We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.
–from Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Last week, Matt referred to Romans 13, in which Paul writes that we are to obey the authority of government, since God is ultimately working out his sovereign designs through it: namely justice (punishing the wrongdoers and protecting the innocent) and grace (both supplying moral direction and providing for the common good of the citizens). Matt has given us a firm foundation for government, which includes the general imperative that we are to obey the laws that our government writes. This rule, however, inevitably introduces the question: should Christians, then, obey immoral laws? We can see two different laws arising, even prima facie (this is a useful Latin phrase meaning, “on the first appearance,” or “at the first glance”): the law of man and the Law of God. Naturally, if a conflict arises between these two laws, the Law of God takes precedence over the law of man. Any human law, then, contradicting the divine Law is unjust, which is what led St. Augustine to write: “for it seems to me that an unjust law is no law at all” (On Free Choice of the Will, V).
To help support this claim, let’s examine some examples from the Bible. The Hebrew midwives in Egypt were commanded by Pharaoh to kill all of the newborn Hebrew boys, but”[they] feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them […]” (Ex. 1:17). Once again, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refused to bow down to the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had built (Dan. 3), and Daniel ignored the edict given by King Darius that for 30 days no man should pray to anyone but him (Dan. 6). Even the apostles were forced to choose between obeying God and obeying men. Peter and John were thrown into prison for preaching the gospel, and when they were brought on trial and commanded not to preach in the name of Jesus, John spoke up: “Whether it is right before God to obey you rather than God, you decide […]” (Acts 4:20). In each of these examples, there is a direct conflict between human and divine law. The Hebrew midwives would have been violating the commandment saying “Thou shalt not kill,” Daniel and his friends would have been breaking another that says “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20), and the apostles would have been forsaking the Great Commission given to them by Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20).
These people of God, however, did not place themselves above the law, but accepted the consequences of breaking it. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace, Daniel into the lions den, and the apostles into prison, even though God later delivered all of them. In summary so far, direct variance with God’s law and willingness to accept the legal consequences of breaking the unjust law are necessary conditions to justify breaking an unjust law; this position is defended by Kerby Anderson in his article Civil Disobedience. Furthermore, he claims that it is not justifiable to break just laws in the process of breaking a law that conflicts with God’s Law.
It is really impossible to even think about Civil Disobedience in 21st century America without considering Martin Luther King Jr. He encouraged people all across the United States to protest the unjust laws of segregation, founded on and continuing to spawn racism. In perhaps his most famous writing, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he explained the necessary grounds for and proper means of civil disobedience. He wrote this letter as a response to evangelicals who were criticizing his methods after being thrown in jail for peaceful protesting. This letter is moderately long, but definitely a worth-while read for anyone wanting to understand civil disobedience in a Christian context. I would really encourage you to take a few minutes and read it sometime (click the link above). In his famous Letter, Martin Luther King Jr. gives a more practical outline to civil disobedience in four steps:
- Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist
- Direct action
The first is self-explanatory. It must be clearly demonstrated that injustice exists prior to civil disobedience. Secondly, the natural channels for protest and changing the law must be exhausted. One should try to change the law before simply disobeying it. In many ways, the third step is the most important: self-purification. One must get rid of all feelings of hatred and revenge and prepare to be persecuted and punished by the law (this includes full willingness to accept the legal consequences of breaking the unjust law, as stated above). Then and only then, after the first three steps have been taken, is it justifiable to peaceably break the law through direct action.
Given the kind of democracy that we live in, we have tremendous power to change the law, to diminish injustice and promote justice. In our situation, then, steps 1 & 2 probably require a significant amount of effort, before one can arrive at 3 & 4. In fact, African Americans had been striving for political equality for an entire century since they had been “freed” after the end of the Civil War, although they were still very much socially “enslaved.” The combination of the massive injustices of racism and the fact that the Civil Rights movement for African Americans was at a political stalemate was what justified this peaceful civil disobedience.
It is not hard to understand how civil disobedience plays out with respect to a law that directly conflicts with God’s Law, but what about more radical approaches? Is it permissible to break certain just laws in a rather harmless way in order to draw the attention needed to get unjust laws changed? Or can revolution or assassination of a heinously unjust leader (such as Hitler) be justified? Although there is not room enough to fully address these more difficult questions here, I would direct you to something that Dr. King mentions in his letter. He refers to being arrested for parading without a license (an example of breaking just laws in order to try to change unjust ones), although he claims that those enforcing the permit-law were doing so on unjust grounds (laws concerning parade permits are meant to help keep the peace, not enforce racial segregation). Furthermore, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, was involved in plots to assassinate Hitler during WWII, and whether his involvement was moral or not greatly troubled him. Perhaps you, the reader, can provide some feedback on these questions, or good examples of this kind of action seeming to be just.
On a hopeful note, I would like to relate briefly something that I read this week, an account from the Old Testament that demonstrates how political channels can be used to promote justice. At the end of the Babylonian captivity, the Israelites were sent back to Jerusalem by Cyrus the Great to rebuild the temple. Under the rule of Artaxerxes, however, they were stopped by unjust political manipulation. But when Darius became king, the people were led by the prophets to resume building. When asked on what grounds they had begun to construct again, they cited the authority that Cyrus had given them. A message was sent to the king saying: “Now if the king is so inclined, let a search be conducted in the royal archives there in Babylon in order to determine whether King Cyrus did in fact issue orders for this temple of God to be rebuilt in Jerusalem […]” (Ezra 5:17a). When Darius learned of the favor Cyrus had showed to the Israelites, he happily supported them in their efforts.
I hope this helps establish how we are supposed to interact with our government as Christians. Although there are more particulars to be worked out, perhaps you can help us out, Matt, with some practical application for these ideas in your response this week.
James, the younger brother.