Straddling the Fence of Civil Responsibility

A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 2, 2017

1 Peter 2:13-17 GNT; Reading from Henry D. Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”

If it were possible for us to be in Concord, Massachusetts, ten days from today, I imagine we could take part in some pretty significant birthday celebrations; especially if we had the opportunity to gather around Walden Pond.  And if I hadn’t already made summer plans that will take me in a different direction, I might even try to go there myself.  For, you see, July 12 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau, one of America’s most celebrated thinkers and writers.  Thoreau’s books, articles, essays, journals, and poetry amount to over 20 volumes.

Most people who know of Thoreau think of him as an American naturalist.  Such is the way that I most often think of him.  Thoreau is best known, perhaps, for his iconic work, Walden, or Life in the Woods.  Walden was one of the first American works on getting back to nature and extolling the virtues of simple, natural, and frugal living.  Poet Robert Frost wrote of Thoreau’s Walden, “In one book . . . he surpasses everything we have had in America.”  (As an aside, it was on July 4, 1845, when Thoreau moved to a small hut he had built on land borrowed from Ralph W. Emerson on the shore of Walden Pond.)

Many naturalists, conservationists, and environmentalists may even look upon Thoreau’s Walden as their “second Bible.”  Thoreau’s call to use resources wisely, to preserve “wildness,” to abolish slavery, and to live more mindfully vastly influenced the conservationist and environmentalist movements in America, the establishment of the National Parks System, the abolitionist movement, and perhaps the thought of contemporary poets like Mary Oliver.  Conservationist E.O. Wilson called Thoreau “the founding saint of the conservation movement.”

But the other work that Thoreau most often remembered for is his long essay titled “Civil Disobedience.”  At least part of “Civil Disobedience” was written from jail, after Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax, believing that doing so was supporting the institution of slavery.  “Civil Disobedience” has been described as “the most influential political essay written by an American.”1  Both Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that they learned about the moral basis of resistance and how to put it into practice from Thoreau’s essay.

“How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?”  Such is a question that might sound like it had been framed just this week.  Yet this is a question that Thoreau asked in 1848 as the United States engaged in war with Mexico.

To try to put Thoreau’s thought into simpler terms, how does one determine the limits of civil obedience or civil disobedience?  How far does one go in respecting and supporting a government when one feels that government is too far afield of what is right or is downright wrong?  It isn’t a new question, by any means.  It is as old as government itself.

Which brings us to the interesting passage read from the Letter of 1 Peter (which certainly wasn’t written by the Apostle Peter, by the way, who had been long dead when this letter was written at the end of the first or beginning of the second century).  “For the sake of the Lord submit yourselves to every human authority: to the Emperor, who is the supreme authority, and to the governors, who have been appointed by him to punish the evildoers and to praise those who do good . . . respect the Emperor.”  Now, at face value, such a directive seems logical.  But the curious thing is this letter was written during a time of persecution, when Christian believers who were the first recipients of this letter were being persecuted, possibly by the same government they were told to respect!  There were periods during the last half of the first and early part of the second centuries when the Roman emperors actively persecuted the Christians of the Empire.  What in the world was the writer of this letter thinking?

Well, one consideration here is the author was encouraging the Christians of the Empire to try to not do anything so as to appear unpatriotic, and by so doing, bring the wrath of the government down upon them.  In other words, the reason to respect the Emperor was practical in nature, so as to not incite further persecution.

Yet also contained within these verses is a great conundrum, what biblical commentator David L. Bartlett calls “the almost paradoxical vision of civic behavior that 1 Peter – and other early Christian writings – commends.”2  Christians are slaves to God alone, yet are commended to “Live as free people,” while at the same time encouraged to submit “to every human authority . . . and respect the Emperor.”  It all sounds a bit like doubletalk, doesn’t it?  How can one do all three – be a slave to God alone, yet live as free people, and submit to every human authority?

And so, now you know where today’s sermon title, “Straddling the Fence of Civil Responsibility,” comes from.  We are raised to be patriotic – say the Pledge of Allegiance and respect the American flag – and have respect for government leaders – senators, governors, and the President – but how do we do that if the government or officials contradict our faith convictions and what we feel to be right?  How do we continue to be supportive of our leaders and government during those times when what is happening seems to be in diametric opposition to the ways of God, as we see them?  Or to put it another way, what do we do when we feel the call of God upon our lives and the way of government are totally opposite?  How do we responsibly straddle the fence between our faith and government when they seem to be polar opposites?

Such are questions that many are asking in America today, especially surrounding the debate on healthcare coverage and who should and shouldn’t be included and excluded.  But by the same token, they are the same questions that others asked during Obama’s administration.  And the same is true all throughout history.  The same questions Henry David Thoreau raised in “Civil Disobedience” never go out of fashion and are still being asked today.  “Unjust laws exist:” Thoreau contended, “shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”  “As people of conscience,” Thoreau stated, “we declare our commitment to translate our values into action.”

And so, when we feel our government or the laws of our land are in need of change, there are many different courses of action we can, and perhaps should, take: Some write letters to the editor; others call their senators or representatives; others choose to put their energies into marches and protests; and still others (like Thoreau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr, Nelson Mandela, and others ) are willing to go to jail because of their convictions.

In the end of the essay Thoreau would conclude, and I like what he said, “I please myself with imagining a State at least which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor.”  Such is a good rule of measurement and principle toward which we should strive both as citizens and Christians, I believe – a government that treats each “individual with respect as a neighbor.”  It is a lofty ideal toward which to aim, but perhaps one that Jesus would call for.  “Render to Caesar (the Emperor, the government) the things that are Caesar’s, and render to God the things that are God’s.”  And in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus reminds us that we are our neighbor’s keeper.

Periodically what we feel the call of God upon our lives to be leads us to work to change governmental policies and laws so that all citizens are respected as a neighbor.  At least that is the way I see it.  May it be so.  Amen.


1Richard Higgins, UU World, Summer 2017.  Pp. 32-37.

2David L. Bartlett, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XII.  Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.  Pp. 274-275.


About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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