Divine Disobedience

CPIBy Mark Van Steenwyk, the executive director of the Center for Prophetic Imagination

Christians in our society have a problem with authority—not that we are too disobedient, but that we aren’t disobedient enough. Howard Zinn once wrote: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty.”

In the middle of the 20th Century, feminist theologian Dorthee Sölle coined the term “christofascism.” Sölle experienced an authoritarian church during Nazi Germany. However, she saw the same imperial authoritarian form of Christianity alive and well in the United States after the war…and even foresaw the way in which Christianity would be used as a weapon of supremacy in modern America.

For Sölle, this fascism is possible, in part, because of a misunderstanding of the nature of obedience. Western Christians have tended to see obedience as a virtue. This makes for an authoritarian religion wherein we are called to be obedient to those who represent God.

In her book Beyond Mere Obedience, Dorothee Sölle writes; “Can one demand a particular stance toward God and educate toward that stance, yet simultaneously criticize that same stance toward people and toward institutions? Is it actually possible, in the realities of daily life, to distinguish between the obedience which is due God and that obedience toward people which we can and ought with good reason refuse? I suspect that we Christians today have the duty to criticize the entire concept of obedience, and that this criticism must be radical, simply because we do not know exactly who God is and what God, at any given moment, wills. It is no longer possible to describe our relationship to God with a formal concept that is limited to the mere performance of duties. We cannot remove ourselves from history if we wish to speak seriously about God. And in our Christian history, our history of the 20th century, obedience has played a catastrophic role.”

Increasingly, those who claim to represent Jesus are twisting the imaginations of the people towards oppressive ends. From Sunday school to the pews millions are taught to be respectable people. Law abiding. Civil. Polite. And, above all, obedient to God-given authority.

Don’t believe the lie—the one that we’ve been brainwashed to accept our entire lives—that civility is more important than justice. That politeness is always better than disruption. That quieter voices are always preferable to loud voices. That morality is determined by laws. Such things put conformity and order above human lives.

Obedience isn’t a virtue. Politeness isn’t a virtue. Obedience to injustice is wicked. Disobedience to injustice is honorable. Politely standing by while people suffer is evil. Being rude to the oppressor is a necessity.

These are days for bold disobedience. For sacred subversion.

For further reflection: Spend today with particular attention to what is going on around you. Notice the ways in which you find yourself (or others) conforming to some custom, some law, some rule that doesn’t give life. How might you begin to push against that custom, law or rule? 

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