A Tradition of Principled Resistance

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Matthew 23: 1-12

This week you may, suddenly, find that a choice is required of you, through no fault, intention, planning or device of your own. Further, the choice you want to make perhaps could involve resistance: refusal of a request from an archetypal authority, resistance to a popular mood, resistance to an ingrained habit, refusal of the pleas of a friend. Russell Lowell predicts that at least once to every person and group comes such a moment to decide.

With all your heart you may want to resist. An invitation, a suggestion, a promotion, a direction, an order. Resistance always costs. Resistance means sacrifice. Resistance hurts. The slings and arrow of fortune’s discontent draw blood. Resistance. Does such principled denial have a place in Christian living? Dare ask: Does God evoke and use resistance? Does Christ, God’s everlasting Yes–in whom Paul says there is no longer Yea and Nay, but only Yes–Does Christ desire resistance?

1. Daniel

For Daniel, refusal to give up his family name, his religion, his faith landed him, with the others, in the heart of a furnace. You enjoy the story, I know. Daniel resists the order to blaspheme, and accepts punishment, even death. Bound in the heart of fire, the prophet of God is protected, strangely, by God who answers prayer.

2. Naboth

For Naboth, refusal came more dear. Old King Ahab had every vineyard he wanted but one. He asked for the land. Naboth refused. He asked again, this time presumably in a more kingly voice. Naboth refused. Ahab asked again, with a hint of threat on his tongue. Naboth refused. And Ahab went whimpering to bed. Not so, Jezebel, who simply took Naboth aside, and cut off his head. Refusal can either cost you a king’s friendship, or your head, or both.

3. John of Patmos

John of Patmos did something to put himself out on the rocky prison isle, a first century Papillon, as he wrote his Revelation, our last Bible book. Refusing to worship Caesar? Names jeeringly attached to Rome–beast, satan, whore? Resistance to the more established synagogue?

4. You are a part of a tradition of principled resistance. For Matthew, writing us these lines, the view is clear–Jesus who endured the cross both received and forever illumined a tradition of refusal, in the face of pummeling authority.

Here is such a loving, stark painting of Jesus, Matthew 23:1. He practices what he preaches, wearing out by wearing down, resisting the ‘strong man of this world’. He is respectful, but he resists. Resist those who do not practice what they preach. Resist those who ask much of others, but little of themselves. Resist those who have to have the limelight, for whom appearance trumps reality, the façade hides the face of God. Resist those who claim to teach without honestly admitting that all teachers are students too. Resist, refuse, resist. “How can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?’ (Mat 12: 29)

5. Bonhoeffer

I simply, again, lift Bonhoeffer’s name.

A year before he was executed by the Nazis, languishing in a small prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this hymn:

“By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered
and confidently waiting, come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.

And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand
We take it thankfully and without trembling
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.”

6. A Tradition of Principled Refusal

The Chapel’s gothic nave, built to lift the spirit, welcomes you.

The Chapel’s sixty year history, at the heart of Boston University, welcomes you
The Chapel’s regard for persons and personality, both in its Connick stained glass windows and in its current ministry, welcomes you
The Chapel’s familiar love of music, weekday and Sunday, welcomes you
The Chapel’s congregation of caring, loving souls, in this sanctuary, welcomes you in spirit.
Welcome today as we enhance our endowment.
Endowment. Yes, a word brings a lift to the decanal eyebrow, a stirring to the Episcopal soul, a tingle to the Provostial spirit, a warming to the Presidential heart.
A welcome word, today. Now, endowments are crucial for chapel, for school, for university. We shall other days on which to build such.
But today we celebrate the endowment we already have. It is a rich and treasure. It is an endowment vocal not visible, audible not audited, psychic not physical, moral not material. Listen for its echoes…listen…
All the good you can…
The two so long disjoined…
Heart of the city, service of the city…
Learning, virtue, piety…
Good friends all…
Hope of the world…
Are ye able, still the Master, whispers down eternity…
Common ground…
Content of character…
Just a tiny little minute but eternity is in it…

What if I were to shout to you this morning that this church had received a magnificent bequest, a precious gift left us by an ancestor? Further, were I to announce that this one gift was worth more than all our buildings and all our current endowment and all our church program put together? Would you not dance, sing, soar?

You inherit a tradition of principled resistance, a pearl of great price, a treasure hidden in a field, a precious gift. A tradition of principled resistance. It is your saving birthright, with you all your life long.

7. Rosa Parks

In 1994 an older woman was robbed at gunpoint in her own home in Montgomery, Alabama. She found a prowler downstairs, drunk, who beat her. She died just six Octobers ago, 2005. The robber took $50. The newspaper, perhaps accurately, has quoted her in full as regards her view of this crime: “We are raising a generation of hooligans.” She might have thought she was through all that.

Pummeled still, even in old age, even in closeted retirement, the violent spirit of the age pounds at her, lacing her with blows left and right. Yet she resists! You may recognize her, now.

This is Rosa Parks. A younger Mrs. Parks found herself, seated midway back in a Montgomery bus, on December 1, 1955, pummeled again by the hand of aggression, the Strong Man of this world. For some reason, she refused to move. Bus stopped. Police came. Crowd gathered. Anger, shouting. The Montgomery bus boycott began. A tradition of principled refusal–this is your native land, your mother tongue, your home territory.

Our alumni weekend reminds us so, in the honoring and recollection of spirited forebears, in spirited speeches. Thank you: Bob Herbert, James Lawson, Walter Fluker. Allan Knight Chalmers would be proud of you.

8. The Prophets

The prophets of old knew about all this. They spoke about God’s unbending holiness. They spoke about God’s own refusal to set his seal on any present moment, any present setup, any present arrangement of power. They spoke about human suffering, about how God sees, hears, knows, remembers, and intervenes for the suffering. They spoke about God’s justice, crit
ical of every established power. They resisted. Here it is: “Prophetic speech is an act of relentless hope that refuses to despair, that refuses to believe that the world is closed off in patterns of exploitation and oppression.” (Brueggeman).

These Biblical promises can seem so improbable. They promise an eighth round coming, for which all godly resistance, all principled resistance prepares, by tiring out, binding the strong man of this world. Against the ropes, hum the verses:

The earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea
Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning
They shall not hurt or destroy any more in all my holy mountain
The lion shall lay down with the lamb
And all flesh shall see it together

And remember Amos 5 in sun and snow: Let Justice roll down like waters and righteousness as an ever flowing stream. Or, let Justice roll down like an avalanche, and righteousness as a never ending blizzard.

9. Rope-a-Dope

My son Ben had only one request for a Christmas Gift. He showed me a catalogue that pictured a little grill, for cooking meat, “ A lean, mean fat reducing machine, guaranteed to reduce each average hamburger by 3 oz of fat–$59.95” Then I noticed the sponsor of this culinary instrument—George Foreman. And I inflicted a story on Ben.

In 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches of the century pitted Mohammed Ali against the world champion, George Forman. Kinshasha, Zaire. November 2. Ali predicted: “The most spectacular wonder human eyes have ever witnessed.” 60,000 cheering fans, shouting, “Ali Bu Mal Ye”, which antiseptically translated means, “Go get him”.

Scenes: Forman charging, rounds 1-6. Forman 25, young, strong, powerful. Recently defeated both Frazier and Norton. Ali: 32, guile fitness and will. After 5 rounds, Forman arm weary and bewildered. 3rd Round, Ali leans to crowd: “He don’t hurt me much”. 5th round, Forman tantalized by the stationary target, angry, frustrated. Angelo Dundee had loosened the ropes! Ali, later: “The bull is stronger but the matador is smarter”. Then, 8th round: “Ali is leaning back against the ropes, inviting the champion’s hardest blows..suddenly in the next instant he springs forward smashing Forman’s face with 2 straight rights and a left hook. Down the champion went, the first time ever he had been knocked out.

Ali: “I’m the champion but I don’t feel any different from that fan over there. I still walk in the ghetto, answer questions, kiss babies. I didn’t go nude in the movies. I’ll never forget my people.”

The historic Christian church in this country has been on the ropes for a generation, 40 years of blows to the midsection. God’s spirit is not in a mode of lightening triumph, for those who would still maintain a real connection between deep personal faith and active social involvement. Jesus’ apocalyptic word: first the strong man must be wearied, bound. First the God of this world must be arm weary, frustrated, raging, tired. First the strong man must be bound, then the kingdom of God may enter.

Those who may need to resist and refuse today are part of the spiritual rope strategy, the wearying of the Strong Man, the binding of evil. It’s not pleasant. Hurt, setbacks, delay, confusion. But there is an eighth round coming! There is an eighth round coming! Don’t be surprised when the guileful, fit, willing spirit lunges out from the rope a dope crouch to fell the Adversary.

Tired, aging, fat, Ali was taunted by the press and others for entering the ring at all. For several rounds of brutal semi-sport, Forman landed crushing blows to the head and midsection of the Louisville champ. It appeared as if Ali was simply beaten. Yet, he resisted. He refused to fall. In fact, it was his strategy to lean back against the ring rope, and bind the Strong Man Forman by tiring him, resisting, refusing to drop, enduring the blows of great force, which permanently crippled him.

Today he is an invalid. (A relative’s firm does his legal work, so I hear of him directly and regularly). My seminary roommate left theological school to write for Sports Illustrated,, saying: “Sport opens the world to the observant eye”. In this one case, I believe, he was right. Here is an image of the binding of a Strong Man, Jesus’ apocalyptic preachment: God himself subverts the strength of the Adversary, the Devil if you will, by binding, tiring, outlasting the Strong Man Satan. One instrument in God’s providence, one way he binds his Adversary, is through moments of human refusal, human resistance to the pummeling blows of this world’s God.

How hungry the church is today to perceive this truth. God is at work in the world to make and keep human life human, as Paul Lehmann never tired to repeat. In part, to encourage and give stamina to those on the ropes, using Ali’s rope a dope strategy, binding the Strong Man. A tradition of principled resistance. A pragmatic resistance, we might say, like that of John Dewey: to surrender the actual experienced good for the sake of the possible ideal good—that is the struggle (as Victor Kestenbaum has written in The Grace and the Severity of the Ideal).

10. Two Objections From the Balcony

Well taken, is your perhaps silent objection thus far: some refusal is Godly, but some is not. Too often those who resist or refuse are simply petulant, immature, arrogant, slothful, idiotic, selfish. Agreed. We speak here not of forms of hypocrisy, so many they are. Rather, we speak of principled resistance, which shows its character by suffering the body blows, by leaning against the rope and aching.

Or, maybe you doubt that refusal takes a part of small stage play. Perhaps only the civil disobedience of Ghandi or the peaceful resistance of Martin Luther King or the risky French Resistance of Albert Camus stand out, great historic refusals, great moments of common endurance. But you would be wrong, I suggest, to think so. Most refusal is hidden, unheralded, unknown, unrewarded. Most principled refusal is known only to the one sagging against the ropes, the one catching the body blows. Most real principled refusal is very ordinary.

Recall the Ten Commandments. These are bedrock resistance tools. The first three call us to resist idolatry. The second two call us to resist pride. The last five call us to resist selfishness.

11. Three Examples of Ordinary Refusal

Three examples. Tithing is primary a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s understanding of success and refusal to accept the implication that all that we have is ours alone. Worship is primarily a form of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s time clock, where all time is meant for work or play. Marriage and loyal friendship are primarily forms of spiritual refusal, refusal to accept the world’s low estimate of intimacy, refusal to accept the unholy as good.

Christian Smith has recently written about this: The following chapters describe the ideas and behaviors of 18 to 23 year old Americans concerning morality, sex, alchohol and drugs, civic and political engagement…There is a dark side that shadows the lives of many emerging adults today. (Lost in Transition, 6-7)

12. Conclusion

In 350, Philip of Macedon wanted to unite Greece, which he did except for Sparta. He did everything he could. Finally he sent them a note: If you do not submit at once I will invade your country. If I invade I will pillage and burn everything in sight. If I march into Laconia, I will level your great city to the ground. The Spartans sent back this one
word reply; “if”. (laconic).

Thomas Moore tells us: “We live in a society that primarily starves our soul…we have to really resist the culture to care for the soul…but…if we choose with care our professions and ways we spend our time and our homes in which we live, if we take care of our families and don’t see them as problems, and if we nurture our relationships and friendships and marriages then the soul probably will not show its complaints so badly.”

On the other hand, you may not need this word today. You may want to remember it, though, especially if you are young. For one day, one day, you may want to use some of your spiritual bequest, your prophetic endowment. You may need to draw on the tradition of principled resistance.

Good news has it that along the ropes, and upon the cross, Jesus has bound up the Strong Evil, subverting by being subject to, and so empowered us to refuse.

13. Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning Gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O Clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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