Thoreau, Jesus and Civil Disobedience

Pentecost 3b  “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” Mark 7: 23-28

Henry David Thoreau may have taken a page from scripture as inspiration for his Civil Disobedience?  As much as he had stepped out from under his strict New England Puritanism, by its very nature the culture had been steeped in these old scriptures. By extension, Jesus and much later Thoreau, is saying that the law must serve humankind, not the other way around. That sometimes disobedience to a rule or a law that is unjust is required of the disciple. A law that meets the needs of the hungry, that raises up the powerless and poor, that heals on any day that healing is needed, Sabbath or not, contains the qualities of compassion and mercy that meet real human need.

The injunction to “Keep Holy the Sabbath” came to Moses in the wilderness because the enslaved Hebrews never had a day to themselves. Every day was a day of work and struggle and day proceeded into monotonous day. The Sabbath became the one day out of the week that there’d be no work. A day of rest. A day sit by the fire and to eat left-overs, and to read the Sunday Times. Oh, and also to worship God. In a time when we struggle to find such a clearing in our crowded lives, Jesus and Thoreau would probably advocate a return to times of rest and reflection. Certainly Thoreau’s two years two months and two days at Walden Pond may be instructive for many of us.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

— Henry David Thoreau[4]


It may be an unwritten but eternal truth as the Dalai Lama said: “You need to know the rules very well, before you can break them.”

And sometimes the rules are made to keep us too safe, to complacent, too stuck in our own little worlds. There is a universe out there that may not be about you and me. It is the world of crying desperate need of painful suffering and wonder. Too often the laws are written to protect our property, our boundaries and our vaunted sense of superiority. Jesus knew that we have to draw the circle to include the poor, the hungry, mourners, the meek, the pure of heart and the peacemakers. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus turns the law inside out. To Jesus, the law followed to is ultimate meaning is to place no barrier in the way of God’s love and mercy and abounding generosity of heart.

If memory serves, Thoreau wrote his pamphlet “Civil Disobedience” as a protest to the war with Mexico. Since he was an active Abolitionist, his active opposition to slavery was also influential. Thoreau was imprisoned when he refused to pay taxes to support what he believed was the illegal war against Mexico. In a play written about Thoreau’s sojourn in the Concord jail, he is visited by Emerson:

“Emerson asks, “Henry what are you doing in there?”

Thoreau replies, “Ralph, what a YOU doing Out there?”

Faithfulness to justice and compassion require living by the consequences of the unjust law.

Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi and Dr. King   were arrested because they wouldn’t bow to what they believed was an unjust law.

Thoreau supported John Brown in his bloody raid on Harper’s Ferry. Such actions were out of sync with Jesus, Gandhi, and Dr King. Instead the other three said to “love your enemy”. We discover in the enemy some of our own brokenness, that they often have the same exclusive loves and jealousies, that they want only a peaceful life undisturbed by outsiders. And they will fight to defend their little piece of turf and their families.

Jesus goes deeper. The law is not only for those who have power, property and wealth. The Higher law needs to include those on the margins.

Then, as we have seen in the last generations, human need itself has to bow to an even higher law which is to protect the rights of the creation to exist and to not be exploited by human greed. Human beings must learn to live in peace and in creative dialogue with each other and with all creatures and elements. We must all perish eventually, but while we have life humankind might call a time of Sabbath rest that brings life and does not destroy it.












































3 thoughts on “Thoreau, Jesus and Civil Disobedience

  1. I believe in civil disobedience but one must be prepared, as they were, to pay the price for that disobedience. Too many people now cry foul when they have to pay the penalty. The “Affluenza” defense is now accepted in more than one jurisdiction. How then do we punish the Jaime Diamonds and others whose greed and manipulations led to the Great Recession? How do we cry for justice when young people of color are tased and handcuffed for being at a public swimming pool? When black men are being shot, willy-nilly, by white cops? Most of the protests have been nonviolent but the ones in Ferguson turned ugly, with buildings burning. How in such an unjust society can we ask people to curb their natural instinct to fight back?

    I don’t know if there is an answer to any of these questions. But one thing is clear. We should teach peace, not war, in our schools. And peace should include the means of peaceful congregation without the destruction of anything. When folks start yelling at cops, they can’t expect a civil response. Cops are people too, though one wonders if the cop taking down the teenage girl by pulling on her hair and slamming her face into the pavement and then kneeling on her back was civilized. The only good news is that he has apparently resigned.

    In our current society, we cannot expect that those who show up to peaceful protests will remain peaceful after they see and hear some of the statements made by administrative officers after these incidents. “Further investigation is needed.” What further investigation is needed when an officer throws a bikini-clad and clearly unarmed girl to the ground, and then pulls a gun on two boys who tried to help the girl. It is hard to be nonviolent when we see these allegedly good cops behaving badly. We have to teach the children to turn the other cheek.Their cries of finagling are correct. We have to fix it.

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