Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Civil Disobedience

Eighty-four year old Sister Megan Rice, the nun who was, just today, sentenced to jail for trespassing onto and defacing a nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee has just made my hero list. Her sentence is for thirty-five months, which takes on a different tone of time when you are at an age where “you don’t buy green bananas,” as my own grandmother says. Rice told the judge: “To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest honor you could give me.”

I love civil disobedience, anything that shakes up the stodgy cement of “normal” and injects a little light and inspiration and hope into the grim, dirty, and out right criminal patterns of the powerful. As former Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas said, before founding the Fulbright Program: “Criticism is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism—a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar ritual of national adulation. All of us have the responsibility to act upon the higher patriotism, which is to love our country less for what it is than for what we would like it to be.”

If that doesn’t make you want to rise up and speak and live truth to power with a righteous grin on your face, I don’t know what will.

There are many great examples of civil disobedience. Pick any movement of social change and there’s going to be someone who spoke up and did and led, tugged the people towards building a kinder, fairer, cleaner, most just world. Some of my other personal heroes, say Emma Goldman, were defiant rabble-rousers. Goldman got beat up by police and went to jail a lot for speaking up about worker’s rights, birth control, human freedoms, anarchy, and peace. She got deported to Russia, spoke against Lenin to his face, snuck out of Russia, and lived in a sort of roving international exile for the rest of her life.

We—or I, I don’t know who your gods are—idolize these fervent martyrs. People who give up their lives, or their freedoms, for great causes, this stirs up some reality of what greatness is possible, what effect a single person can have if they crack their heart open like an egg, live and die for ideals. I admire the passion, am drawn to it like a magnet to the North, a moth to the flame.

And, I find, acts that would require the loss of my life or long stints in jail are not for me. What I can do with freedom is more important to me than any act of public civil disobedience I have yet encountered.

Kahlil Gibran’s essay On Friendship rings in my ears, “For what is your friend that you seek him with hours to kill? Seek him always with hours to live.”

In conversation a few months back, I tried to articulate an idea of fomenting change based on the opposite or reverse of martyrdom. I’m still struggling for the right words. Gibran’s words are closest I can come. Reverse martyrdom comes in how we and our heroes live, not in how we die, in how we are arrested or imprisoned for living out the unwritten laws of love and faith and hope, of the patriotism of active criticism. I like the thought of going into the world with the hours of my life to live out, as I choose.

To live simply, to smile at strangers and give change to homeless people and be your own vision of happiness, these are not in anyone’s handbook of civil disobedience or anarchist cookbook. But, thinking of how self-involved and isolated and consumptive our mainstream civilization pushes us to become, even such small things feel like pushing back against something larger. Anything that slips outside “normal,” anything that is done rightly and truly, rather out of blind obedience to “supposed to” and “should,” these are, as far as I’m concerned, sweetly civil and beautifully disobedient.

It is, also, I think, a little harder than we expect. At the Keystone XL vigil I attended a few weeks ago, folks were talking about how much is going to be asked of the gathered community. People will be asked to be arrested, will be asked to lay down their very bodies, to be shackled and willingly accept a curtailing of freedom to stop this pipeline. Again, for those who are called to make their mark this way and who have done, are doing, and will do so, my deepest thanks and admiration. We need that kind of courage and certainty and morality demonstrated. 

And, yet. I like the unpredictable. The truth is that acts of civil disobedience leading to arrests leading to good change for a civil society are still part of a known drama and script and pattern. There are other kinds of disobedience, other kinds of actions and other kinds of courage to be demonstrated, other expressions of morality to be lived out. We are told that some of us will be asked to get arrested. We are not asked to give up an iota of our destructive life patterns, to make different choices and truer balances with the natural world and all the downtrodden we live at the expense of. How we live, unquestioned and unquestioning, is at the root of nuclear stockpiles and filthy pipelines. 

I’ll light a candle of gratitude and inspiration for Sister Megan Rice. I’ll go to vigils and rallies and actions and events and trials for the causes I believe in. Chances are pretty good that I’ll get myself arrested quite intentionally some day for following my critical and world-loving heart into the world of traditional civil disobedience. But, to remain free to live a full life of my choosing—disobedient to laws and mores that have no place in this world—that is the greatest honor I can dream of. And, best, no judge but my own heart can sentence me to this.

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