by Ellen Sims
text: Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-17; Philippians 3:4b-14
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul insisted he had violated no law. Beginning with his circumcision at 8 days of age and from then on, he followed meticulously the law of Moses. In fact, he became a Pharisee, a sect specially trained in the finer points of Mosaic law. So Paul was not only a scrupulous adherent to the law but also an expert in the law. Ironically, Paul was writing this letter asserting he’d never done anything unlawful while sitting in prison.
Also in seeming contradiction, Paul elsewhere in Christian scripture confessed that he wrongly persecuted the first followers of Jesus (Acts 8:3). He later grieved his role in their imprisonment. But those horrific acts had not been considered unlawful—not by the authorities of the day. According to 1st Timothy, Paul believed he was “the worst of sinners.” But he had broken no law. Paul therefore was innocent of any violations of one set of laws but guilty according to another. Rules and laws are established by different authorities. What is “lawful” can depend on who has authority in a particular situation. And what is “lawful” can also depend on the timing—because laws can change.
Eight years ago our then Conference Minister, Rev. Tim Downs, guided me through the process of converting my American Baptist clergy credentials to the United Church of Christ as our infant church was becoming part of the UCC. One of the many steps in this process was the standard criminal background check. Tim joked with me that the UCC, which has a proud history of public protest, would give me bonus points if I’d ever been arrested for civil disobedience while protesting an injustice.
I didn’t get those bonus points. But there may come a time when I will peacefully engage in a public act of civil disobedience to bring attention to an injustice—as heroes in the civil rights movement did, as some supporters of the environment and the Dreamers and Native Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement have been doing–and for which some have been arrested.
Thus far I have advocated for justice through lawful means. When I, along with some of you, went to the Probate Court 2 ½ years ago demanding that Judge Davis issue marriage licenses in accordance with the Supreme Court’s decision that made marriage equality the law of the land, we were told where we could and could not stand. And we complied. But civil disobedience remains an option for people who feel they are not being heard. Justice in our nation has been assisted by acts of political protest—including the marching, picketing, and hunger strikes of the Suffragettes who helped give women the right to vote in 1920. Civil disobedience is as American as Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience” . . . as American as the Boston Tea Party . . . as American as conscientious objectors who served their country in times of war without bearing arms.
This practice is rooted in an idea that some laws are higher than others. The Apostle Paul was not the first to argue that civil authorities are NOT the final authority on how we live our lives. Over 500 years before Paul penned his letter to the Philippians, Sophocles was in Greece, not far from Philippi, writing a play called Antigone about a young woman who chose to defy her uncle, the king, so that she might give a proper burial to her brother as her religion required. She paid with her life to follow a higher law.
Recognizing a higher law is important in today’s troubling climate of disrespect for differences and an easy dismissal of plain facts. People in power, here and abroad, are playing with nuclear weapons like children with matches. Minorities are disrespected and endangered. Basic freedoms are threatened. We as people of faith do not need to demonize those in authority, but we do need to consider how we will in times like these live out our commitments to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God”(Micah 6:8). What are we as followers of Jesus going to do to care for vulnerable neighbors? It is a question we must ask bbecause Jesus followers know that the ultimate law he issued was to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. We cannot get around that clear priority Jesus enunciated.
Unlike Jesus and unlike Paul, we live in a democracy that gives us the opportunity to elect our leaders. So it seems that civic ENGAGEMENT is the most fundamental action to take now. For too long we have ceded to one segment of our society the idea that one’s faith should influence one’s politics. Our religious convictions, too, SHOULD inform where we stand on the issues of the day. We can stand on those convictions while being careful not to impose our religious beliefs on others. We as Jesus followers must discern the times through the lens of the Gospel in order to support a society that loves the last and the least.
But at some point we risk becoming like the frog that died in a bucket of water being heated so gradually the poor animal cooked to death before realizing his situation was dire. At what point do we realize we must jump from civic engagement and activism to civil disobedience? I don’t have that answer for myself yet. But I think it’s a question churches should be asking.
Regardless of if/when progressive Christians in this country mobilize in a widespread and fairly strategic way to insist on justice and simple human kindness—regardless of the vagaries of American politics—here’s what we are always, always, always to be doing: nurturing our spiritual lives. We can’t engage in social transformation unless we are engaged in spiritual maturation. As our mission statement, reprinted each Sunday on the first page of our bulletin, says, we are striving to follow in the way of Jesus, which includes “social and spiritual transformation” and requiring both the outer and inner work God fosters. Our faith motivates us to engage civically yet also equips us to disengage for spiritual renewal so we can then return in a right spirit to work for the common good. If you attended the Bystander Intervention Training we offered last month, you know that we don’t have a prayer at de-escalating public violence if we are not a people of prayer and of genuine peace and self-control.
As Walter Brueggemann points out, the commandment to keep the Sabbath is literally at the heart of the “Ten Commandments.” The first three commandments teach us how to love and honor God. The last six commandments teach us how to love others. But the fourth commandment to honor the Sabbath is the bridge that demonstrates how love of God leads to care for neighbor—and caring for neighbor is the best way to love our God.
But we observe Sabbath not merely by spending an hour in worship one day a week. I hope this weekly hour together feeds your soul. But daily we need prayer and silence and self-care and Bible study. We need to pay attention to the cares of the world and also recognize the beauty all around us. We will never have the heart, the stamina, the discernment to love our neighbors if we are not nurturing our spirits. We can see even in the commandments given to Moses that this simple list of basic rules are really about relationships. They are a way of living lovingly with God and God’s world.
Paul’s spiritual evolution is evident in his letter to the Philippians. Where he was once a Pharisee intent on catching people breaking the rules, he came to understand, by “knowing Christ,” that everything he’d formerly valued was actually “rubbish”: “For Christ’s sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and I regard them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through FAITH in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Observing the law is a good starting place, but spiritual maturity is not about following rules; it’s about growing in love, about trusting in Jesus as the freeing, saving way.
Laws have to be interpreted. Even the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder,” which seems unambiguous, has been interpreted in many ways over the centuries. Even this clear and basic ethic, “do not kill,” opens up questions about whether self-defense is permissible, and war, and abortion. The original commandments may have been engraved in stone, but the application of the law changes.
Just this week Pope Francis spoke to the interpretability of the sixth commandment when he altered canon law to prohibit capital punishment.
On Thursday the Pope said, “’It must be strongly stated that condemning a person to the death penalty is an inhumane measure.”
Yes, even Catholic church teachings can change. Even religious law evolves, progresses, some would say. A news source reported, “Francis’ move has implications beyond just the death penalty. In his talk, Francis also laid out his idea that church doctrine can and should change with the times: ‘Doctrine cannot be conserved without allowing it to progress,’ he said. Francis extended the point by saying the church’s ‘task and mission’ is ‘to announce in a new and more complete way the everlasting Gospel to our contemporaries’” Vatican observers feel this may be a landmark move for the Catholic Church that values tradition so heavily. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/10/11/pope-francis-death-penalty-contrary-gospel
Another source, acknowledging how this change in church teaching might lead to others, quoted the late Cardinal Dulles: “Consistency with Scripture and longstanding Catholic tradition is important for the grounding of many current teachings of the Catholic Church; for example, those regarding abortion, contraception, the permanence of marriage and the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination. If the tradition on capital punishment had been reversed, serious questions would have been raised regarding other doctrines.”
Now that the tradition on capital punishment has changed, I hope this Pope’s openness to change and a more expansive interpretation of Christ’s Gospel DOES open him to more generous teachings on those very topics. Ultimately it is the law of love, which Jesus preached, that should be engraved in our hearts. Rather than engraving the Ten Commandments into a stony totem of tribalism on public grounds, a magical talisman of Christian conservatism, we need to appreciate the spirit of these laws, the ethics they teach, the God they trust, and the love they bear for all other persons. Those who’ve wanted to erect the law given to Moses into an idol have already violated the spirit of the second of those commandments—against creating graven images.
Others here know much more about the law than I. But we all recognize there are different types of law, there are varied interpretations of law, and there are means of changing the law. The law must be respected enough that we invest energy into revising it when necessary. One way we as a church serve one another is by helping one another discern in difficult times the true spirit of God’s loving law and to fortify in one another a courage and commitment to that aim.
Write your law of love on our hearts, O God.