Editor’s Note: A few weeks ago we had a guest post by Rachel Contos unpacking healthy and unhealthy theologies around “God’s will” and mask-wearing from an Orthodox Christian perspective. This week’s blog post continues a similar theme in a different direction when Rhonda Miska, a Catholic lay preacher, unpacks healthy and unhealthy theologies around law and order and resistance. I really enjoyed both of these pieces and hope you do too. Enjoy the read! Cheers, DS Leiter, Founder, Assertive Spirituality
Guest Blog Post By Rhonda Miska
Remembering Sister Ardeth Platte, OP
As we move through the daily shock and awe of the news cycle in an ever-worsening global pandemic and the countdown to the election, there is one headline this week that may well have escaped attention, but is worthy of reflection: at the age of 88, Sister Ardeth Platte, OP passed away.
Ardeth was a Dominican Sister of Grand Rapids and a long-time peace activist, untiring in her opposition to nuclear weapons. In 2002, along with another Dominican Sister entered the Minuteman III site in Colorado to pray and pour blood in the shape of a cross on the missile silo. Ardeth called it “a beautiful, liturgical act.”
As a result, they were arrested and spent 41 months in a federal corrections facility in Connecticut.
Such symbolic acts of civil disobedience are called “plowshares actions,” inspired by the prophet Isaiah’s vision of “swords beaten into plowshares” (Isaiah 2:4).
Ardeth’s choice to be an outlaw based on her Christian convictions powerful one, and one which raises big questions about what it means to act out of conscience as a Christian citizen in a democracy.
Particularly in this moment when 65% of voters have cited “law and order” as a “major concern,” according to a recent Monmouth University study, Ardeth’s choice to break the law – and even become a convicted felon – challenges our assumptions of what Christian faith in the public sphere can and should look like.
First, let me introduce myself before diving in further: I write out of my own context as a white, U.S.-American Catholic Christian lay minister committed to a liberating reading of the Scriptures.
I seek to be informed by marginalized voices, both in the scholarly sources I seek out as well as in relationships which are rooted in my accompaniment of people in the Global South, immigrants, refugees, people experiencing homelessness or incarceration, and others who face systemic injustice.
My vision is rooted in Catholic Social Teaching and informed by experiences with faith and resistance communities, including Jonah House and Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, where Ardeth lived.
Being Raised to Trust the Law
Of course, I didn’t start out where I am today. I was raised in a mostly white, middle-class Midwestern suburb. Like many people raised in that kind of environment, I was implicitly and explicitly taught that being a good Christian meant respecting and obeying authority: listening to parents, teachers, law enforcement, clergy, and others in positions of power.
As a kid, I basically believed those who made the rules were trustworthy. People who broke the law – and certainly felons – were bad. People who enforced the law, charged with protecting and serving, were good. Following the rules – whether they were the Ten Commandments, the teachers’ directives for playground conduct, or state and federal law – was the right thing to do.
Defining Law and Order
Since it is always helpful to have an agreed-upon definition, let’s us look at the Oxford dictionary’s definition of law and order as “a situation characterized by respect for and obedience to the rules of a society.”
White Middle-Class Security and Trust in the Law
When I was a kid I felt generally safe and secure with the rules of society, and assumed they were basically fair and just, so respect and obedience for those rules seemed like a reasonable choice.
(As a side note, this fact alone reveals a lot about privilege and social location. It has become abundantly clear to me in my relationships with people with different identities grew up being implicitly and explicitly taught very different ideas about authority and society’s rules.)
When Things Began to Change
My childhood assumptions were turned on their head when I was a college freshman and met my first Plowshares activist during a Catholic campus ministry spring break trip.
Our campus group met with a mild-mannered, soft-spoken man who introduced himself as a convicted felon. Like Ardeth, he had been part of a Plowshares action which had grown out of his participation in a prayer group/Bible study with other Catholics.
I recall sitting wide-eyed as this man spoke about the threat to all life on the planet posed by nuclear weapons and the Christian call to prophetic resistance, opposing empire, and radical love of enemies. I was equal parts captivated and confused. How could the words “felon” and “Bible study” be used in the same sentence? This was nothing I had ever heard in my CCD classes or youth group gatherings!
Talking to Evangelicals about Social Justice Activism
The following week, my eighteen-year-old mind still quite blown, I told some evangelical Christian friends back on campus about the peace activist felon I had met over spring break. My amazement was met with skepticism.
“Yeah, well, the Bible says that we are supposed to be subject to governing authorities,” came their answer.
Interpreting Romans 13 Responsibly
The Scripture passage my evangelical friends were referring to was Romans 13:1-5.
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.
“Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
Sounds pretty open-and-shut, doesn’t it? It’s quite easy to take Paul’s words and conclude, “well, Christians are to obey civil authority. If you do wrong, you’ll get what you have coming, and that is that.”
The Company You Keep When You Invoke Romans 13 This Way
This is precisely what has happened many times in many ways over the centuries, always to the detriment of those who are under-resourced and to the benefit of those in power.
This Scripture was used by the pro-Nazi German Christian movement.
It was also used by British loyalists who opposed the Declaration of Independence.
These same verses were also used to uphold the Fugitive Slave Act which called for returning escaped slaves to their owners.
These abuses alone should give us all pause when we think about applying Paul’s words to any contemporary context.
Revelation 13 and disclaimer (because any time you reference Revelation, you need a disclaimer)
As a tool for discernment around questions of law and order, obedience and resistance, I will offer a reading of Romans 13 in counterpoint to Revelation 13. This perspective was articulated by twentieth-century Episcopal political theologian William Stringfellow.
Stringfellow was a supporter of Dan and Phil Berrigan, Catholic priests who opposed the Vietnam War.
I learned about Stringfellow’s take on Romans 13 and Revelation 13 from Liz McAlister, another Plowshares activist. Liz was one of Ardeth’s community-mates at Jonah House, a resistance community in Baltimore.
But first, a disclaimer:
The last book of the Bible—Revelations—is filled with vivid and bizarre imagery that draws heavily upon imagery employed by Hebrew prophets. Like other works of apocalyptic literature, it is filled with symbolism that is difficult for modern readers to make sense of without a lot of careful unpacking. Because of this, Revelation can be (and has been) misread by those read symbolic language literally, stoking fear and paranoia about the end of the world.
As always, it’s helpful to think of the original audience and the context of any given Scripture passage. The text was written in response to ruthless persecution of the early church by Roman authorities. The intention was to encourage believers facing persecution and martyrdom to remain faithful and trust that God ultimately triumphs and Christ is victorious over evil. As strange as the language and imagery sounds to our 21st century Western ears, it was intended as a message of hope and consolation.
So, keeping that disclaimer in mind, here’s Revelation 13:1-8
“Then I saw a beast come out of the sea with ten horns and seven heads; on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads blasphemous names. The beast I saw was like a leopard, but it had feet like a bear’s, and its mouth was like the mouth of a lion. To it the dragon gave its own power and throne, along with great authority. I saw that one of its heads seemed to have been mortally wounded, but this mortal wound was healed.
“Fascinated, the whole world followed after the beast. They worshiped the dragon because it gave its authority to the beast; they also worshiped the beast and said, ‘Who can compare with the beast or who can fight against it?’
“The beast was given a mouth uttering proud boasts and blasphemies, and it was given authority to act for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling and those who dwell in heaven.
“It was also allowed to wage war against the holy ones and conquer them, and it was granted authority over every tribe, people, tongue, and nation. All the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, all whose names were not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life, which belongs to the Lamb who was slain.”
Stringfellow and the Romans 13/Revelation 13 dialectic
Stringfellow proposes that we read Romans 13 as a description of government’s vocation, that is, the original calling God gave temporal authorities. Like all things in creation, individuals and institutions are created good. And both individuals and institutions have a God-given vocation – a unique call they are meant to live out to contribute to God’s glory and human flourishing.
Though we often think of vocation as applying to individual life choices (is God calling me to marry this person? Am I meant to pursue a particular line of work in order to use my gifts for good?), Stringfellow proposes institutions (governments, organizations, groups, etc) have vocations as well.
But Institutions Don’t Live Up to Ideals
There is always a gap between God-given vocation and what we actually live. As Paul writes elsewhere, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Many churches lean heavily into what this truth means for individuals: we should repent of our personal sins and failings and become changed through Christ’s power.
Stringfellow argues this fallenness is also true for institutions – “powers and principalities,” to use the words of Ephesians 6:12. Just as individuals need conversion to live out their God-given vocation, institutions are fallen and in need of conversion to live out their God-given vocation, too.
Revelation 13, Stringfellow posits, is a description of what temporal authority (the Roman Empire, in the original context) can become when it falls short of its God-given vocation. In its fallen state, Revelation 13 describes temporal authority as an idolatrous agent of death and destruction to be resisted by those who claim Christ as Lord.
How Then Shall We Live
Using Stringfellow’s Romans 13/Revelation 13 dialectic and the Oxford definition of law and order, the question becomes: are the rules of a society just and in line with their God-given vocation, or are the rules fallen and in need of redemption? If the rules of society are in harmony with their vocation, then Christians are called to obedience. And if the rules of society are not in harmony with their vocation, we Christians called to resistance, for the sake of obedience to God.
Holy Resistance in Scripture
Though it’s radical and countercultural, those who us who confess Christ must remind ourselves the first-century Jewish itinerant preacher we claim as Lord was not the upholder and enforcer but rather the victim of the “rules of society.” Before Constantine, Christians had no choice but to live in a stance of resistance to temporal authority.
I propose we are challenged to discern our individual and collective response to civil authority with either obedience or resistance, rooted in our commitment to a compassionate, just, and liberating God as the ultimate source of authority.
As Ardeth modeled, this discernment is rooted in community, nourished by prayer, and held accountable by authentic relationships with those directly impacted by systems which oppress and dehumanize. We don’t stand alone in this great work, but in community and on the shoulders of many saints that embodied holy resistance.
We see holy resistance modeled in Shiprah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives who “feared God,” and refused to follow Pharoah’s command to kill boy children (Exodus 1).
We see holy resistance modeled in Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusal to follow Nebudchadnezzar’s command to commit idolatry (Daniel 1-3).
We see holy resistance modeled when Peter and the other apostles proclaim, “we must obey God instead of man” (Acts 5:29) when they were arrested for preaching the resurrection.
Holy Resistance in More Recent Christian tradition
Closer to our own time, we see holy resistance in Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “underground seminary” which formed faith leaders who would not capitulate to the Third Reich.
We see holy resistance in Dorothy Day’s lifetime of direct service to those marginalized by systems of oppression and her multiple arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience.
We see holy resistance in the life of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero who was assassinated for calling on Salvadoran soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians.
We see holy resistance in the witness of peace activists like Sister Ardath Platte who seek to incarnate the vision of swords abeaten into plowshares in their work for nuclear disarmament.
We see holy resistance in John Lewis’ multiple arrests to oppose segregation and achieve Civil Rights – which Obama eulogized as “good trouble.”
We see holy resistance in Bree Newsome, who removed the confederate flag from the South Carolina State House, reciting the words of Psalm 23 as she was taken to jail for her action opposing white supremacy.
We see holy resistance in the efforts of the Clergy Emergency League, a current grassroots initiative of faith leaders unified against abuses of power at federal, state, and local levels.
Standing with This Cloud of Witnesses: A Final Charge
Standing on these shoulders of holy resisters in our current context in the United States, I close with Ardeth’s words from a letter she penned while doing time at Danbury.
“Keep nonviolent civil resistance alive. Continue teaching, preaching, practicing justice and peace. It is the only hope for the human family and Earth herself. We create today the kind of world inherited by the next generations. Community seems essential for this new creation.”
One Last Note
(Discerning what makes a temporal authority legitimate or not and how one is called to respond is an enormous question considered by minds much sharper than mine – St Thomas Aquinas, for one! – and I have intentionally kept this relatively simple and short. For the sake of keeping things succinct, I will generalized and offered ideas in broad, sweeping strokes instead of nuanced detail. For those who want to dig more deeply into the theologians informing this piece, in addition to William Stringfellow, are Walter Wink, Ched Myers, Miguel de la Torre, and Latin American liberation theology as articulated first by Gustavo Gutierrez. Contact me through my website and I’ll gladly provide a reading list!)
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