The Christian and Civil Disobedience

By Jeffery Kingry

In the boiling-pot of social turmoil in the sixties many religious people turned-to civil disobedience as their last hope of changing the wrongs that they saw in society. These people despaired of ever seeing any rapid change through the normal democratic processes established by our Constitution and laws. Proponents of civil disobedience defended their breaking of law on the basis that Christians must obey. God rather. than man (Acts, 5:29). Racial discrimination in varying forms was opposed on the grounds that it was immoral, and “sit in’s” were deliberate, peaceful, and public violation of laws; considered to be inferior to, God’s law. Those, that participated justified their behavior on the grounds that their intent was to change the law, not just to break it. The legal right of the state to punish was readily recognized and many accepted prison without resistance. This same form of civil disobedience was practiced by the later draft-card burners, and soldiers who willingly served prison terms rather than serve in Viet Nam.

Unfortunately, peaceful civildisobedience gave seed to another form of law breaking that vas more aggressive. Violent means were used by those who followed the non-violent protesters. Frustration moved some to bombings of public buildings, violent demonstrations, burning, looting, and selected assassination. The SLA is a modern example of the heritage spawned by the nonviolent tactics of earlier law breakers.

Civil disobedience is not a new problem by any means. The early colonists were revolutionaries. They refused to obey certain laws passed by the English Parliament and enforced by George III which they believed were in violation of God given rights guaranteed by the Magna Charta. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed – that when any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. . .” While the Declaration of Independence is, by today’s standards, a most sober and temperate document, its assumptions were couched in the emerging humanism of Thomas Jefferson, not upon Divine will. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are not “unalienable rights.” Man’s right before God is to “Fear God and keep his Commandments” whatever the cost to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. Governments are not instituted and brought down by men, but the powers that be are ordained of God.” They do not derive their just powers from the consent of the governed “For there is no power but of God” (Rom. 13). Neither does man have the right when government becomes tyrannical to “alter it or abolish it.” Rather “let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” When men established “law” and government according as they felt they “did what was right in their own eyes.” It was something characteristic of the establishment of our democratic republic that while “all men are created equal,” slavery, indentured service, child labor, and aborigine genocide was a common part of life at the time under law. Recognizing these things, yet the American system of government was born in a world coming out from under monarchies where “king was supreme.” Socially oriented governments representing the, people in varying degrees in Congresses, Parliaments, Republics, and Soviets were what the people desired, and they overthrew their kings and Czars and emperors to achieve their goal. The U.S., though she fought a revolutionary war to that end, again showed remarkable control and respect for duly instituted government. (Remember that the French revolution ended in anarchy and the indiscriminate slaughter of French nobility, as did the Russian revolution.)

With our historical perspective colored somewhat by the revolutions of times past, many in the church in America today subscribe to the belief that civil disobedience is a justifiable method of correcting unjust or inhumane laws. Supporters of civil disobedience often cite the example of New Testament characters in their defense of social disruption. Peter and John were commanded by the authorities to discontinue their teaching in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:13-21). They

replied that they would follow God’s demands rather than the demands of men. Their open defiance of Jewish authorities brought their repeated imprisonment and ultimate persecution. Christians through the ages continued to violate men’s laws when they conflicted with God’s laws and paid the price of repeated persecutions, imprisonments, burning, and fodder for the Roman circuses.

But, there is a definite difference in the scriptures between civil disobedience for righteousness sake and “suffering for evil doing.” Whenever the Christian or the man ‘of faith’ was confronted with a choice of keeping God’s law or sinning, he chose God regardless of what laws had been framed by man (Cf. Daniel 6; Psa. 94). But the Christian is capable of putting up with a great deal of what we might consider “immoral” abuse and still “knuckel under.” Slavery as a social concept is commonly thought of today as immoral. But, the scriptures teach the Christian who finds himself a slave, should remain a slave offering service to his master as he would offer it unto God himself, “not with eyeservice, as menpleasers: but as the servant of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart” (1 Cor. 7:21-24; Eph. 6:5-9; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Tim. 6:1,2; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:18-20). I do not encourage or condone traffic in human flesh, but God has not condemned slavery as a social and economic evil; on the contrary, he gave us instruction in how to live as a slave. Not only is the Christian not to raise up against the slaveholder, but if one finds himself under the tyrannical rule of a despotic master, he is to “be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the forward. For this is thankworthy, if a man for . conscience sake endure grief, suffering wrongfully” (1 Pet. 2:18,19). Jesus taught slave owners and used the discriminatory relationship of master and Lord as an illustration of our duty to obedience to God (Luke 17:7-9). To be sure, on a spiritual level there is neither slave, or freeman, rich; or poor. But God recognizes social and economic discrimination as a part of life. The Christian who finds himself the brunt of such must maintain his spiritual freedom and liberty, not to do evil (rebellion or disobedience), but to do God’s will (1 Pet..2:12-16).

Causes of Disobedience

There are serious injustices in our world. As in the day of the prophets, the rich get richer at the expense. of the poor and the destitute (Amose 2:6-8; 4:1-3). Judgment and righteousness is sold to the highest bidder in the courts of law (Habakkuk 1:2-4; Amos 5:1013). Often reasonable prospects of obtaining remedy through the law are nonexistant, double standards of law enforcement are often obviously present. Today the frustrated, the dissatisfied, the impatient and hostile speak out in deliberate disobedience to duly constituted law. Once change is effected < through civil. disobedience it then is turned to as a first resort rather than a last one. Electing people to high office, passing laws, and effecting change are methods seen as too slow by the one who wants change now. “Power to the people” is the byword of this revolutionary force.

An attitude is developed among the populace: that each and every person is free to disregard laws he believes to be unjust. Such an attitude leads to anarchy. Often “nobel causes” become corrupt along the way and become an avenue for the unscrupulous and those of impure motive to try similar tactics. The present issues that face Christians and the world aren’t religious as much as they are political. The Christian can endure patiently almost any wrong as long as he is not restricted in worship and evangelism. In such a case, we must obey God rather than man.

What Can I Do?

We can as active citizens in a land that permits and, encourages representative reform use the avenues open, to’ us for that reform: Through lawful petition, voting and lobbying for congressmen and laws which uphold, justice and morality, speaking out in print or in word against injustice and immorality about us, and working to encourage just laws in content and enforcement. We can participate in government and .private programs designed to eliminate or correct social conditions which breed discontent, frustration, and civil disorder. We can, refuse to participate in any disobedience to civil ,law except as it violates God’s will. And we can-eliminate ourselves from the problem by putting our neighbor’s good before our own. Discrimination in housing, education, jobs, law enforcement, or authority because of, nonrelated causes like sex; race, or religion should be put away from the Christian’s life. The Christian must live at peace with all men with as much diligence as he. has within him (Heb. 12:14; Rom. 12:18). Be content to do God’s will without constant thought-to “rights” and “privileges.” Remember that “whosever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: And they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Rom. 13:2).

Truth Magazine XXI: 38, pp. 602-603
September 29, 1977