Clerics sometimes break the law in the pursuit of justice

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Sep 17, 2012

The Rev. Richard Aguilar, the Rev. Jack Stanton and Claudino “Tito” Rosario, a member of UniteHere Local 362 in Orlando, Florida, wait to be arrested at the May 8 demonstration in support of fired casino workers. Photo/Ari Romer

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Jack Stanton is a veteran of civil rights and Vietnam War demonstrations. But he went one step further in May when he volunteered to be arrested during a protest on behalf of casino workers fired for union organizing in Hallandale Beach, Florida.

Other clergy, including Episcopalians, also marched in the demonstration. “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. He was arrested along with the Rev. Richard Aguilar, another priest in the Diocese of Southwest Florida who since has left parish ministry to work as a union organizer. “We were a photo op.”

Getting arrested is not something that appears on most priests’ resumes, but over the years a small, steady stream of Episcopal priests and sometimes bishops has engaged in civil disobedience as part of how they “strive for justice and peace among all people” in living out the Baptismal Covenant. More recently, some have joined the Occupy movement, which marks its one-year anniversary today. Others have been arrested protesting wars or environmental or labor 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.”

During the Masses, small groups would begin to celebrate Eucharist in the main concourse of the Pentagon, she explained. “Inevitably, they would be arrested after they were asked to please leave and didn’t.”

Civil disobedience is “part of our tradition … I think this thread has been in Anglicanism all along,” she said. “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.

Participating in civil disobedience is a matter of personal conviction by a priest or bishop, said the Rev. Brian Grieves, retired director of the Episcopal Church’s peace and justice ministries, including the Office of Government Relations in Washington, D.C.

“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.”

Powerful symbol

The Episcopal calendar of saints includes Jonathan Daniels, a white seminarian fatally shot in 1965 in Alabama after pushing a black teen to safety when a part-time deputy sheriff pointed a shotgun at her outside a store. Daniels had just been released from jail, having been arrested for participating in a voter rights demonstration.

While Episcopal laity participate in civil disobedience, the image of people in clerical collars protesting and being handcuffed can provide a powerful illustration of the church’s stance on an issue.

Since the Occupy movement began last September, hundreds of protestors have been arrested across the country. But the trespassing arrest of retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard,68, in his purple cassock during a Dec. 17 protest in New York drew particular attention as a symbol of support by some in the church for 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.”

Diocese of California Bishop Marc Andrus, 55, was arrested wearing his cassock in 2006 for blocking access to the federal building in San 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.”

Several other clergy were arrested along with Packard, including the Rev. Michael Sniffen, rector of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, Brooklyn, New York.

“It really was unplanned, unpremeditated,” said Sniffen, who attended the Dec. 17 Occupy Wall Street rally and decided on the spot to enter fenced property owned by Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, and risk arrest in solidarity with the Occupy protestors he had been supporting. “I still feel that I did the right thing and acted according to my conscience.”

Since then, Sniffen has been involved in other local actions addressing economic issues. He joined about 30 clergy, including more than half a dozen colleagues from the Diocese of Long Island, for example, in protesting New York’s budget cuts during a hearing at city hall.

Like Andrus, Sniffen said he saw his actions as part of his obligation as a church leader. “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.”

Living out the gospel

Stanton also said he saw his civil disobedience in biblical terms. “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.”

The Rev. Joshua Griffin is arrested in the Montana statehouse during a protest against mining and exporting coal. Photo/Rae Breaux

The Rev. P. Joshua Griffin, arrested in August as part of a protest against plans to begin mining coal at Otter Creek in Montana and to ship it to West Coast ports for export overseas, said he found support for his action within the church and its theology.

“One reason I felt called to participate in this action was really because as a priest I am called to be obedient to the teachings of our church and to those that have authority and pastoral leadership,” he said. He cited in particular the “very powerful language” of the House of Bishop’s 2011 letter from Quito, Ecuador, urging Episcopalians to work toward climate justice and General Convention’s passage of Resolution B023 in July calling on 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.”

“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.”

Civil disobedience “is a very old tradition in the Episcopal Church,” said Griffin, who also was arrested three times while working in California. He identified his mentor as his college chaplain, the Rev. Canon Henry Atkins, who once served as chaplain to the Black Panthers, worked to integrate Southern churches during the civil rights movement and hid Central American refugees at a New Jersey church during the 1980s.

One reason he knew he had a home in the Episcopal Church was its commitment to the Incarnation and “incarnational politics,” Griffin said. “I knew that I was called to this kind of work, and I knew that it would be supported.”

The Rev. Jim Lewis did community service working on a garbage truck after being arrested for protesting Iraq War funding. Photo/ Mike Youngren

The Rev. Jim Lewis of Charleston, West Virginia, a long-time activist who will turn 77 on Oct. 1, has been arrested while protesting support for U.S. activities in Central America, supporting striking Virginia coalminers, protesting Iraq war funding, and helping immigrant poultry workers in Delaware. Ordained in 1964, he participated in civil rights demonstrations but didn’t become involved in civil disobedience until the 1980s.

“I went to Central America and saw people who were being devastated by U.S. policy,” he said. “I came back here saying, ‘We need to change U.S. policy. We’ve got to stop funding this killing.”

He got arrested in a congressional office in Michigan, because “I felt like something more was required from me at that point: putting my body on the line. … It wasn’t something that I felt was a better thing to do than I had done in the past. It was just almost a natural evolution for me.”

Lewis said he’d like to see more clergy engaging in civil disobedience but recognizes not everyone is called to such action.

“It does seem to me that there’s a time for clergy to step out there,” he said. “Not everybody’s called to do that, but I think some of us are.”

“I don’t see it as any badge of merit. It’s not a God and country award. … I just saw it as another way to step up to the plate, if you’re called to do that, and to make your testimony. But I don’t see a whole lot of it in the Episcopal Church.”

The challenge of nonviolence

Looking back, Stanton said he believed more clergy participated in civil disobedience during the civil rights movement.

But civil 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.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (10)

  1. Bill Dilworth says:

    While I heartily approve of civil disobedience as a tactic, it doesn’t seem to be quite the right word to describe the actions of Jonathan Myrick Daniels and his companions, if it means not complying with unjust laws. Federal law had abolished segregation throughout the United States, but many jurisdictions in the South simply ignored the law. It was the forces of segregation who disobeyed the law, not Daniels. Daniels and others refused to comply with segregation, but in that it had lost any legitimate legal authority they weren’t engaged in civil disobedience, but trying to enforce what was already the law.

    1. Stephen Voysey says:

      I recall the witness of a number of clergy in the Diocese of Pennsylvania in the 60’s and 70’s in ways which shook me out of my assumptions about what it means to see law through the eyes of justice in theological way. It’s not me, but it did lead me to a much more mature vision of faith to strive to bear witness to as a priest.
      Regarding Jonathan Daniels, I see him mostly as an unlikely but very real martyr, taking the bullet meant for the innocent young woman upon himself.

  2. Doug Desper says:

    I would say that if the clerics want to truly identify with those protesting, then shed the clerical garb, stoles, and albs that often gets attention and preferential softer treatment. Join the anonymous faces and voices and then you will have genuinely risked the consequences. I would also hasten to add that the Occupy Movement largely discredited itself due to its anarchy-driven public face. They may have had sympathy in some circles, but now their tactics, violence, and destruction to private property shows nothing less than a mob mentality that strains for any credibility.

  3. JOHN SCHAFFER says:

    I think it is inappropriate for the clergy to wear their vestments when protesting. It gives the public impression that they are authorized to represent TEC and that the entire Church agrees with their political positions. That is not the case. TEC is as politically diverse as any other group in the country. It is fine, by me, if the clergy wears street clothes when protesting. That is their individual decision and some consider it to be Christ like. But don’t claim to represent all Episcopalians. We claim to encourage diversity – just not political diversity.

  4. This article brought back strong memories, though distant, of my participation in a mass on the concourse of the Pentagon protesting the US involvement in Vietnam. I would not express civil disobedience in the same way today, but at the time I felt right in doing it.
    Many of us were arrested over the course of several days and weeks, and we were all eventually found innocent of the charge of disturbing the peace. Many ironies in that.
    I admire the courage of those who speak up, and more for those who are willing to walk their talk.

  5. Rev. Paul Hartt says:

    The issue here is the spirit. Standing in righteous accusation of others is intoxicating. There are times when social action has been warranted and even essential. But there is always this flip side that needs a good look. Social justice is mare exciting than nursing home visitation. One has to ask what is driving us in each case. Clergy also can be helpful inside these movements contending with their more immature members and dangerous excesses. The Occupy Movement would be a case on point.

  6. Michael Hartney says:

    I, too, was a frequent member of the congregation at the Pentagon for the Pentagon Masses. We were all arrested for ‘making a loud and unusual noise’ in the Concourse of the Pentegon. The Councourse being, at that time, a publically-accessible shopping mall within the confines of the Pentagon. We even bought the communion bread from the Pentegon Bakery in the mall. It was stamped ‘Pentagon.’
    I do not agree that Episcoipal Clergy (Bishops, Priests, Deacons) should not wear their clerical vestments/collar/etc. when protesting an unjust law. We are making a public statement about the Church, yes … but so did Jesus.

  7. Michael Mornard says:

    Ummm…. how about “it’s illegal to fire people for union activity”? That seems to have slid completely by.

    And clergy should DEFINITELY wear their collars. More and more people see the Church as irrelevant, and if we want to engage people we need to dispel that image.

  8. Rob Godwin says:

    Have we removed Romans 13:1-2 from our Bibles?
    Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
    And here Paul was talking, not about a democratically elected government, but the tyrannical rule of the occupying Roman army.

  9. Adam Egan says:

    Non Christians could care less that Episcopal clergy are protesting. Grow up. The sixties and seventies are long gone. Get back to baptizing and instructing how to be a disciple of Christ not a cool hipster in the park in handcuffs. God save us!

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