In response to a reader’s comment on last week’s blog post, The Ultimate Keystone Demonstration: Love, I said I often use the word “sacramental” to describe some of my experiences of engaging in civil disobedience. In that post I talked about what seem to me to be limitations of conventional civil disobedience, and yet over these past days I’ve also been thinking more about those moments when c.d. felt sacramental to me and why.
I think of a sacrament as a visible action using tangible elements that touches upon an intangible truth. A sacrament has the power to transcend the action and objects themselves, opening a portal to a Reality that is beyond our ordinary consciousness, and it always has at its heart the understanding that we are one with something much greater than ourselves.
As I’ve thought more about why certain moments of civil disobedience have felt sacramental to me, I realized that it wasn’t because of the actions in and of themselves: crossing the property line of a military base singing Amazing Grace or sitting in front of the doors to a Federal Building reading the Beatitudes. Rather it was because I and those I was with were choosing to abide within the understanding that we were one with each other, with those arresting us, and with a Reality that transcends us all.
In other words, the nonviolence we were enacting wasn’t simply about refraining from belligerent words and behavior. It was a reflection of an inner orientation we had cultivated, the centered calm that comes of knowing and cherishing the humanity of all involved.
Peace Be With You
When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, I joined over a hundred other people in an action of nonviolent civil disobedience at the Federal Building in Philadelphia. It was a cold, rainy morning when we processed from a nearby historic Quaker meeting house to the Federal Building where we took our places, sitting down around the perimeter of the building.
I had brought a small Bible, and the person next to me and I huddled together as I read passages from the Sermon on the Mount. Overhead, police helicopters pounded the air and in the street protestors shouted angry anti-war chants amplified by the leader’s bullhorn. My voice strained to make audible over the din the words of Jesus:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….
When the federal marshals reached us, informing us we had ten seconds to move or be arrested, we sat where we were. Then a young African-American woman in uniform instructed me to stand. I stood up, reached out my hand and said, “Peace be with you.” She took my hand and said, “And also with you.” Then she handcuffed my wrists behind my back and led me inside.
After spending several hours in a holding cell I was led into a courtroom to appear before a judge, and when I took my seat at the defendant’s table I addressed her with the same words, “Peace be with you.” Looking down from the bench, she replied, respectfully, “And also with you.”
I could have spoken those words, often used in Christian worship services, as a form of spiritual grandstanding. But that’s not what I was feeling. I was speaking them sincerely, as a blessing — a beatitude — for all of us on that stormy day.
Let me not mislead you into believing I’m always able to be a presence of peace. I definitely am not. But those moments of civil disobedience, in which you might think I would be most prone to feeling animosity or anger, have been some of the most profoundly peaceful moments of my life.
I suspect one reason might be that when we engage in spiritually-based nonviolent civil disobedience we have already placed ourselves at the service of something bigger than ourselves. We have already taken a step toward a sacramental way of being.
Two Types of Civil Disobedience
In my experience there are two types of civil disobedience. One originates from the ego and one from what I will call the soul. The ego (which actually is a fiction in itself) is in a standoff with the world. It sees itself as separate and is maintained through the energy of opposition and combativeness. The human-made systems that currently govern the world are by and large expressions and extensions of the ego.
Civil disobedience can become one more act of the ego if it is simply playing out the script of separateness, confronting the “powers that be” with righteous anger — as though “they” were humans of a different sort — and perhaps even with the hidden motive of allowing the ego to feel special or superior as a result its “heroic” actions. This type of civil disobedience lacks transformative power because it does not transcend the ego consciousness that spawns injustice.
The type of civil disobedience that originates from the soul — that aspect of our being that is always in complete communion with the All — is sacramental because it is an outward expression of the truth of oneness. It confronts the “powers that be” with love, knowing that we are all playing out this delusional dream of separateness together, each of us imprisoned in our own minds and playing out our own roles.
Conventional civil disobedience tries to achieve its goal by breaking the law in order to right an injustice. Sacramental civil disobedience goes much farther. Not only does it refuse to cooperate with an unjust law, but by enacting the Reality of Oneness it destabilizes the consciousness upon which such laws are based. Because they subvert the story of separateness, effectively rejecting “reality” as it is commonly understood, acts of sacramental civil disobedience have the power to alter the world as we know it.
What I am calling “sacramental civil disobedience” Gandhi would have called satyagraha. Soul-force. And he knew that the only way to tap into that great force was to undergo a self-purification. As Eknath Easwaran says in his book Gandhi the Man: How One Man Changed Himself to Change the World, “the setting of [Gandhi’s] first and fiercest nonviolent campaign was his own consciousness.” [p. 201]
I believe that kind of inner transformation is something we are all called to participate in, whether or not we are ever actually arrested, because the story that is decimating the planet resides within each of us, myself included, and it is only there that it will ultimately unravel.
[For more information on the power of nonviolence and to learn about programs “fostering a revolution of the heart” let me recommend the website of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, founded by Michael Nagler, author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future.]
Barbara St. Romain says
Thank you so much for this writing, Patricia. I had been wondering what I might read this Sunday at our meditation center. After sitting meditation for 40 minutes and walking meditation for 15, we have a reading on a pertinent spiritual topic , then a discussion and lastly singing or chanting. Having just seen on television the protesters blocking our new director of the Department of
Education Mrs. Devos from entering a public school, I was filled with a mixture of fear and gratitude for the protesters whom I prefer now to call protectors. I became aware that I and others like these protesters might soon be called upon to be a part of the very type of civil disobedience you so wonderfully describe in your article. I will definitely be reading your writing to our group this Sunday in preparation.