On the recent Feast of the Epiphany, I was listening to the Scripture reading during Mass from Matthew 2:1-12 and while sitting in the pew that cold Sunday evening with many things on my mind, something about that passage struck me for the first time. As the son of a religiously devoted Mexican mother whose sole mission on Sunday mornings was to have her three boys seated in the pew firmly by her side, I have heard the words from this passage many, many times before in my life.
Perhaps it was because for weeks we have been shocked and outraged by news about innocent children and their parents being separated at the border or grieving for Jakelin Caal, age 7, and Felipe Gomez-Alonzo, age 8, who died in the custody of U.S. Border Patrol over the last several weeks. But when I heard those words it struck me that in order to fully honor the divinity of the infant Jesus, the Magi themselves engaged in an act of divine civil disobedience.
By refusing to go along with King Herod’s sly and duplicitous request to know where the young child was located, the three wise men effectively saved the life of Jesus and risked their own. Instead of traveling back to their homelands along a path that would have led them into the grasp of Herod, where they would willingly or unwillingly reveal the location of Jesus, they decided to take a different route home. This courageous and bold decision to dissent ultimately left King Herod empty-handed, and Mary and Joseph time to hastily navigate their long and arduous journey to Egypt with their newborn child.
The story of the Epiphany and the courage of the Magi convey a certain theological truth. We are each called by God to be co-creators in the building of the Reign of God here on Earth and at times this responsibility requires dissent and nonviolent civil disobedience. Through His life and ministry, Jesus called each and every person who would listen to embrace this truth as He still does. What the Magi and Jesus Himself have shown us is that, at times, our fidelity to God requires us to be willing to engage in nonviolent acts that resist and denounce authoritative and oppressive powers.
On this day, we celebrate the life of another whose deep devotion to God and humanity inspired him to lead many courageous acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Unlike the Magi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not approached by angels in the night, but, in his own words, he was profoundly moved by the voice of God through a religious experience that affirmed to him that his life’s work meant standing with the most marginalized in society.
It happened on an evening in late January of 1956. King had already been reluctantly thrust into the center of the growing Montgomery Bus Boycott alongside Rosa Parks and others. Just weeks before this night, a strategically planned act of civil disobedience was courageously executed by Rosa Parks. This act, and the chain of events that followed, set into motion a yearlong campaign that would dramatically alter our nation’s history.
On this particular evening, an exhausted King had just laid his head down in bed next to his wife, Coretta who was already asleep, when his phone rang. A chilling and furious voice on the other line said: “Listen, n*****, we’ve taken all we want from you; before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.” Anxious and unable to sleep, King went to his kitchen where he made a cup of coffee. A wave of fear, doubt and worry that had been rising for weeks finally crashed over his shoulders as he sat at his kitchen table that evening. Feeling utterly powerless at that moment, King turned to God. In his own words from his work, Stride Toward Freedom:
“I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now, I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. […] I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
At that moment, King heard a quiet inner voice say to him: “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world.”
Three evenings later King’s house was bombed while his wife and infant daughter were at home. King’s religious experience would give him the inner fortitude and courage to remain committed to his calling and the philosophy of active nonviolent resistance.
During his own lifetime, King’s willingness to engage in civil disobedience to unjust laws in obedience to the higher will of God carried its own consequences that were not too far removed from the consequences that Jesus faced for His actions under Roman rule. During the Civil Rights Movement, the many women, men and youth who were inspired to sit, stand, march, sing and pray in places that were barred for African-Americans under the system of Jim Crow did so fully knowing that their actions directly challenged many written and unwritten laws that for generations were punishable by beatings, shootings, bombings and lynching’s that were ruthlessly carried out by white mobs and the KKK.
King understood that walls and barriers, both visible and invisible, give rise to the corrosive spiritual, psychological and physical forces that engender fear, hatred and violence. The enduring legacy of slavery, white supremacy and Jim Crow laws were just several of the many walls and barriers that King sought to break down through collective acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
If King could comment on the affairs of today, I imagine that he would grieve for the soul of our nation and speak with great urgency of the moral crisis before us at this moment. He would observe and name with searing truths the connection between President Trump’s demand for a border wall and a long history of slavery, genocide, colonization, and white supremacy that is both our past and present reality.
He would also relentlessly point towards the many walls of our nation’s past and present. The walls that were built to enclose Native Americans, the walls that were built at the Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during WWII, the walls that were built during the Jim Crow era, and the walls that we’ve built to cage children in today along our borders and to imprison millions of Latinos, African Americans and people with mental health conditions in cities across our country.
At this very moment, as thousands of children and families flee from the many Herods in our world today in search of hope and safety, we must ask ourselves, “If I were there that night among the Magi, as the angels visited carrying a message from God, would I carry out the task of disobeying King Herod to save the life of this divine child even if it may mean my imprisonment or death?”
As I meditate on this question myself, I can hear Rev. Dr. King’s booming prophetic voice bringing the fierce urging of God to bear on us all by saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Do we have the courage to do what is right and necessary at this moment in time in obedience to the will of God, even if it requires disobedience to the will of our President and our nation’s laws?
By Michael Okinczyc-Cruz