The various acts of non-conformity which have followed The United Methodist General Conference have been swiftly described as acts of disobedience, which are then promptly labeled as manifestations of disloyalty. Various groups and bodies have attempted to frame the issue this way.Unfortunately, to do so is to misunderstand resistance as a study of nonviolence reveals.
Of course, there are forms of disobedience that are reflective of disloyalty, but to name every act of disobedience as disloyalty is to caricature it–which essentially means dismissing the necessity and validity of nonviolent resistance, and treating it rather as something to be punished. It is crucial to distinguish between disloyal and loyal disobedience.
I first learned about nonviolent resistance as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary under the guidance of Dr. Robert Lyon, who organized the L.O. Society (Loyal Opposition). He used the group to teach the principles of nonviolence and to train interested students in the practice of resistance within the context of loyalty. From Bob (as he wanted us to call him), we learned how to be disobedient and loyal at the same time. We learned, in fact, that sometimes the highest expression of loyalty is to disobey a particular current reality.
It was the L.O. Society which connected us to the literature of non-violence, particularly the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other nonviolent leaders in the civil rights movement. We were still in the wake of racial violence (the early 1970’s), and reeling from the murder of Dr. King, so these sources spoke powerfully to our lived experience. King’s “I Have a Dream” address ignited our vision (as did his speech, “The Power of Nonviolence”), and his book, ‘Strength to Love’ provided a curriculum for the mission to study and practice.
E. Stanley Jones, an Asbury College alum, was additionally instructive through his books, ‘The Christ of the Indian Road,’–‘Christ at the Round Table’–and ‘Ghandhi: Portrait of a Friend.’ Jones introduced me to ahimsa (“no wounding”), and he wrote about how he put it into practice in his Methodist missionary ministry in India, frequently being called disloyal by many of his colleagues in India and elsewhere.
Since those initial learnings about loyal opposition, I have expanded my knowledge of nonviolent resistance through the writings of such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandella, and John Lewis. Over the summer, I have returned to their writings and refreshed my spirit by my reading of their words.
What I learned decades ago, and continue to reinforce, is that nonviolent disobedience is not an act of defiance, it is an act of conscience. It is acting on the deeply-held conviction that a particular current reality is an impediment to the realization of the Beloved Community, understood in Christianity essentially as the Kingdom of God. It is acting in relation to agapé, as Jones, King, and even Gandhi emphasized.
I have learned that advocates of a current reality always paint the acceptance of the regulated status quo as a virtue, but it is never virtuous to accept something which does harm to others. Accepting that is a vice. Love refuses to do that and becomes confrontational, as Jim Lawson taught, not in physical aggression, but in intellectual and spiritual response.
Moreover, advocates of a controversial current reality misrepresent loyal opposition as an impediment to negotiation, when the fact is, it is a sign that the need to talk is overdue. Paradoxically, it is the nonviolent resistors who are more willing to talk than the advocates of a current reality, who want opponents to be silent and blend back into the woodwork, or maybe even go away.
E. Stanley Jones experienced this, as advocates of the British and Christian status quo (the two cultures overlapped) no longer invited him to their table. In response he created his own table–a Round Table–where the Kingdom values of respect, inclusion, and conversation became means for the fruit of the Spirit to exist and have influence. In the end, the Round Table was more representative of Kingdom values that the cultural tables were.
As Jones and these others make clear, nonviolent disobedience refuses to be quiet or disappear. and all because the love of God and neighbor compels a resistance to attitudes and actions that degrade, divide, and discriminate. This disobedience is not disloyal; it is profoundly loyal. And when it is rooted in love and expressive of the other eight aspects of the fruit of the Spirit, it reflects the commitment of the first apostles who, when told by the religious establishment to stop talking, responded by saying, “We must obey God rather than men” (yes, ‘men’ in that context) and then went out from the court continuing their alleged disobedience. There is nothing more loyal than that.