Maybe you remember this: In 1965, Hebrew National launched an ad campaign for their kosher hot dogs, touting their superior quality with the memorable tagline: “We answer to a higher authority.”
Answering to a higher authority can lead to a convergence of disobedience and discipline—often in an unexpected, even counterintuitive way. It’s not disobedience that leads to discipline, but discipline that leads to disobedience.
The root of the word discipline is the Latin discipulus, meaning student or pupil. Hence, a disciple is one who follows a particular teaching; discipline is about teaching, not punishment.
So I want to suggest that for disciples following the teachings of Jesus, divine discipline is a practice that can lead to divine disobedience.
Mark’s gospel tells of divine disobedience — perceived “harvesting” on the Sabbath — that took place more than two thousand years ago. In that same story, Jesus cites an even earlier example, of David and his companions eating the bread of the Presence.
We are where we are, and who we are, thanks to these and countless other acts of divine disobedience. Knowledge and appreciation of these acts allows the disciples of Jesus to draw from them strength and courage and wisdom and compassion and a vision of fullness of life — the abundant life that Jesus promises.
The promise is made not to the proud purveyors of the gospel of prosperity, but to the poor and the oppressed. Mary sings, “He has lifted up the lowly, and cast down the mighty from their thrones.” Voltaire notes, more ominously, “History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs and wooden shoes coming up.”
Here is a story of divine disobedience with a local angle. In 1854, Anthony Burns, a 19-year-old slave, following his belief that “there was a Christ who came to make us free,” and yearning for “the necessity for freedom of soul and body,” left Alexandria, Virginia, to escape on board a ship bound for Boston. After his arrival, despite his attempts at secrecy, he was discovered and was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This controversial federal law allowed owners to reclaim escaped slaves by presenting proof of ownership, and required that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate.
Many black and white Boston abolitionists who opposed the Fugitive Slave Act seized on the Burns arrest as a way to demonstrate their disapproval of the federal statute. On May 26, 1854, they attacked the Suffolk County Courthouse — using a battering ram — in a futile attempt to free Burns. Their action resulted in the death of one marshal and the arrest of 13 people.
The next day, Anthony Burns was sent to trial where he was represented by Robert Morris, an African American attorney, and Richard Henry Dana, Jr., a white attorney — and a member of the Church of the Advent from its founding in 1844. Dana’s courtroom plea for Burns’ freedom lasted 4-1/2 hours. Despite the spirited defense, Burns was convicted of being a fugitive slave on June 2, 1854. To ensure that the judge’s order to return Burns to Virginia slavery was carried out, Boston was placed under martial law. About 2,000 armed federal soldiers were assigned to escort Burns. An estimated 50,000 people who opposed slavery lined the streets, booing and hissing as Burns, in shackles, was led to the waterfront, where he was placed on a waiting ship and returned to slavery in Virginia.
Eventually a group of Boston abolitionists, including the merchant and philanthropist Amos Adams Lawrence, (who had offered to finance Burns’s defense “in any amount”) succeeded in purchasing Burns’ freedom for $1,300. That’s about $36,000 in today’s dollars: the price of a man. (Lawrence’s son William, 4 years old at the time, would later become Bishop of Massachusetts.)
In 1855, Burns was excommunicated from the Baptist Church. Burns, said the church, had “absconded from the service of his master, and refused to return voluntarily — thereby disobeying both the laws of God and man.” In a letter to the church, Burns responded in part:
I admit that I left my master (so called), and refused to return; but I deny that in this I disobeyed either the law of God, or any real law of men. Look at my case, I was stolen and made a slave as soon as I was born. No man had any right to steal me. That manstealer who stole me trampled on my dearest rights. He committed an outrage on the law of God; therefore his manstealing gave him no right in me, and laid me under no obligation to be his slave. God made me a man — not a slave; and gave me the same right to myself that he gave the man who stole me to himself. The great wrongs he has done me, in stealing me and making me a slave, in compelling me to work for him many years without wages, and in holding me as merchandize, — these wrongs could never put me under obligation to stay with him, or to return voluntarily, when once escaped.
Eventually Anthony Burns moved to Canada, where he became pastor of Zion Baptist Church in St Catherine’s, Ontario. His health ruined by the four months he had spent chained in a Richmond, Virginia, slave jail, he was just 28 years old when he died.
Anthony Burns, Richard Dana, Robert Morris, Amos Adams Lawrence, and other abolitionists delivered a resounding no to a shameful system — a system of unjust laws and narrow, self-serving beliefs. The Jesuit scholar and theologian Henri de Lubac observes that “Whenever we say no we imply that on a deeper level there is a yes which provoked and originates it. Rebellion always implies an acquiescence which is both deeper and more free.”
This deeper, freer acquiescence is part of our spiritual DNA. It asks us, as disciples of Jesus, to question and combat, to confront and challenge, laws and traditions that maintain order through oppression. It demands that disciples of Jesus listen to the voice of authority located not in closed, unyielding systems but in the gorgeous cacophony of those on the outside. People like Sarah Moore Grimké who wrote — in 1837 — “I am persuaded that the rights of woman, like the rights of slaves, need only be examined to be understood and asserted.”
Jesus himself practiced divine disobedience: healing on the sabbath, touching what was unclean, eating with sinners, challenging earthly authority, even defeating death. Likewise, there are countless examples of divine disobedience in our nation’s history: Women who chained themselves to the fence around the White House as they fought for suffrage. Freedom riders and lunch counter sitters and bus boycotters who said no to segregation. The Catonsville Nine, Catholic activists who said the Our Father as they burned draft files to protest the Vietnam war. The Philadelphia Eleven and their supporters, who persisted in claiming their place in the priesthood of all believers. Football players who take a knee, a sign of respect for the liberty and justice our flag represents.
For how many of these do the words of Paul ring true: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…”
I suspect that there is not one act of divine disobedience that can be separated from another: they are linked by loyalty to the highest authority, and together they form a wholeness, a holiness, that comes from God and is pleasing to God. In this is our heritage and our hope. Amen.
Read more about Anthony Burns: