The Civilly Disobedient

Is it ever right–ethically or morally–to break the law? Explain why or why not.

-Honors American Literature journal question, Monday

It’s always a good day when I get to stand on a chair.

I sense that the students understand this, also, even as they mutter about being hustled, a few minutes into class, from their comfortable plastic chairs to the space at the back of the room. This space, perhaps 25 feet wide and six feet deep, is magic. It’s the floor we sit on, in a narrow oval, to read scary stories, and the back-of-class stage for all manner of skits and roll-plays. Today, it’s the ground for Would You Rather: Lawbreaker Edition.

At the beginning of class, I asked them to write for a few minutes about the question above. Is it ever right to break the law? They wrote, dutifully, and now they’re standing just as dutifully in the back of the room, while I direct them from my chair perch on high.

“OK,” I begin. “You have to pick a side. This is the question you wrote about. Is it ever right to break the law? Yes,” I motion to the door side, “Or no?” I motion to the windows. Mostly they shuffle to the door, a few students opting to stand in the hall outside to express their extreme comfort with law-breaking. A few misunderstand, citing times when obeying the law is just fine.

“I didn’t say ‘Is it always right to break the law,'” I remind them. “I said ‘ever.’ That’s important. Obviously we mostly obey the law, right?”

My students nod. “Now. Would you rather not pay your taxes,” window, “Or plot to overthrow the government?” door. The students laugh, mostly opting to not pay their taxes because “…you know, I’d rather have my money than… not have it.”

We’ll be reading Henry David Thoreau’s “On The Duty Of Civil Disobedience” in a few minutes, the author’s treatise regarding why he, among other forms of passive protest, refused to pay a poll tax that would fund the Mexican-American War. As I read through a few more scenarios involving various laws broken through civil disobedience over the years, I begin to think I may have lost them, my international students. They didn’t know that interracial marriage was illegal in America the early 20th century, and don’t have a solid grasp on the concept of draft-dodging. It all feels very theoretical in this safe little classroom in Germany. We’d disobey the laws you think we should, they seem to say, but we’re not super sure why.

Then I reach the second-to-last question.

“Would you rather hold a secret worship service in a country where it’s illegal, or smuggle Bibles into a country where they’re illegal?”

Suddenly, they’re all questions, of which the most common, and loudest, is “What if we’ve done both?”

Sometimes, in the busyness of writing and rewriting papers, reading classic literature and pacing ourselves through bell-ordained school days, I forget that our students at Black Forest Academy are rather extraordinary. All teenagers are extraordinary, of course, because they are odd and clever and creative, because they’re heroically weathering one of the more difficult seasons of human life, because in spite of it all most of them remain optimistic about the future and their roles in it. But these teenagers, our students, are something else entirely.

I forget that some of their very lives are founded on acts of civil disobedience, large and small. I forget the risks associated with some of this work, for which deportation–permanent exile from the places they call home–is sometimes a light potential consequence. I forget that Paul’s preaching and imprisonments, which I read in the early morning alongside many other “Bible stories” are the real models on which they base their ministry. If you’re not supposed to preach Christ, do it anyway. If you’re put in prison, keep preaching. God’s law always comes first.

When we reach the last question, asking them to choose between participating in the Underground Railroad in the 19th century or the Resistance in Germany in the 20th century, my students rebel. “Both!” they cry. “How could we possibly choose between those?”

In a few years, my students will be in college, perhaps away from the law-breaking part of their lives. But as I listen to them today, I’m inspired by their nonconformity, the way they’re able to evaluate both laws and cultural norms in light of the truth of Christ. They’ll go back to America, doubtless to be amazed at the “stands” their peers choose to make, or perhaps the lack of them. I can only hope that the students who confidently tell me that they can’t choose between an illegal worship service and an illegal Bible will continue to value both in places where worship and Scripture are less illegal than simply forgotten. Their civil disobedience might not break any laws, but it will continue to remind them, and those around them, of the extraordinary lives they’ve lived, and the extraordinary God they serve.

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Leaving The Woods

Autumn at the classroom window

Autumn at the classroom window

“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand… Our life is like a German Confederacy, made up of petty states, with its boundary forever fluctuating, so that even a German cannot tell you how it is bounded at any moment.” Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Wednesday, the rain pours on the suddenly brilliant Black Forest as my students begin, in high-school voices hesitant about 19th-century prose, to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Nine years into this teaching adventure, there is still almost nothing I love more than hearing familiar words read by the well-loved voices of my students. Each year around this time, we stumble into the Transcendentalists, hurtling out of the end-of-quarter busyness marked by The Scarlet Letter, final dress rehearsals for the school play, and fall sports tournaments that this year took our students to northern Germany and northern Italy. We are tired.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,” they read, pausing charmingly over the five syllables of deliberately, pronouncing it with the care due its meaning. “And not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…”

The forest, dying in a blaze of color, calls to me as I sit at my desk, listening to my students. It would take very little persuasion today for me to hole up in a cabin by a pond, spending my days watching ants and the ripples on the surface of the water, charting the change of seasons and their effect on my soul. If I’m honest, Thoreau’s life is more tempting to me than any living celebrity, than the educated affluence of Bill Gates, the  happy-go-lucky fame of Taylor Swift or the powerful potential of a political figure. I’d rather be Thoreau than any of them.

“If I told you that you could abandon school, and gave you a cabin with food to live in, how many of you would do this?” I ask my students. Half a dozen hands go up.

“Is there wi-fi?” someone asks.

“No, no wi-fi. You only get what Thoreau had. Books, paper, pen, food. That’s it.”

They think about it, and keep their hands raised.

We long for simplicity, the one or two affairs that Thoreau wrote of. We think of the cabin by the lake, the unburdening of responsibility, as a glorious freedom. How happy we’d be to just get away. How often have we said it, thought it?

John Green, a young adult author beloved by my students and me, once said that “Truth resists simplicity.” I agree, and then some. Community, relationship, responsibility, calling–much of life resists simplicity. If we’re engaged in this journey with other travelers, it’s inevitable that every turn will greet us with complexity.

Both my virtual and literal desks this week are emblems of my complexity. There are blueprints for the Christmas Banquet, drawings of centerpieces and stage design that will come to three-dimensional life in the next two weeks. There are lesson plans and handouts, waiting to be printed and executed. Shopping lists and dinner plans lurk somewhere, waiting for a shopping trip. An ever-growing list of students to recommend for college demands my attention. Somewhere in the corner there’s a number, signaling the number of words I should have written by the end of today for the novel I’m trying to write this month, both as a personal challenge and point of connection with one of my new students who is undertaking the same task. Complexity.

The desk itself represents only the inanimate entities desiring my attention, giving no picture of the living, breathing people who walk in several times a day, or the commitments that keep me traveling the school from first bell to last. Living in relationship, whether work or family or church bodies, will always be complex.

And yet, at the root of it we’re still called to simplicity. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus asks us. First. Rooted in this simple longing for Christ, we can reach far into the details of life. Without the roots, we’ll be torn apart by the winds around us, tossed by every new task and person we meet. Without the roots, the complexity will force us to the woods.

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there,” Thoreau wrote, my students read. “Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.”

Even Thoreau left the woods. And while we can and must withdraw into solitude sometimes, spending time reconnecting to our rootedness in the love of Christ, we can’t stay in the woods forever. Resisting the simplicity of isolation, we’re called to community, to the beautiful, tricky complexity of knowing and serving one another in the body of Christ.

Juniors read Thoreau on a crisp November day.

Juniors read Thoreau on a crisp November day.