Book Feature Friday: Crossing The Line by Rosalie Riegle

crossing the lineIntroduction:

 “Peaceful, law-abiding…” In clichéd phrases, the latter adjective follows after the former automatically, as if the one were equivalent to the other. Any nation will condition its citizens to believe that the law is a benevolent instrument serving the protection and prosperity of the people. But with violence at the root of civilization and so deeply woven into national structures, fundamental aspects of national law protect some by threatening others and keep order by keeping systems of poverty and oppression in place. Nations that allocate significant portions of their budgets for “defense” do so at the expense of their most vulnerable, as well as threaten the peace of citizens of other nations. For all the good that many laws do, laws that protect the policies and weapons that keep the gears of violence turning, upon which the world revolves toward its own destruction, must be challenged for the sake of peace and prosperity, sometimes from beyond their boarders. In order to build lasting peace and promote the welfare and dignity of every human being, sometimes it is necessary to “cross the line.”

Rosalie Riegle’s powerful oral history, Crossing The Line, is a compelling counter-narrative to the myth of benevolent violence that subtly underlies national structures. History books divide time into periods of war; lines on international maps divide space into zones that armies will fight to protect; the praises of generals and commanders-in-chief are sung, and the peacemakers, whom Jesus calls “blessed,” are all too often overlooked. In a world structured on violence, it is necessary for peacemakers to be prophetic, counter-cultural voices, willing to break violent laws with nonviolent resistance and trade comfortable complacency for the consequences of witness. Dr. Riegle found and interviewed 173 of these modern-day prophets in a 2-volume collection of witness narratives. While the companion piece to this volume, Doing Time for Peace, has a familial focus, Crossing the Line has a historical focus, tracing the peace movement from World War II onward through the stories of those who lived it. The narrators are diverse and their experiences vary widely, but they are united by courage and integrity. Many are priests and Catholic Workers who follow the Prince of Peace by disturbing the peace of the status quo that justifies, glorifies and necessitates war. Some are Protestant, some Jewish, some are agnostic or atheist, but all have faith in humanity, faith in a future beyond our self-destructive tendencies. Risking and accepting incarceration, they are freed from the shackles of violent ideology which bind and blind so many. With honesty, humility and humor, Rosalie Riegle amplifies their stories, bringing healing and hope to a world breaking down under the weight of conquest and vengeance.

3 Concerns About Civil Disobedience

I want to address three common concerns about civil disobedience, using examples from Dr. Riegle’s book to advocate for its faithfulness, morality, and efficacy. Perhaps one of the most important questions to a Christian reader is something along the lines of: “How is civil disobedience an expression of faith in Jesus?” A related question that might be asked by people of any or no faith is, “Isn’t there an element of violence in civil disobedience, in the defiance of orders and the (sometimes) destruction of property?” A third question might be, “What are the practical results of civil disobedience? What difference does it make?” Some (if not all) of the narrators wrestled with some version of some of these questions themselves, and not all came to the same conclusions. But a culture that upholds the status quo discourages even struggling with these questions, let alone coming to the conclusion that breaking the law can be a faithful, just and effective way to bring positive change. Though the narrators came to their own conclusions, their collective message vindicates civil disobedience as a form of peacemaking in all three of these respects.

What Does It Have To Do With Faithfulness?

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,'” (Matthew 9:13; Hosea 6:6)

Perhaps most importantly for our purposes at The Raven Foundation, I want to argue that civil disobedience, renamed “gospel obedience” or “divine obedience” by some of the narrators, is a faithful witness to the Prince of Peace, who defied certain interpretations of Torah, became ritually unclean and violated the Sabbath in order to heal, and, in short, crossed all kinds of cultural and ritual lines, casting himself out to draw the outcast in. When Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” he was not only critiquing the rituals of the Temple; he was also critiquing the sacrificial system of violence, expulsion and scapegoating upon which human civilization had been founded. Any system that sets up barriers between insiders and outsiders is violent at its root and a hallmark of empire.

Policies like the draft and war machines like missiles are tools of sacrifice, designed to ensure identity and solidarity among those on the inside by threatening those on the outside. Prisons, also, set barriers between “good citizens” and “criminals.” While some people may be so destructive that they warrant separation from society, many people are imprisoned for minor or nonviolent crimes, prisons disproportionately incarcerate the poor and people of color, and, as this book shows, conditions for prisons are often inhumane and deny the dignity of those who occupy them. The people that we reduce to targets or collateral damage through war and the prisoners whom we deem irredeemable are both dehumanized by our faith in violence, violence that we cannot recognize as we wield it, mythologizing it as “defense” or “keeping order.”

To be merciful is to defy a world structured on sacrificial violence. It is to proclaim that wars deny the image of God in every human being and acknowledge that those killed, wounded, orphaned, left without homes or families or adequate living conditions, are victims who cannot be disappeared but must be recognized, heard, and named. And when that kind of mercy is resisted, as it is sure to be, the merciful are cast out, imprisoned, and thus given the opportunity to continue to show mercy to others who are disappeared and forgotten. Peacemakers who defy the laws that prop up our war machines, identifying with the prisoners who are cast out of our society, witness against the sacrifice of the “other” by sacrificing themselves instead. I can hardly think of a better example of “taking up one’s cross,” which doesn’t mean suffering needlessly but rather following Jesus in the difficult task of making peace in a hostile world. It is following the gospel and resisting the idolatry of empire. As Plowshares (a movement in which peacemakers pound missiles or military equipment with hammers to symbolically beat “swords into plowshares”) activist Art Laffin says,

It’s God’s movement. It’s calling us to respect and protect all life. There’s Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies. And the prophets Isaiah and Micah. And the commandments, “Thou shalt not kill,” and “Thou shalt not have strange gods before Me.” We shouldn’t worship gods of metal!

But Is It Really Nonviolent?

Some of the narrators in Dr. Riegle’s account came under scrutiny from others within the peace movement for breaking the law, and particularly for damaging property. From burning draft files to destroying weapons (as German Plowshares activist Wolfgang Sterstein, who destroyed the electrical armament of a missile launcher, did), destruction of property is considered “crossing a line” by some who agree with the intentions behind the actions. People who prefer to work within the system to change laws may complain that breaking laws hurts the peace movement, that action too radical will polarize and drive people away.

No doubt some people are put off by those who engage in acts of civil disobedience, especially when they destroy property. But no amount of damage done to weapons could ever be comparable to the damage done by weapons. There is an irony to those who would consider destruction of weapons harmful, a failure to recognize that destruction of weapons is protection of what is infinitely more precious: life. In his narrative, Art Laffin quotes renowned activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who famously burned draft files in what came to be known as the “Catonsville Nine” action: “Better to burn paper than children.”

Most of the people Dr. Riegle interviews are absolutely committed to nonviolence as more than a tactic, as rather a philosophy or even a theology. Some even consider their “divine obedience” an act of prayer, and I would agree. Power structures that uphold weapons and warmaking may try to paint a picture of resisters who engage in property-destroying activities as violent, but in pointing this accusatory finger they distract from their own victims, flesh-and-blood human beings.

Does It Really Work?

This is a difficult question, and one on which the narrators themselves seem to be divided. When it comes to the efficacy of civil disobedience, one can point to a rich history, both in the United States and worldwide. Yet wars rage on, disarmament is continually set back, and even when gains are made, the forces of empire seem to find ways to undermine them. For example, Marty Harris, who was jailed for protesting Vietnam, explains,

Now, it did change things. We stopped the draft. But…was that all good? I don’t know! Now we’ve got all this other foolishness. Paid mercenaries, basically. There’s no “will of the people.”

In a society that measures everything on efficiency and results, putting oneself at risk against the imperial machine can seem futile. Most peacemakers have to judge their actions by standards that are at odds with the world — not by results but by integrity and faithfulness. David Gardner, who was arrested for protesting the Iraq war, recalls this conversation with his bewildered father:

My dad… told me “I understand this war is really bad, and I understand you’re angry about it, and I understand that it’s hard to get media coverage for your protest, so sometimes you have to get arrested in order to get on TV.” I said, “Well, Dad, we didn’t call the press. Nobody saw it except for Catholic Workers and about twenty people kind of associated with us.” “What did you do it for, then?” And that was actually the hardest one to respond to, because he made a little too much sense!

Yet even though civil disobedience may not bring an end to wars (and whether they have any role to play in ending wars is something the powers will rarely admit), both the action and the consequence of jail time can bring changes to hearts and minds. They can be mercies in themselves and bring about opportunities for mercies. For example, once imprisoned, peacemakers can make a difference in the lives of the prisoners. This book is filled with stories of peacemakers who used nonviolent tactics to minister to prisoners in need or even change systemic abuses. One activist was able to change a seemingly minor rule (stating that if someone went to get more food for himself, he was not allowed to take back food for someone else) by defying it until it was changed. Because of him, prisoners could show a little more kindness to one-another. Another activist, Fr. Steve Kelly, refused to cooperate with his jailers and was given solitary confinement as a consequence, but later it was revealed that his defiance almost disrupted the whole structure of the prison. Bill Frankle-Streit shares the story of how he followed in Fr. Kelly’s footsteps in the same prison:

They pleaded with me — and I’m not exaggerating — they were practically on their knees, saying, “Just program. Don’t turn this place upside down.” You know, the powers put up the propaganda that nonviolence is ineffective, but I don’t think the authorities themselves really believe that. They just want us to believe it!


We don’t have to believe in the propaganda of empire. We can believe in something much better. We can believe in the nonviolent love that takes risks for the sake of others, in the witness of those who sacrifice themselves because they refuse to sacrifice others, in the power of mercy to break down the fortress of our war-glorifying mythology. We can have enough faithfulness in humanity to stand up for the victims of our wars and identify with the prisoners in our jails.

And we can look to the witness of the inspiring role models who dared to cross the line for peace and justice, who embody hope and are a light to the world enthralled in the darkness of violence.

Author Rosalie Riegle

Author Rosalie Riegle

Next week, I will have an opportunity to interview Dr. Rosalie Riegle and talk more in-depth about some of the fascinating people she has interviewed, their experiences of both their resistance and the consequences (including trials and time in prison). I eagerly invite you all to send questions you may have about civil disobedience, peace activism, the Catholic Worker movement in which Dr. Riegle is heavily involved, or any others you may think of, that I can then pass along when we speak. The video of our conversation will air on Martin Luther King Day, in remembrance not only of him alone, but of all those inspired to actions of “divine obedience” for peace and justice, following in the footsteps of not only Dr. King, but of the Prince of Peace.

Crossing the Line is available for purchase on

5 replies
  1. Bill Watson
    Bill Watson says:

    Certainly non-violent resistance is better than violent resistance. I wonder, though, if it’s really the same as the non-resistance Jesus advocated (“Do not resist evil”). Is it possible that even non-violent resistance is still based on an us-versus-them structure of rivalry?

    • Lindsey Paris-Lopez
      Lindsey Paris-Lopez says:

      I understand your question, Bill, and I think, in practice, it might be very hard for resisters not to draw an “us” vs. “them” line between themselves and people who are involved in the military or law enforcement industries. But I think if we constantly remind ourselves of our own capacity of violence, to humble ourselves, and we also remember the good in the people who uphold the policies we seek to change, we can do our best to remember that resistance is for the sake of everyone, including the very people who would arrest or press charges against the resisters! I think it’s important to keep Ephesians 6:12 in mind: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I think this speaks very much to the cause of nonviolent resistance and the struggle against systemic violence.

      The context of Jesus’s admonition not to resist evil is very, very important. First of all, he does not exactly tell his listeners not to resist evil, but not to resist an evil person or an evildoer. The struggle against systemic violence and oppression is not to be conceived of in terms of violence or retaliation against people. Jesus is telling people to break the cycle of vengeance, and that in itself is a defiance of the order of the social and cultural standards of his day. He goes on to suggest three ways in which one may respond to an injustice that cause no physical harm but actually reaffirm one’s own dignity and subverts cultural norms. Jesus’ audience would have understood this. In his culture, one could only slap someone on the right cheek with the back of (usually his) hand… this was an insult that denoted the “slapee” as beneath him. To strike on the left cheek, one would either have to use the back of his left hand (which wasn’t done) or use the front of his right hand (or his fist). To strike with the front of one’s hand is to say: “I’m furious with you… but I acknowledge you as my equal.” Similarly, to give someone a your cloak is to render yourself naked, and the shame was not on the naked one, but on the one who observed nakedness. Finally, can you imagine someone forcing you to carry a bag for one mile and, when he says, “That’s enough; give it back” to just keep walking? Suddenly, you have someone chasing after you saying “Hey, wait up!” And now you have the control! Roman soldiers would frequently force the Jews of Jesus’s time to carry their equipment, but according to law, they could only do so for 1 mile. After that, someone refusing to give up the soldier’s stuff would be forcing the soldier to break the law! Walter Wink goes into great detail in this in his Powers series (See “The Powers That Be” for the highlights of that series in a single volume).

      Overall, we need to understand the subversive nature of the Sermon On The Mount from which this teaching comes. Jesus is overturning the violence at the foundation of the world with a way of love and forgiveness, but a world that resists forgiveness will experience that forgiveness as resistance!

      And again, we must remember that the victims of systemic violence are real human beings… they are all of us. For the sake of all of us, we must resist the violence that is so deeply embedded in our culture. And sometimes that will mean nonviolently defying laws that uphold systemic violence, as it did for Civil Rights, women gaining the right to vote, or for the 90-year-old Florida gentleman who recently defied the law by feeding homeless people in a park. When mercy and compassion are against the law, sometimes the most loving thing to do even for the sake of the lawmakers is cross the line.

      • Bill Watson
        Bill Watson says:

        That may be, although I doubt the point of the teaching is to say that our heavenly Father is a passive-aggressive manipulator; rather, He always intends only good towards us, even if our shame may prevent us from perceiving it as goodness. But my larger concern is that when we invite others to make us their victims, we may also be inviting the bystanders who look on to actually see us as victims, and thus take our side over and against those who victimize us. Which would not contribute to reconciliation, but to an escalation of hostility. Perhaps we can imitate Jesus in being forgiving victims, but we also risk being blinded to the ways in which we victimize others when we take the identity of victims for ourselves.

        • Lindsey Paris-Lopez
          Lindsey Paris-Lopez says:

          Bill, your last sentence is absolutely spot-on. I completely agree that we risk being blinded to the ways we victimize others when we take the identity of the victim, and that is something to be on guard against constantly.

          I also understand where you are coming from when you say “I doubt the point of the teaching is to say that our heavenly Father is a passive-aggressive manipulator.” I agree, that is not the point of the teaching… and I see how you might have seen the explanation of “turning the other cheek = nonviolent resistance” as passive-aggressive manipulation. I think I had a similar reaction the first time I heard that explanation. But I no longer see it that way. The point I was trying to make is that turning the cheek, giving your cloak, and going the extra mile *are* all forms of nonviolent resistance, resistance to a system that told people they were lesser, resistance that can be practiced nonviolently by those who had never seen themselves as having any power in order to subvert the power dynamics. Jesus’s followers would have understood that immediately. But the point is *not* to shame the powerful, it is simply to assert equality. It is to bridge the divide between the powerless and the powerful in an nonviolent way. The divide itself is violence. Turning the other cheek is asserting equality. Giving one’s coat and going the extra mile put the other person in an awkward position, but by giving them that perspective, the point is not to shame them but to make them realize that they were never above and the people they were oppressing were never “below” in the first place. I think of the problem as being the social divide that kept some people below others, and Jesus’s instructions are creative problem-solving techniques for the people who are kept below. It is a way of removing violence from the picture which refuses both to acquiesce to violence committed against oneself and to perpetuate the cycle by retaliating in violence.

          Nonviolent resistance is a recognition that the law itself is violent. Plowshares actions, for example, that symbolically hammer on military equipment, remind us that real victims die as a result of our weapons every day. Thousands, in fact, as we are the world’s leading supplier of weapons on multiple sides of multiple conflicts. One can argue against unjust laws without breaking them, but all who act to change unjust laws nonviolently, from within or outside of the law, should, I believe, support one-another. Allowing unjust laws that perpetuate systemic violence to go unchallenged is to acquiesce to violence; helping to change those laws is helping to heal what is broken in society. So the primary reason to act is to heal a broken world, and to realize that we are all better off when people are not killed and the environment is not destroyed in war. (Ending war is the best thing for everyone, including the military, for the sake of the people and the environment.)

          The result of such actions is often jail, and people who are arrested for nonviolent action could indeed stir up violent sentiment against the police and the judicial system and prison systems. This would be a very unfortunate side effect, because you are right that it could perpetuate violence. This is why I believe it is important to have a philosophy of total nonviolence that can be articulated and lived out in practice so as to discourage retaliation. Constantly reiterating that actions are taken against systems and policies rather than people is a way to start, but it should be backed up with a way of life that is humble and gentle, but firmly committed to justice. In the book, there are stories of resisters who became friends with police officers and recognized their struggle, too, and provided them with compassionate listening because of the very same dedication to nonviolence that prompted them to transgress unjust laws. I also think it is important for people who risk prison by choice to empathize and identify but not confuse themselves with people who are imprisoned against their will. Jails are disproportionately filled with people who are poor or racially discriminated against, whose crimes are often nonviolent, and the time served by poor people is often much longer than that served by those who can afford bail or richer lawyers. The need to remember one’s privilege even within prison and empathize with others in prison could, I think, be a very tricky balance in practice.

          Perhaps it would be helpful to end with an explanation of “Satayagraha” from Ghandi, which I think expresses why I think direct action is one of the most loving things to do in a world in need of healing: “I have also called it [satayagraha] love-force or soul-force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and compassion. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to the other. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on oneself.” (taken from Wikipedia, which took it from The Collected Works of Mahatma Ghandi).

          I appreciate your food for thought, and look forward to Rosalie’s answer to your question as well.

          • Bill Watson
            Bill Watson says:

            Thank you for allowing me to provoke such thorough, thoughtful answers from you. I do wonder if we should be depriving people of the sacrificial mechanism for attaining peace, since that seems to only result in an escalation of violence unless they are first lead to the peace as Jesus gives it. I find my current grasp of mimetic theory makes it seem highly ambiguous in application since I feel like I can use it to “read” things in completely opposite ways. I ask these kinds of questions because I’m seeking clarity.


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