(Sunday Homily) “Citizenfour”: Keeping God’s Law through Civil Disobedience


Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: JER 31: 31-34; PS 51: 3-4, 12-15; JN 12: 20-33 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/032215-fifth-sunday-lent.cfm

I saw “Citizenfour” today. You can see it too. For your own good, please do. The film is live-streamed free here:  https://thoughtmaybe.com/citizenfour/

“Citizenfour” won this year’s Academy Award for best documentary. Its director is Laura Poitras. The film is about whistleblower, Edward Snowden – the 31 year old CIA employee who two years ago leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA).

The information revealed “America’s” massive world-wide spy system that Snowden saw as absolutely eviscerating U.S. constitutional protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

In case you’ve forgotten, the 4th Amendment of the Constitution reads as follows:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In contradiction to those words, Snowden’s revelations show that indeed “Big Brother” is watching us at all times. We are under constant surveillance. None of our e-mails or phone calls is secure.  Telephones normally found in hotel rooms are routinely used as listening devices. All of our e-mail searches are monitored and recorded.

This means that citizens expressing disapproval of government policies are easily identified. So are our constitutionally protected efforts to organize against such policies. All of us are subject to blackmail and prosecution based on stories manufactured from “metadata” and texts gathered by our watchers.

Knowing full well that he would be hunted down and prosecuted (and possibly executed) for his leaks, Edward Snowden shared his information with Laura Poitras and with Guardian reporter, Glen Greenwald. Snowden fled to Russia where he was given temporary political asylum. “Citizenfour” is the upshot.

Of course, Snowden’s opponents say his revelations have endangered national security and that he is guilty of treasonous acts of espionage. In response, the former CIA contractor says the whole matter of government secrecy and surveillance needs full debate. So do extra-judicial killings in the world-wide drone assassination program. Security, Snowden implies, is less important than freedom, privacy, and the lives of innocents arbitrarily killed on mere suspicion of possibly one day harming U.S. citizens. Then there are those disturbing words in the Fourth Amendment. . . .

All of that made me think about today’s liturgy of the word. It’s all about obeying conscience rather than the written law. It’s all about another 30 something law-breaker who rejected absolute security in favor of opposing the authorities of his time.  Think about the readings one-by-one.

The first (from the prophet Jeremiah) reminds us that God’s law is not primarily found on tablets of stone. It is inscribed on our hearts. Without invoking “God,” that’s the law Edward Snowden claims to follow – a law much higher than the 1917 Espionage Act invoked against him.

According to today’s responsorial psalm, a heart shaped by God’s law is good and merciful; it is compassionate, forgiving, and guilt-free. Laura Poitras’ film shows Snowden exhibiting all of those qualities. There is not a trace of self-seeking in any of his actions or statements – only concern for others victimized by the state.

It is that heart sensitive to God’s internal law that Jesus manifested. But, like Ed Snowden, it took him great pain to get to that place. Today’s second reading specifically mentions Jesus’ “loud cries and tears,” his anguished prayers and supplications.

Finally, today’s selection from the Gospel of John reiterates the call to follow Jesus, even as Snowden has without any specific reference to Jesus.  Our reading has the Master say that “serving” him means walking the way of the cross. In other words, we must learn his same lessons about rejection that always follows hard upon adoption of Jesus’ counter-cultural “Way.”

A seed has to die before it can bear fruit, Jesus explains. That’s our Teacher’s metaphor about exchanging what the world calls “life,” for what John’s gospel calls “eternal life.”

As in contemporary “America,” the world’s utopian ideal enshrines perfect security – saving our lives at all costs, even if it means wholesale killing of others, even if it means surrendering the God-given freedom that makes us specifically human.

By contrast, Jesus’ Way enshrines compassion, service and forgiveness, even if it costs us our lives.

Ironically, Jesus explains, if we expend our resources on saving our lives, we will lose them. But if we reject security as our guiding principle, we’ll gain access to “eternal life” – access to God’s Kingdom, where God is King, not Caesar.

Mysteriously, today’s final reading instructs us against loving our lives. It actually says we should hate our life in this world. Edward Snowden shows what that injunction means. His courageous example calls us to oppose Big Brother, and to support Snowden’s own return to the United States – as a hero.

Be sure to see “Citizenfour.” It exemplifies today’s readings. It’s about opposing the values of “the world,” and about losing one’s life in favor of life’s fullness. It provides an example of a young man following the Law of God inscribed deep in our hearts. That’s our vocation.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “(Sunday Homily) “Citizenfour”: Keeping God’s Law through Civil Disobedience”

  1. Edward Snowden perfectly uncovers the US government’s fear and hatred of anyone who would reveal the truth behind the lies it tells the public. Those government lies seek to conceal the vast conspiracy of evil that our nation has become under the domination of rich and powerful people and their corporations – which are simply criminal enterprises conducted to exploit the public at large. This huge nightmare reality of our “way of life” is so obvious once one dares to see it, that is clear why those supporting it have gone to such lengths to hide it from public view. Our whole culture is an ugly house of cards built of lies. Our only hope is for enough people to wake up to the reality of our perilous situation. We need thousands of Snowdens to rip away the emperor’s phony clothes!


  2. I agree with Mike K, totally. He has put into words exactly what I have been saying for so long. Sometimes, persons to whom I voice my opinion about this situation in our nation look at me as if I am demented. I feel like a ‘voice crying in the wilderness,’ quoting the ancient seer from millennia ago.

    There are a few names that I immediately identify as sources in forming my opinions:
    Sheldon Adelson, the Koch Brothers, AIPAC, Neocons, SCOTUS, right wing so-called Christians who represent the antithesis of what Jesus lived and taught, as well as others, too many to cite here.

    The chief culprit who must be named is the Evil One, the Great Deceiver, the father of all spiritual warfare who knows our weaknesses better than we do and who uses them against us so cleverly that we do not recognize or even admit to ourselves that we are blindly trading our souls to that evil — the evil that is already fully in control of our legislative, banking, and mass media entities. We are kept amused and distracted and materially sated by ‘entertainment’ and by consumer goods that have blinded us to the frightening reality that is and that bodes almost unstoppable for our future.

    What must we do as individuals and as a concerned, informed electorate to ‘rip away the emperor’s phony clothes’? Term limits in ALL branches of government from national to local is an excellent place to begin. The reality is, however, that such action would never make it through the present sitting Congress and state legislatures because they’ve already been bought and paid for and will continue to do the bidding of their puppet masters. Amending the Constitution could leave us open and vulnerable for negative forces to seek input that could be worse than what we now have. It seems that no matter whom we vote for the die has been cast. Take to the streets?
    Take a good look at what is occurring within our local law enforcement agencies. Be aware of the armaments and mechanized steel-plated war machines and super guns and ammo (including chemical weapons) that these agencies are now acquiring through government fire sales of anti-personnel offensive equipment left over from the Middle East wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am remembering here the futile bloody attempts at revolt by unarmed civilians confronting tanks in the streets of Budapest (Hungary, 1956) and in Tiananmen Square (Peking, China, 1989).

    Our Incarnate God, Jesus the Christ, faced these problems and answered these questions and showed us the way over 2000 years ago. We did not like His approach or His message then so we silenced Him by crucifixion – nailed and splayed naked to a tree — the Innocent One who came to show us the depth of God’s love for us and to save us from ourselves. We still have not gotten His message. Does He ask too much of us by the imperative that we seek justice and compassion for the poor and suffering and for human rights for ALL peoples of the earth?

    We had better decide soon and act upon our godly convictions before it is too late. We need to listen to the dire messages of the prophets among us, many of whom have already been silenced by death or imprisonment.


  3. Watching this movie makes my blood boil.
    Clearly it is time for action, not sermons.
    The pope if he is our representative of truth shud say it .If this blog comments can why cant he?
    How come he will not. Becauie our beliefs, values, as catholics is part of the problem, and he has too many irons in the power and money game.
    What is his US caper intended to do?
    Lets wait for it and we will find the answer,
    Dont rock the boat.
    There are too many of us, his own, on board,



    I re-read your post and viewed the video – twice.

    My reaction to the video was the same both times: chilling; depressing – like a full-fisted sucker punch to the solar plexus! I have tried to keep current with Snowden’s grueling saga via various sources while trying to grasp the enormity of the price that he is paying for his decision. (I find it ironic that he sought and received sanctuary in Russia. President Obama must be fuming. Both Putin and Netanyahu have rubbed his face in the dirt recently – further adding to our nation’s shame in the eyes of the world.)

    The most immediate question that one can ask after viewing the video is: How was this allowed to happen in our nation? We were once the greatest experiment in democracy that the world has ever seen — a beacon of hope – an enviable standard of liberty and freedom that other countries have tried to emulate, not always successfully.

    I fear knowing the answers to these questions because of the future reality they may portend and the feeling of impotence that they have engendered. I wonder, too, how this terrible travesty can be stopped — or is it too late?

    We citizens are negligent in our responsibility to our democratic nation by abrogating our responsibility to be vigilant in safeguarding our Constitutional rights and in failing to monitor the covert actions of our elected leadership and government agencies (and paid lobbyists who do not represent us). We have given them carte blanche. We have given away the store!

    Our government’s next action against its citizens that will further erode our Constitutional rights? The sub-cutaneous insertion of a computer chip in our bodies — all this of course for our ‘protection’ in the name of ‘national security.’
    Orwellian? Not really. Veterinarians and animal protective agencies have been doing this for some time.

    I am having a little difficulty in relating the Scripture readings to the application of Snowden’s specific situation. This is my fault, not yours, Mike. It is something that I need to work on using my library of Scripture commentaries and other exegetical material. Wish I were back auditing classes at our local colleges where I was often able to sit in on study groups.

    Thank you for a much needed posting, Mike.


    1. Alice, I so appreciate your comments. They are always so full and thoughtful. Thank you. I was afraid I hadn’t made a strong enough connection with Sunday’s readings. The biblical point I was trying to make was: (1) Jeremiah foresaw a time when God’s Law would be inscribed on everyone’s heart; (2) Jesus embodied that condition; he kept the Law by disobeying “the law;” (3) Ed Snowden presents us with similar embodiment today; (4) we should consider him a hero.


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