On the Price of Dissent
March 13, 2022
Psalm 27 1-4
The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?
When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall. Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock. Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me; at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.
Jesus said, “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me,‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Today’s sermon is titled On the Price of Dissent.
Dissent is defined as “a public disagreement with an official opinion, decision, or set of beliefs.” Dissent can be dangerous. Dorthy Day paid a price for her dissent; she paid a price for daring to assert that women should have the right to vote. Had this been in the 1700’s when the democratic experiment was taking shape, one might understand how it would have been an uphill battle, but it was more than 100 years later, in the last years of the 1800’s when American women began to organize around the right to vote. In 1913, three days before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, women suffragettes organized a parade past the White House in Washington, D.C. “Police stood by when spectators attacked the demonstrators as they made their way down Pennsylvania Avenue, and army cavalry troops eventually had to be dispatched to restore order. Some 100 women were hospitalized with injuries.”* Americans were attacking Americans because some were daring to demand equal rights. The price of dissent can be high. Listen again to the words we heard from Psalm 27: “Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”
Three years later, because of the women’s’ tenacity, 9 states had guaranteed the right to vote, but Woodrow Wilson was opposing any federal legislation. The suffragettes, Dorothy Day among them, stepped up their efforts. They committed to peaceful protest outside the White House every day, no matter the weather. They called themselves the Silent Sentinels. They did not disrupt, they simply stood with placards saying things like “How long must women wait for liberty?” After 10 months of daily protests, on a bitterly cold day in November, Dorothy Day was among 32 other women who were arrested for disturbing the peace while standing with their placards.
Here is the account of what happened to Dorothy Day inside a jail in Virginia: “two men brought in Dorothy Day; her captors were twisting her arms above her head. Suddenly they lifted her, brought her body down twice over the back of an iron bench.” ** The price of dissent is high. And the words of the psalmist are like a healing balm: “In the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.” Day was beaten but she was not broken. She returned to her activism, gained the right to vote, and spent the rest of her life organizing for social change, especially around workers’ rights. You may know the famous picture of her, in her 80’s, seated in a chair at a protest while all those around her stood. The picture is taken from behind two police officers so that the guns in their holsters are right at the level of her face. And the look on her face as she looks up at the officers? Absolutely defiant, daring, and dissentious! Given her history, I say she earned the right to carry such a countenance.
We don’t have any photographs of Jesus, but I imagine if someone could have photographed him during the interchange we read about today, I imagine his countenance would convey dissent and defiance. He has just been warned that the King, King Herod, wants to kill him. What has he done? Jesus has been teaching and preaching and healing? Even then and there, in Jesus’s time, the influence of Greek philosophy and the concept of free speech, or parrhesia, was exercised.*** Jesus knew he was not breaking any laws, but his message was threatening the power structure of his day, both in the government and in the temple. Jesus said, “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” And we read, “At that very hour some Pharisees came” to warn him. Jesus was using his voice to call out the inequity he witnessed while those in positions of power grew more and more wealthy while the rest of the people were overtaxed and their basic needs overlooked. Jesus sent a clear message back to the King, “ Go tell that fox for me” that I am doing God’s work today and tomorrow; I will be in Jerusalem soon enough. “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.” Jesus knows what is coming. The price of dissent is high but he was not deterred. The words of the psalmist capture his commitment: “The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?”
Outside Moscow, Alexi Nevalny is held in prison on trumped-up charges of fraud, the same crime he so vocally pins on Vladimir Putin and his regime. Phone records revealed last year that Nevalny was followed for three years by the Russian secret service as his popularity grew among Russian youth as Putin’s most ardent opponent, calling Putin’s party the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.” Nevalny challenged Putin in the last election but was deemed “ineligible” because of a prior conviction when he was arrested for organizing protests. The Russian security agency sought to silence him once and for all last year, using the nerve agent novichok. The price of dissent is high, but the change that dissent catalyzes can be revolutionary.
Dorothy Day never, ever gave up and people have not forgotten. Three months ago, in December of 2021, over 50,000 pages detailing why the Pope should declare Dorothy Day a Saint were delivered to the Vatican. It took 50 years of protest for white women to secure the right to vote alongside men . It took another 40 years of activism before black American men and women could vote. And still, after 99 years and 198 sessions of Congress, we still have failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Dorothy Day, Alexi Nevalny, and Jesus of Nazareth were all arrested and mistreated as dissidents. They were all calling for change that threatened those that currently held the power. History has shown, and will show, I believe, that their efforts were not in vain. The Roman Empire fell, equal access to the vote was granted (until recently), and perhaps the call for change in Russia will swell and grow into a major movement that will eventually replace autocracy with more democratic ideals. TIme will tell.
In closing, I lift up our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, and note that his teachings have been used to inspire great change on many continents of our world. He raised his voice for change in his time and we, as his students, have his teachings to support our own call for liberty, for justice, for equality. So be it. Amen.
Source of Love we call God, we can not exactly know Your ways, but we can feel Your grace in the sensations that most capture our attention. In both delight and despair, we become focused in ways that bring us closer to whatever You really are. Save us, most Holy One, from the unfeeling; save us from autonomy; save us from ourselves. Help us to be in this world without loosing our hope and faith in humanity and inspire us to find our role in being solutions to the problems we find most troubling. Remind us, Beloved, to let thankfulness for our many blessings be ever-present in our hearts. One of the gifts we have received is this prayer that Jesus gave his disciples so long ago… Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
Benediction Beannacht Blessing by John O’Donohue
May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
May the clarity of light be yours,
May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow wind work these words of love around you,
An invisible cloak to mind your life.