It’s been a remarkable week or two– truly ten days that have shook the world. The Pope issued Laudato Si’ , the encyclical on global warming couched in the language of that holiest of men, St. Francis. The Supreme Court upheld a key tenet of the Affordable Care Act, virtually ensuring its never being repealed. And then yesterday, the court decreed that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the United States: “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right,” as Justice Kennedy wrote memorably for the majority.
The overwhelming matter of the past few days has been the horrific shooting in the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The killer, an avowed white supremacist, had hoped to ignite a race war. “But God had other plans,” the President said in his truly astounding eulogy. The grace–the amazing grace– shown by the survivors toward this young man was both humbling and elevating to all Americans.
The Confederate flag has somehow become a critical issue in this discussion about race. Is it a symbol of heritage or hate? The politicians have dithered, as politicians do, waiting to run out in front of where the people are going and then claim to be leaders. It was ever thus.
In the meantime, those with clearer vision have acted. This morning, a young black woman named Bree Newsome climbed the 30-foot flagpole in front of the SC Capitol in Columbia. Police shouted for her to get down but she ignored them, reciting the Lord’s Prayer as she made her way toward the rebel flag that was padlocked in place.
At the top, she removed the flag and held it up. “You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” Newsome then made her way down the pole to the waiting police. “I’m prepared to be arrested,” she told them. She and her cohorts face a $5000 fine and up to three years in jail.
In Sophocles’ Antigone, the protagonist stands up to King Creon hwo has forbidden that her (admittedly treasonous) brother be buried. She does so nonetheless, and is brought before him.
Were you aware of the proclamation that forbade anyone from burying Polyneices?
Of course I did. Everyone did.
And you had the audacity to break that law?
Yes, because this was not a law decreed by Zeus, nor by Zeus’ daughter, Justice, who rules with the gods of the Underworld. Nor do I believe that your decrees have the power to override those unwritten and immutable laws decreed by the gods.
These are laws which were decreed neither yesterday nor today but from a time when no man saw their birth; they are eternal! How could I be afraid to disobey laws decreed by any man when I know that I’d have to answer to the gods below if I had disobeyed the laws written by the gods, after I died?
Newsome will probably spend time in jail. So did Antigone, and Nelson Mandela, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Henry David Thoreau, whose friend Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him, asking, “What are you doing in there, Henry?” “What are you doing out there, Waldo?” was his reply.
Postscript, September 2015. There will be those who will invoke Antigone in talking about Kim Davis, the Rowan (KY) County clerk who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples “under God’s authority.” But there is a critical difference here, for Davis is NOT practicing civil disobedience. She is not resisting the government; she IS the government. Davis is not to be likened to a conscientious objector who refuses to serve in the military, but rather to an officer who refuses to follow orders. In the United States, we understand and have always made provision for the former; the latter, I am afraid, have usually been executed.