A strong argument can be made that the primal story of our first parents’ sin is not about pride or disobedience but about acedia. Why do I say this?

Activists practice civil disobedience, occupying coal mining equipment in Germany as part of a 12-day, 30,000-person, 13-nation demonstration against fossil fuels in 2016. Photo by Break Free on Flickr.

First, because the very word “disobedience” means etymologically “a failure to listen.” (Obedire in Latin means “to listen.”)

A failure to listen is clearly an imbalance of the first chakra, whose task it is to take in the sounds of the universe. The first chakra critique of lack of hearing (true disobedience) lays open the areas of sick and sinful obedience that have been very evident through history.

In the modern era I propose that obedience has proven to be a far more serious sin than disobedience. Consider for example the obedience of the mass murderers under Hitler—“I was just following orders,” they declared.

Yes, they were following orders and obeying. But they were not listening to the cries of their victims or to the teachings of justice and compassion that society and religion are supposed to pay heed to. Such sinful disobedience is the opposite of listening.

Students (l-r) Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst of the covert ‘White Rose’ resistance group against Hitler were executed by the Nazis for high treason in 1943 (from Times of Israel; Public Domain).

German theologian Dorothee Soelle, in her book Beyond Mere Obedience, analyzes the dark side of obedience when she points out that

…obedience presupposes duality: one who speaks and one who listens; one who knows and one who is ignorant; a ruler and ruled ones.

Soelle points out that the commandant of the death camp of Auschwitz was raised an obedient Christian.  She also reminds us that as late as the 1950s, a theological lexicon praised obedience as the “central point and key thought of the entire Christian message.”  

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 199f.

Banner Image: View of the defendants in the dock at the International Military Tribunal trial of war criminals in Nuremberg, Bavaria, Germany, November 1945. Photo by Raymond D’Addario on Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

To see the transcript for today’s video teaching, click HERE.

Queries for Contemplation

What follows from understanding “obedience” as listening to the cries of others?  What follows from believing that obedience as ruler and ruled is “the central point of the entire Christian message?”

Recommended Reading

The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human

The A.W.E. Project reminds us that awe is the appropriate response to the unfathomable wonder that is creation… A.W.E. is also the acronym for Fox’s proposed style of learning – an approach to balance the three R’s. This approach to learning, eldering, and mentoring is intelligent enough to honor the teachings of the Ancestors, to nurture Wisdom in addition to imparting knowledge, and to Educate through Fox’s 10 C’s. The 10 C’s are the core of the A.W.E. philosophy and process of education, and include: compassion, contemplation, and creativity. The A.W.E. Project does for the vast subject of “learning” what Fox’s Reinvention of Work did for vocation and Original Blessing did for theology. Included in the book is a dvd of the 10 C’s put to 10 video raps created and performed by Professor Pitt.
An awe-based vision of educational renewal.Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice.

The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood For Our Time

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”
“Fox approaches the level of poetry in describing the reciprocity that must be present between one’s inner and outer work…[A]n important road map to social change.” ~~ National Catholic Reporter

Upcoming Events

“Wisdom, Grace, Love” – a 3-part online lecture series by Caroline Myss, Andrew Harvey, and Matthew Fox, September 8, 15, and 22, 3:00-4:30 pm Pacific (GMT/UTC-7). Learn more HERE.

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15 thoughts on “Disobedience as a Virtue: The Dark Side to Obedience”

  1. Avatar

    Good morning and thank you for your commitment to daily meditations. Also, thanks for reminding educators (myself included) not to take things too personally as we work to find ways to address the needs of our students and a 21st century society. More thanks for mentioning your A.W.E. Book! I work in a small- town SC school and it can be tricky business teaching my content and figuring out how to share values in a way that is ‘permissible’ to the parents at a time when things are so divisive and volatile—I teach seniors and AP juniors and often feel I am on a tightrope when discussing national and global issues—issues of social justice, etc. I look forward to reading the A.W.E. text—

    -Mary O’Dell

    1. Avatar

      Thank you, Mary, for doing what you are doing–walking the tightrope between bringing values into your classroom, while not upsetting the powers that be so much that they close down your classroom. That is not easy. I was a teacher in the late 60s, and it was so much easier then to be creative and to include students in critical thinking. I could not have taught during the Bush Administration when the focus was on test, test, test. I don’t believe I could teach now. Thank you for all you are doing!

    2. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Mary, Thank you sooo much for your comment, and I can tell you from my own experience that you will enjoy reading the A.W.E. Project!

  2. Avatar

    In response to your queries for contemplation in today’s DM, the words “listening to the cries of others,” stands out to me. The Christian message identifies these others as the poor, the widowed, the sick, those oppressed and suppressed, the downtrodden, excetra. When we listen to their cries, the Christian message tells us to respond with kindness, understanding, compassion and mercy, basically all the virtues and characteristics of Divine Love, and that placing our faith, hope and trust in the truth of this inherent goodness within each one of us all, is to be our collective response to the suffering and pain within our world. The Christian message is not only about listening to the cries of these others, but also listening to the cries of the Holy Spirit of Divine Love and her wisdom ways of response regarding the nature, and core values of this Divine Love and it’s movements that lead, guide and prompt us all, to listen and respond from that which is of true meaning and purpose in our lives.

    Recently I had a really challenging conversation with people very close to me, in which I painfully discovered that people do not define these same core values, in the same way. Through this very painful discussion, I became aware that I had absolutes attached to these things that give my life value, meaning and purpose, one of which was that I thought these words were commonly defined. Letting go of these attached absolutes was necessary for me to learn how to listen to different perspectives, perceptions and understandings of these things, based not only on my own lived experiences, but also the lived experiences of others.

    Going through this experience was indeed confusing, frightening and painful, however it was also awakening, transforming and liberating… in the sense that it was a necessary stage of growth in my learning to become a better listener and responder. The rigidity and narrow mindedness of my attachment to absolutes needed to be let go of, and yet the value, meaning and purpose of that which is the foundation upon which I live my life as a Christian remains solid, yet has also now been expanded upon, due to this engagement with others, whom walk a different spiritual path than my own.

    What I also learnt is that in our conversations with one another, it is important for us in our learning to listen to one another, that we take the space needed to define what we mean regarding the words that we are using… rather than assuming that this is common to all. Some words are trigger words to some people and these trigger words often touch another’s wounds, often unconsciously releasing inner pains and fears and the anguish of these things that are in need of being healed and let go of.

    Truly listening and responding is a life long journey of learning, and I take comfort in trusting that I am midwifed through this, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit and her wisdom ways of Divine Love and all that this is… that not only consoles me throughout this learning, but that also counsels me as well. To me all of this is a neccessary part of what means to be loved, to love.

    1. Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your experience and reminding us that listening and clarifying what is meant is so, so important. I have found the same thing with different people understanding words and concepts in different ways from me.

    2. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, You write, “in today’s DM, the words ‘listening to the cries of others,’ stands out to me. The Christian message identifies these others as the poor, the widowed, the sick, those oppressed and suppressed, the downtrodden”–these are the “anawim”–the voiceless ones. And we as Christians are responsible for them. You also speak of engaging with others who walk a different spiritual path than yours. And in these cases we need to listen and hear where they are coming from. If we don’t we will pre-judge them–get it, prejudice…

  3. Avatar

    I am in ‘AWE’ of the fulsome opus of ‘Meister Fox’. It was clearly a Cosmic Blessing that Matthew was banished from hollowed [sic] halls of institutionalized religion and its orthodox dualistic idolatries.

  4. Avatar

    Obedience and disobedience—how are you listening and responding? Your life does make a difference, if you are practicing a long listening in the same direction toward your true Home. #thejourney
    }:- a.m.

  5. Avatar

    Eric Fromm mentions in his book, THE Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, that there are sadistic people all around us. Fromm tells that sadists come out and harm people when there is impunity.

  6. Avatar

    Civil disobedience has a long, illustrious history. Obedience as listening is simply not practiced enough. If it were, we would not have the chaos surrounding us today. I agree so much with Matthew about the toxic individualism that has led to the situation here in Florida, with hospitals stretched beyond the breaking point. Here in Tallahassee, one hospital is looking for more morgue space. At least one young child has died. Despite state efforts to limit the information going out, it is clear that this is the worst record of illness and death to date. The cause is a refusal to follow the classic protocols for preventing the spread of infectious disease or to vigorously educate and encourage people to be vaccinated. As Matthew pointed out, some people cannot tolerate the vaccine, but they are in the minority. Those who cannot tolerate the mask also are probably in the minority and can take other measures to protect their neighbors. The great commandment is broken by people who consider themselves Christians.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Sue, You’re right that civil disobedience has a long history, going back to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And there will always be a need for it. In the meantime we all need to be established in our own mind and be obedient to it…

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