There’s a famous scene in Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1970 play,The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail, in which Henry David Thoreau—a noted author, environmentalist, transcendentalist, and anarchist—sits alone in a moonlit prison, listening to the cry of a loon outside his window. Thoreau, imprisoned for a night in Concord, Massachusetts, in July of 1846, refused to pay taxes for fear of the money being used to subsidize the Mexican-American War. In the play, upon hearing of Thoreau’s incarceration, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson rushes to the prison in the night. Peering in through the bars from outside the jail, he asks, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” to which a composed Thoreau replies, “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
Like Thoreau, the activists Deena Guzder describes in Divine Rebels have had enough of the established paradigm, opting instead to stand in the way of injustice, placing their reputations, financial well-being, and even their lives on the line for the sake of their Christian morals. Though Divine Rebels is nonfiction, it flows with an interwoven narrative, connecting the individual stories of “holy mischief-makers,” highlighting Guzder’s superior skills as both a journalist and a story-teller.
Though the book focuses primarily on Christian social activists of the last fifty years (and, regrettably, mostly male figures—what happened to Dorothy Day?), the subjects of Divine Rebels run the gamut of passionate causes—from proponents of racial equality and anti-nuclear-proliferation movements to war tax resisters and ecojustice advocates.
These peaceful revolutionaries are my heroes; As a child, I grew up idolizing folk heroes like Paul Bunyan and Joe Magarac—larger-than-life figures whose roots reach deep into the American psyche of rugged individualism and determination. Later I drew inspiration from historical figures of great power and influence—Harry Truman and J.F.K. Now, I find that the people I admire most are those committed to living lives committed to their strong Christian ethics of hospitality (such as Jim Corbett, the “accidental” advocate of illegal immigrants and the founder of the Sanctuary Movement), peacemaking (like Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll Roman Catholic priest and crusader for the closing of the School of the Americas at Fort Benning) and compassion for the poor (author, activist, and member of the new monastic movement, Shane Claiborne). These spiritual giants are living, breathing proof that Christians with social consciences still exist, and are courageous enough to stand up to the law—at times even willingly breaking it.
Guzder’s book reminds us that we—our churches, our culture—need people like Robin Harper, Daniel Berrigan, and Jim Zweig. It clears away some of the dust that has settled on our mild-mannered, middle-class American Christianity, and recalls the radical core of our faith—women and men who take Christ’s call to love and serve the world quite literally, and at great personal expense.
There are, however, occasional glaring holes in Guzder’s support of these activists. For instance, much is made of Quaker peacemaker Robin Harper’s transference of war tax dollars to nonprofit organizations that promote peacemaking programs, but a defense of his actions in light of Jesus’ teachings is conspicuously absent. What of his critics, who claim that Jesus specifically commanded his followers to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21)? In fact, Guzder frequently avoids any discussion of scriptural reasoning for the actions of her subjects, which some may feel detracts from the validity of their cause. In addition, Divine Rebels sports a liberal bias that even the most free-thinking might find off-putting, often attributing the motives of her subjects to commitment to progressive values or leftist pride and politics.
Divine Rebels resounds loudly and pervasively with the activist’s maxim, If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Guzder’s essays describe women and men who radically napalmed draft records, snuck onto military bases to play Oscar Romero speeches over loudspeakers, camped out in redwood trees, and even smeared their own blood over weapons of mass destruction in a symbolic act of peaceful resistance. However, it might be beneficial to us to remember that Thoreau also once said, “A man can beat so loudly on the eardrums that nobody hears what he is trying to say.” Though we need radical saints and activists to remind us that we must press forward beyond injustice and oppression, there are times when the medium drowns the message. And while I wait expectantly for the day I have the opportunity to be arrested for my own convictions as a Christian, it is fairly safe to say that I will not be splashing my blood over fighter jets or hammering on nuclear warhead nosecones any time soon.