Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (Acts 5:12-42) transports me to a village jail cell in Concord, Massachusetts, summer of 1846, where Henry David Thoreau is serving his sentence for defying authority and living out the courage of his anti-war convictions. His mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson reportedly came to visit him, and asked, Henry, what are doing in there? To which Thoreau responded, Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there? Thoreau provided a model and inspiration for many throughout history who sought to live out the courage of their convictions, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Thoreau was not the first, though, to engage in civil disobedience (even though he did write the classic text on it). We can go back to the Exodus story and see the Hebrew midwives sabotaging Pharaoh’s plans of repression. And we can go to today’s story of the early church leaders who boldly testified that they must obey God rather than human authority. Funny, how this was not one of our memory verses when I was growing up! That’s one of the problems with the Bible, if you’re trying to use it to socialize children and youth into becoming good, compliant, obedient, respectful citizens. It’s full of disobedient and defiant fanatics who were seen by the established institutions of the day as subversive radicals and terrorists, and yet they turned out to be the very agents of God’s irrepressible transformation. More often than not, the fanatics were exiled or killed by the powers that be, in attempts to silence the dissenting voices. Occasionally, as in our story today, a liberal voice of authority like Gamaliel’s would arise, counseling tolerance, echoing Jesus’ teaching that God would separate the wheat from the chaff when the time was right. Gamaliel’s words gave Peter a reprieve, for a time, until other authorities thought better of it and crucified him upside down.
Gamaliel closed his argument for lenience with an interesting point: if these people are not of God they will fail, but if they are of God, you won’t be able to overthrow them – you may even be found fighting against God! Toward the end of his life, Thoreau’s aunt came to visit him and asked him if he had made peace with God. Thoreau responded, I didn’t know we ever quarrelled. In this world we live in, with our permanent war and potential terror around every corner and financial anxiety and growing diversity, it seems to me we spend a lot of time quarreling with God. We know what Jesus taught about loving enemies, but we’re not even sure they deserve basic human rights. Isn’t torture ok, sometimes, if it gives us some good intel? We know what Jesus taught about welcoming strangers, but we want strong borders and more deportations. We know what Jesus taught about letting go of materialistic addictions, but shouldn’t we enjoy the fruit of our labor? Can’t we lower taxes some more – who can live on $50,000 a year? Maybe the key to Peter’s story in Acts is found before he ever got to the tribunal. He got into trouble in the first place by curing all the people of their unclean spirits. Even Peter’s shadow had a healing quality. It seems to me this is essentially what Thoreau was doing at Walden Pond, casting a healing shadow on a world of unclean spirits. It’s the same shadow Gandhi was casting in the ashrams of India. And maybe that’s what we ought to concentrate on. Let’s simplify our lives and start curing some unclean spirits – the spirits of violence, revenge, greed, prejudice. Let’s quit quarreling with Jesus and start casting a shadow of healing grace. Let there be peace with God – and let it begin with me.
How about you? Where does this pastoral passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.