Non-violent civil disobedience in the pursuit of justice and peace among Episcopal clergy happens often throughout history and some even participated in the Occupy Movement. Some clergy, such as Jack Stanton participating in a march against the firing of union workers, are arrested for civil disobedience too.
“I took the extra step of volunteering to be arrested because I thought it would call more attention to what we were doing, and it proved to be so,” said Stanton, 75, priest associate at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Miami.
Over the years, a priests and sometimes bishops protest injustices, getting arrested in the processes in order to cause people to set up and pay attention to inequality, injustices, and peace movements. Everything from the Vietnam war protests to the current injustices we see today, such a labour practices.
“I would say it’s been a steady but small presence throughout, from the anti-war days” of the Vietnam War era, said Mary Miller, who recently retired as coordinator of the Consultation, an umbrella organization for Episcopal peace and justice organizations, and formerly served as executive secretary of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. “EPF was quite deeply involved with things like the Pentagon Masses.”
Non-violent civil disobedience is part of the Anglican Tradition, according to Mary Miller.
There are plenty of people who would argue that this is what Jesus was doing and teaching, and we do claim that. It has not since early days been the dominant thread in our history, at least not since Constantine, but the witness has always been there.
“And it has always been challenged by the folks in charge at any given time,” she added, noting how Utah Bishop Paul Jones “was drummed out of the House of Bishops during World War I” for being a pacifist.
Rev. Brian Grieves, retired director of the Episcopal Church’s peace and justice ministries, as well as the office of government relations in Washington D. C., said that civil disobedience is a matter of personal conviction, especially when clergy protest various injustices.
“I can’t recall that the church has ever said anything at General Convention about civil disobedience per se as a policy matter,” he said. “I think for many people in the church it’s a time-honored form of nonviolent resistance to issues of conscience.”
“We’re not a traditional peace church, like the Mennonites or Quakers,” Grieves said. “But … even though there’s no official statement, I certainly do think theologically that there’s a strong argument to be made for nonviolent forms of resistance on matters of conscience and that the church has a strong tradition of that, even if it’s unofficial, and I think that’s part of who we are.”
Images of protesting clergymen and women carried away in handcuffs by arresting police officers is sometimes a very powerful image of a church’s stance on an issue. The arrest of retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, age 68, for trespassing during the Occupy Movements on December 17 in New York City symbolized the church’s position and support of the movement.
The symbolism of clergy being arrested “really matters,” Miller said. “It leads the rest of us to feel like we’re in good company and that we’re not alone.”
“I think we remain clergy-dependent in some ways, particularly when it comes to public faces,” she said. “There still is an urge for the church leaders to speak.”
Even other clergy support other clergy who protest a social injustice and many of the clergy, who support others, sometimes protest injustices too. Episcopal News Service (ENS) reports:
Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus, 55, was arrested wearing his cassock in 2006 for blocking access to the federal building inSan Francisco in a protest against the Iraq War.
“I’m aware that a bishop is a very public figure and that by participating in a broader act of civil disobedience that I would be helping call attention to the issue in a way that some people don’t have the ability to do,” he said.
“It was my thought that one has to be judicious about how often and for what reasons one engages in civil disobedience,” he added. “I’ve been in many demonstrations and rallies and protests and witnesses and vigils since then around a variety of issues … but I have not engaged in civil disobedience since then.”
Being bishop “is a different order of ministry than a priest or a deacon or a lay person,” he said. “I am answerable to my diocese and to the larger church, but I am also answerable for how I use the political power, the symbolic power that has been given me.”
“It’s more visible than that of a local congregation leader, and I think I have a responsibility to think through how I use that,” he said. “To always not use it is not a reasonable answer, it seems to me.”
Andrus, who is part of Bishops Working for a Just World, said he was “delighted” by Packard’s participation in the Dec. 17 protest. “I would like to see more active bishops in addition to retired bishops take that kind of stand.”
Rev. Michael Sniffen, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, Brooklyn, New York, along with other clergy, was also arrested on December 17. He stated, “If I’m going to speak about something from the pulpit and not do something with my own person to try and transform that which is causing God’s people pain, that which is unjust, then I really have no business talking about it.”
“It seems quite clear to me that the gospel comes to life when clergy are really engaged in all aspects of community of life and are not just talking about community life,” said Sniffen, 31. “Politics in this country is in such a sad state. Now more than certainly at any other point in my life it seems really important to speak up as a community leader as well as faith leader.”
Stanton also sees protesting social injustices as living out the Gospel, “A main thrust of the Bible is justice and reaching out to the oppressed and the weak. I was taken by [the case of] these 10 workers because they are just about powerless, and they’re being brutally dealt with – not physically, but enough to cause dreadful harm to their families.”
“Jesus in his own life went to the cross. It was doing the will of God as a protest of sorts. He was standing there and just taking it from Pilate,” said Stanton, who said he looked to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights protestors as an example of this. “They knew they were going to get arrested, but they weren’t going to stop because they knew they had the truth on their side. They took the punishment.”
“To me … that is the witness of the Bible and of Jesus, and I think that in my own life I need to show that.”
In July, the General Convention passed Resolution B023, which calls for the Church “to resist the development and expansion of ever more unconventional, dangerous, and environmentally destructive sources of fossil fuel and move toward conversion to more sustainable sources.” This allowed Rev. P. Joshua Griffin, who was arrested for protesting before, to protest against environmental injustices, such as mining.
“I feel that my work in Montana and participation in this action was in direct obedience to this teaching of our church,” said Griffin, 31, priest associate at St. David of Wales Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon, and former missioner for environmental justice in the Diocese of California. “I’m very excited that our official church policy is to resist these kinds of evils.”
Griffin also stated that non-violent civil disobedience is a very old tradition in the Episcopal Church. However, throughout history many clergy are not necessarily notable for their commitment to non-violence.
[C]ivil rights activist the Rev. Canon Edward Rodman said, “In general clergy were not particularly notable … for their commitment to nonviolence. They were pretty good with civil disobedience, and I think that distinction you need to make pretty sharply. Civil disobedience really involved the willingness to be arrested. A lot of folks were willing to do that, but they were not necessarily ready to take a beating, and that is the real difference.”
“There were many clergy of that era who were very courageous and who were not necessarily involved directly in the movement but who stood up and did courageous things, and so that is not to be discounted,” he said.
Rodman, 70, has been involved in the Episcopal Church’s antiracism training and is John Seeley Stone professor of pastoral theology and urban ministry at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Most of my actual civil disobedience and arrests occurred while I was in high school and college, not after I was in seminary and beyond,” he noted. “I was more of a trainer and adviser at that point.”
And he continues in that role. “Here in Cambridge, we have a really wonderful group of old folks like myself who spanned the civil rights and the peace movements … We have formed a collective to try to help the younger anarchists and others to try to be clear on what is and isn’t appropriate in the area of civil disobedience and what kind of serious spiritual commitment you have to have.
“I would say that the primary difference between then and now is the fact that this younger group really doesn’t get that,” he said. “It’s much more impatient, and – I wouldn’t say they’re fearless; the term I would use is that, because most of them are privileged, they don’t appreciate the degree to which oppression and violence can rain down on them if they’re not careful. And I think that some of them got that bitter experience in Oakland,” he said, referring to violent clashes with police during the Occupy movement in California.
During the civil rights movement and the early days of protests against the Vietnam War, he said, “there was a continuum of … spiritual commitment to the discipline of nonviolence and the study of it and the training that went into it.”
“Certainly the Occupy people, to their credit, did get the key lesson in any nonviolent social-change movement, and that is the notion of shared leadership,” he added. “It’s about the people who work making the decisions and not the star getting himself set up to get assassinated.”