience.  We call for being good citizens and avoid the demands incarnation makes upon us.  We ignore the complexities of history, and pretend that a night of prayer and singing – ‘revival’, is all that is needed to set everything right.

But months of boycotts, of walking to work, of organizing carpools prove otherwise.  When churches can barely organize meals for sick and needy families, we really think revival is the answer?

Of course we do.

It’s easy.  It’s unimaginative.  It crosses all historical boundaries.  And it provides an easy place to shift blame.  If only they really knew Jesus, things would be better.

But I’m reading a book of sermons by someone who followed Jesus far better than I probably ever will.

And as I sit and think about how invisible MLK Jr. was in my white upbringing, in my white churches – I don’t think more church services are the answer.

We need creative lives, ultimate measures, and people willing to imagine what going down into dangerous valleys looks like in each day and age.

“Let this affirmation be our ringing cry.  It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.  It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.  When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.  This is our hope for becoming better men.  This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.





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  • pastordt

    Oh, Caris! This is stunning! Thank you so very much for pondering this week’s questions so brilliantly and thoughtfully. Just outstanding work here and I am grateful.

  • HisFireFly

    “Because there is no simple list of rules for living like this.”
    Yes! Yes, this.

  • becca1612

    Oh I love this so much . . . such an amazing post about all of this! thanks for sharing girl!

  • kim

    I am challenged. Thank you for these thoughtful, strong words.

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  • Luckie Daniels

    “We settle for easy morality and call that Christian obedience… We ignore the complexities of history, and pretend that a night of prayer and singing – ‘revival’, is all that is needed to set everything right.”

    What a powerful piece Caris!

    As a historical researcher, I’ve recently completed transcribing the sale and lease of many enslaved Ancestors. The work required me to contemplate a 182 years old narrative that leased both my 5th and 6th Grandmothers, Grandfather and family members to various relatives and overseers across local Warren County plantations. It’s a brutal and difficult reality to face.

    Fast forward to 2014. In spite of MLK’s [and countless others] efforts and hopes, the need for race inclusion, mutual respect and cultural acceptance remains in tact.

    It’s completely normal on any given day for me to face race bias and/or prejudice in both my real and online lives. It’s an undercurrent present no matter where I turn.

    I firmly believe the work of plowing through our most difficult societal challenges requires a spiritually-centered anchor. We’re seeking alignment that requires divine enlightenment.

    Our history is tough and our present challenged. The path requires clear, honest REAL-talk capable of producing positive change.

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  • Beth

    This is so damn good.