Water Man Spouts

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On Civil Disobedience

{1} "You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. ....But as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. Was not Jesus an extremist in love -- 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.' Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.' ... Was not John Bunyan an extremist -- 'I will stay in jail until the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.' .... Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist -- 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' So the question is not whether we will be extremists but what kind of extremists we will be. .... after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists."
-- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Yesterday, withi a matter of hours, a jury returned its verdict in the case of the St. Patrick's Four at the federal courthouse in Binghamton, NY, and Cindy Sheehan was arrested outside of the White House in Washington DC. As the opposition to the war in Iraq grows, there will be an increase in acts of civil disobedience to focus the nation's attention on the horrors of a war that many view as the greatest failure in American foreign policy. The tone of many of the discussions about civil disobedience, ranging from those on Fox News to the Democratic Underground, indicate that there is a general lack of awareness of what civil disobedience is, including its history in our country, and its goals. This essay will attempt to explain what civil disobedience is, when it is used, and what its goals are.

Throughout history, we find that there are three ways that people respond to oppression. The first is through acquiescence. People surrender their sense of self-worth, and accept abuse and mistreatment from their oppressors. The second response is one of violence, in which oppressed peoples react with anger and hatred. The third method is nonviolent resistance, as practiced by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil disobedience is one tactic used in campaigns of nonviolent resistance. It has, at times, been used in campaigns that do not remain nonviolent. The Boston Tea Party was an example of civil disobedience. Those who are opposed to those engaged in the civil disobedience will often attempt to discredit these actions by calling them extreme, irresponsible, un-American, and dangeous.

{2} "Before the victory is won some may have to get scarred up, but we shall overcome. Before the victory of brotherhood is achieved, some will maybe face physical death, but we shall overcome. Before this victory is won, some will lose jobs, some will be called communists and reds, merely because they believe in brotherhood, some will be dismissed as dangerous rabblerousers and agitators merely because they are standing up for what is right, but we shall overcome. That is the basis of this movement, and as I like to say, there is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying no lie can live forever. We shall overcome because there is something in this universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying truth crushed to earth will rise again."
-- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Love, Law, and Civil Disobedience.

There are numerous types of nonviolent direct action which can be used to oppose oppression. Not all of these are civil disobedience, even though they involve violating the law of the land, and require as much commitment and bravery as true civil disobedience. A wonderful example would be the "underground railroad" in which people, often Quakers, helped escaped slaves journey from the deep south to Canada. There are similar activities today, with dedicated people helping people escape from countries in Central America, where their lives were in danger from oppressive regimes. These brave nonviolent actions recognize that, as King taught, everything done in Nazi Germany was "legal."

"It was illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in the days of Hitler's Germany," he noted in his 11-16-61 address to the annual conference of the Fellowship of the Concerned. "But I believe that if I had the same attitude then as I have now, I would publicly aid and comfort my Jewish brothers in Germany if Hitler were alive today and calling this an illegal process." That is what distinguishes civil disobedience from other nonviolent resistance: it is done publicly.

King recognized that there were two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. As a rule, he noted that everyone has a responsibility to obey just laws, which are intended and applied in such a way as to promote order and equality in our society. King also recognbized that just laws can be applied unjustly. The best example would be the laws requiring people to get a permit to hold a public demonstration to air their grievances against their elected officials: in the south, King's people were at times denied the permits they were entitled to, and hence they violated the "just law" by demonstrating illegally.

There are also unjust laws, which King taught us that we have a moral obligation to disobey. Unlike a just law, the unjust laws are made to discourage order and to deny equality. Unjust laws benefit one group at the expense of another. King used the example of a traffic light. When applied to all, it is helpful, and promotes order and safety. If a traffic light were to be used to stop one ethnic group on the road to progress, it is unjust. A civil disobedience campaign would have people openly defy that law, recognizing that they will be ticketed, fined, and possible sent to jail for violating the law. Cindy Sheehan was arrested for this type of action yesterday.

King also recognized that there are times when a crisis arises, when an ambulance or firetruck must put on its flashing lights and sirens, and run the red lights of society. And that is what the St. Patrick's Four did when they protested the Bush administration's plans for aggression in Iraq.

This morning on Fox News, "guest" Bill O'Reilly was asked by a caller about Cindy Sheehan's smiling when she was arrested yesterday. Likewise, the calm and at-peace nature of the St. Patrick's Four outrages many of their critics. Yet Gandhi and King taught that civil disobedience must be accomplished with the law broken openly, lovingly, and with the penalty readily accepted. O'Reilly, of course, could not fathom a connection between Sheehan's Texas vigil and her act of civil disobedience.

{3} "Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak to the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. .... And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."
-- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; A Time to Break Silence (Beyong Vietnam).

King had known that "the hangman of the 1950s 'cold war' was McCarthyism." He knew the price that a brave few paid for challenging the system then. He knew that he would be attacked by his enemies when, a year to the day before his death, he bravely delivered the greatest of American speeches, in which he connected racism in America and the war in Vietnam. As intelligent as King was, he had to have known what the result of that speech would be, yet he accepted that openly and lovingly.

Today, our nation honors King with a holiday. Even President Bush attempts to capitalize on King's memory, by placing a wreath on his grave. Yet surely, were King alive today, he would be trying to convince Bush of the spiritual emptiness and outright evil of his policy in Iraq. King would be advocating nonviolent resistance to the war, and engaged in campaigns of civil disobedience. He would be arrested and jailed for his opposition to the war. He would be smiling with Cindy Sheehan. He would be tried under the Patriot Act for conspiracy, along with the St. Patrick's Four. Indeed, Bush's wreath is the crown of thorns, even if the president is unconscious of that symbolism.

"Everyone loves the dead. Once you die, you got it made for life," a rock musician once said. It's too easy to love the Martin Luther King that is being placed on a stained glass window, rather than the living Martin, who was found marching in the streets and praying in jail. "I come not to bring peace, but a sword," said Jesus.

Those who engage in acts of civil disobedience upset those who are comfortable in acquiescence. "But Cindy was smiling. Would her son be proud?" "Those Catholic Workers spilled human blood. They discredit the anti-war movement."

Many democrats, when looking at Gandhi today, consider him to have been naive. Yet, in his day, those who opposed him saw him as just the opposite. King was considered a tool of communists. Even Thoreau, the author of "Walden" and "Civil Disobedience," was considered threatening in his day, because he also defended the Harpers Ferry raid in "A Plea for John Brown."

Those who participate in the campaigns of civil disobedience, in opposing the Bush administration's war policies, has to expect to be arrested, tried, and convicted. They must be aware that those who oppose their actions will distort their motives and their actions, with all of the irrational anger that Bill O'Reilly is paid to display. And they need to understand that even those who should be supporting them will often be confused and turn on them. It is part of the process. But it is not the end of the process.

{4} "My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. ....Recognizing the necessity of suffering I have tried to make it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive."
-- Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Suffering and Faith

In the first few days of the St. Patrick's Four trial, the police used their orange "crime scene" tape to keep the anti-war and the pro-war demonstrators separate. There was even a taped off space between the two groups, which was called the DMZ, or demilitarized zone. In those first few days, there was virtually no communication between the "opposing" sides.

Yet by the end of the week, each side was showing the other a mutual respect that included smiles, handshakes, and even embraces. Each side wants "the best" for this country. Each side believes it is showing the greatest support for the troops. Both sides want the war to end. This is the transforming power that King spoke of. The brave actions of Cindy Sheehan and of the St. Patrick's Four will not end the war in Iraq. But they may help transform the national discussion in a manner that forces the government to end their immoral war.

Yesterday's events should give us hope for the future. King knew the value of hope. I will end with a poem that an angry young man left for Martin one day. This young man was among those who had looked at Martin's nonviolent campaign as a sign of weakness, until he had the opportunity to be in the same room with King. He wrote the following three lines on a card which he left on Martin's desk early one morning.

"I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see,
I sought God, but he eluded me,
I sought my brother, and I found all three."


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