On the Threshold of What? A Reflection on our American Uncivil Strife

Subtitle: It seems to me and speaking always and only for myself.

Note: This is the text of a reflection I shared with the community of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, last evening, January 12, 2021, during the Facebook livestreamed offering of An Order for Compline from The Book of Common Prayer.

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Civil disobedience. The active and proclaimed repudiation of certain established laws or dictates of the government as a civil, therefore, peaceful expression of discontent and resistance. The seeds and evidences of civil disobedience, I think, are as old as the dawn of the recognition of the inherent and, therefore, inescapable tension between human individualism and freedom and communal authority.

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau,[1] American philosopher and naturalist, essayist and poet, published Resistance to Civil Government, in short, Civil Disobedience, in which he argued that individuals, we, the people, ought not allow the government to commandeer the human conscience so to make the citizenry an agent of injustice. Historical context, of course, matters. Thoreau wrote in response to his own animus, in part, toward slavery; an institution that thrived under the aegis of the government.

Civil disobedience was the heart of a variety of movements in American history. Two prominent examples, women’s suffrage and civil rights. Each and both, largely, were nonviolent protests against the injustices of a societal-wide refusal to recognize human dignity in the granting of equal rights

In the mid-19th century, America experienced a most uncivil Civil War at the cost of over 600,000 lives. The precipitating reasons vary depending on the source of the commentary. However, for me, institutional slavery – for some, its preservation, for others, its eradication – was the principal cause.

Today, it seems to me, America steps on the threshold (or, perhaps, given the still reverberating, disconcerting evidence of the January 6th riotous assault on our nation’s Capitol Building, already stands on the battlefield) of a new, yet equally uncivil civil, verily, cultural war. Some of the elements, as old and familiar as they, now, are made new, as I see them are:

Individual practice v. Governmental policy

Conservatism v. Liberalism

Tribal partisanship v. Political compromise

The return to homogeneous society v. The rise of a heterogenous populace

And no matter where one stands, it seems to me that we innately fear and, at times, are angry with “the other” to point that we almost always label and almost never listen to “the other.”

So, what do we do?

As Christians, we pledge our allegiance to the One who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[2]

To fulfill Jesus’ hard calling, in its severest terms and speaking always and only for myself, means that I lift no hand to harm another child of God and that I lay my life on the altar of His sacrificial love.

In the days ahead, with the portent of violence clouding our national horizon, it may be that this course I choose for myself will not be heard and heeded by all. Nevertheless, again, speaking always and only for myself, it more than seems to me that I must be civilly, faithfully obedient to God’s call in Jesus Christ.

And, now, let us pray For our Country:

Almighty God, Who has given us this good land for our heritage: We humbly beseech You that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Your favor and glad to do Your will. Bless our land with honorable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in Your Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to Your law, we may show forth Your praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in these days of trouble, suffer not our trust in You to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[3]

© 2021 PRA


[1] Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

[2] Matthew 16.24-25

[3] From The Book of Common Prayer, page 820 (my amendment)

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