On disobedience

April 4, 2016

Cross-posted from Rhett Engelking at the Franciscan Action Network

In a year’s time the world has seen the killing of Latin environmental activists like Berta Cáceras Flores and the slaying of Missionaries of Charity in Yemen. The 4 sisters who were working in a region of Yemen so volatile that 6,000 people have been killed and 28,500 injured in one calendar year must have had bouts of denial. When we consider that well over 100 environmental activists have been killed these last five years in Honduras and that Berta herself had received so many death threats that she was known as a “marked woman,” she too must have had periods of doubt or denial. These women stayed faithful to the point of compulsion, obedient to the point of death. And yet they also disobeyed the orders of powerful and pious people alike. As I ponder their witness in the light of this Sunday’s readings, I hear Jesus giving Peter his last command in John’s Gospel story, “Follow me” as I lead you “where you do not want to go.”  Jesus’ path for his disciples upon required obedience unto death, yet I suspect it is the courage to disobey that brings life.

In the first reading, Peter and the apostles are standing before the Sanhedrin for disobedience, and their dishonor was to them a cause for rejoicing. In those days, defying the Sanhedrin was a rejection of the authority of the state (what Henry David Thoreau first termed “civil disobedience”) and a rejection of the authority of the Church (what I have heard Fr. Daniel Horan OFM term “ecclesial disobedience.”) “We must obey God and not men,” Peter declares. Of all the various teachings offered by the Church the message of disobedience may be the scarcest, and yet the stories have been there all along.  The dissonance between the command of God and that of men was not simply isolated to the Jewish Church-state. When St. Francis of Assisi traveled with his brother Illuminatus to dialog peacefully with the reigning Sultan Malik Al-Kamil of Egypt, both were seeking and both were committing a clear act of ecclesial and civil disobedience. This act called the Fifth Crusade into question and was such a clear affront to the authority of the Holy Roman Empire that effort was made to censor the story even among Franciscans. Many scholars argue that, given the enormity of the disobedience, Francis was following a path towards martyrdom. This irrational pursuit bears the defining characteristic of sanctity, compunction and arises only when the painful regret of inaction is more unbearable that the consequences of disobedience.

To understand compunction, we can think of our interior lives like a crowded and boisterous daycare filled with immature voices giving orders and making demands upon us. Seated in front of the daycare is a Storyteller who will not raise his voice, but patiently reads a great story to us. The story told is one of suffering, death and resurrection. As we listen closer, we recognize that our name is present among the protagonists who are on a great journey. We have already been told how this ends, and yet something calls us to lean in as the details of the journey unfold. We still cannot hear it all, so we stand up intending to move closer, and that is when some competing voice orders us to “sit down or suffer the consequences.” If we obey, sit still, and stop leaning in at this point we may have avoided violence or discomfort, but we will never hear our place in the Great Story.  If I have learned anything in my own experiments with truth, I have learned that the saints, martyrs, and prophets have realized that they must disobey at these times, even when the voice ordering them down is their own. Awakening to this desire to hear the Story at all costs comes only from the most piercing compunction.