Civil Disobedience: A Tale of Two Laws

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:

  1. Collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist
  2. Negotiation
  3. Self-purification
  4. 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.


    7 Responses to Civil Disobedience: A Tale of Two Laws

    1. NoPockets says:

      This is another one of those things I have only vaguely thought about and your post is making me feel badly (in a good, constructive way) for having not ever gotten around to looking more deeply into facts about when and how to disobey the government when God’s law is being broken.

      I feel that we are lucky to not have been involved in a large scale oppression in our lifetimes like what the Jews and others in under Nazi control were. I would like to think I would do that which is acceptable and pleasing to God, but I have absolutely no assurance of that, having not been tested. Even though there is no such testing in sight, I am thinking I should be more constantly aware of my government and #2’s assertion that we should put a lot of effort into negotiations to keep our government’s laws withing God’s own laws. It seems that if all goes well, #1 and #2 are all you need to do (a little idealistic, but still, we shouldn’t skip to #3 without putting much effort into protesting that which is not aligned with God’s purpose for our lives) and that skipping to civil disobedience could be seen as a lazy way of dealing with legal injustice.

      I have viewed the trial and execution of terrorists in a similar light as Bonhoeffer – is it right and just under the New Covenant? I agree that what they did is wrong and that there will be natural and associated consequences for killing thousands of innocent people. Still, is it our right to take their life for it? Who was wronged most – us or God? I would argue God, so the right to judge and to execute is up to Him. The same goes for any death sentence. At the end of the day, I personally feel that it is morally wrong, but I know many Christians feel that it is just punishment and security for the future. It is a fine balance between executing someone to keep them from doing such wrong again and as an example to others of their kind that government will not allow injustice of that kind and in taking the power from God to take a life. I am interested to know what everyone else thinks ….

    2. James says:

      Wow, I can tell that you’ve been thinking about my post by the length of your comment. First of all, you shouldn’t feel that bad, because I hadn’t really thought about civil disobedience until I started researching it for this post. I was interested to find as much support for it in the Bible as I did (today, I thought of the whole book of Esther as an example of how to carry out civil disobedience).

      I definitely sympathize with your comment about how fortunate we are to live in a democratic society apart from political and religious oppression. This does, though, impress upon us the burden of participating in government, which is something that most Americans fail to do. How is it that the freest nation in the world is also the most apathetic? It’s not just about voting, either, but about being informed and involved in decision making. As you said, ideally we should stop unjust laws from being passed, instead of having to protest them when they are.

      Furthermore, I can relate to the feelings you have about capital punishment, an issue that I have wavered on since I was first confronted with it in 9th grade GT. One thing to consider in defense of capital punishment is that God, who is perfectly merciful, established the law in the OT saying that certain trespasses warrant death. Although we should not take justice into our own hands (God is the only judge), this does not mean that God cannot use human institutions such as government to carry out his justice. While nothing can be decided about this issue in a mere comment, I do appreciate the general point that you have raised, namely that the penal system should be largely aimed at correction and rehabilitation instead of condemnation, since these are the foundational principles of the gospel. We cannot neglect, however, that Paul writes in Romans 13,4: “[The government] is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” Perhaps Matt and I will look into this question in the future.

    3. Peter Furst says:

      I’m interested to know how you reconcile a passage such as 1 Peter 2:13-, which deals with submission to rulers and masters. The principle message of Peter’s letter is for Christians to live godly and good lives, and in chapters 2 and 3 he applies to being in submission to rules, masters and husbands.

      In 1 Peter 2:18, he calls on slaves to submit to their masters with all respect, even to those that are harsh. As such, Peter would seem to be discouraging any kind of disobedience, even to something as abhorant as abusive slavery. I share with MLK in thinking that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and as such see defying injustice as an act of godliness.

      Obviously a Christian doesn’t like to be in the position of disagreeing with Peter’s application of living as a Christian, but I do. The only way I can reconcile what Peter says is to think that he was writing from a position where he thought Jesus’ return was very imminent and therefore there was no sense wasting time trying to change the problems of the world, it was best just to accept them because it would all be over soon anyway and focus on converting those around you.

      This is the only way I can reconcile what is written, but this opens a Pandora’s Box. Am I free to disregard any passages that don’t agree with me? And can others do the same? Does what the Bible has to say on topics like homosexuality, women priests and recreational drugs matter?

      How can you reconcile a passage like 1 Peter 2 without casting a shadow on the rest of the Bible’s teaching?

      I look forward to reading your thoughts.

    4. James says:

      To answer your most general question, Peter, I would say that you are not free to disregard passages of the Bible that are difficult or seemingly-incompatible with our modern world, since “all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching and rebuking…” (2 Tim 3:16)

      Perhaps this post is best framed by one that came before it that Matt wrote: “Attaque: What’s in a Government.” In it, Matt discusses a similar, yet stronger passage about obeying the government: Romans 13, in which Paul writes: “all government is God-ordained.” This was the foundation on which I wrote my post about when it is ok to disobey the government. The norm that scripture (both Peter and Paul, as well as many other passages/themes of the OT and NT) puts before us it that we are to obey the authorities placed over us (wives:husbands, slaves:masters, children:parents, citizens:government, etc.)

      One of the points that Matt makes in that post, though, is that government is established 1) to do us good, and 2) to punish those who do wrong (drawing again from Rom 13). We have somewhat of a foothold, then, in acting against unjust government/laws, because they are not serving the purpose that God intended by establishing the government. Ultimately, the perfect government/law is one that is in perfect harmony with the divine government/law (I addressed this in my post: “Government: The Greatest Lawgiver.”) That is where these Biblical/historical examples come into play.

      I think most of this confusion arose, because you came into our discussion mid-stream, but I am more than glad to bring you up to speed. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.

    5. Peter Furst says:

      G’day James,

      I guess there are two different ways of examining the issue: one is the question the literal interpretation of the Biblical passages; and the second is question, like Aquinas, the legitimacy and authority of governments and law. As conservative Christians I understand your hesitancy towards the first approach, but this actually reflects a lack of faith in Scripture. Isaiah reminds us that God’s words go out and don’t return without achieving the purpose for which they were sent – challenging our understanding of passages is a reflection of a true desire to understand Scripture better.

      For me, the passages you and Matt have referred to are quite clear that governments should be obeyed – good or bad. This message causes a problem for us and so we try to reconcile it with our broader understanding of God’s will. Taking the second approach to this issue and questioning the legitimacy and authority of governments and laws, is really exactly the same as the first approach (though concealed). These passages do not support these notions. Peter and Paul were writing in situations with very hostile governments, yet they wrote to obey them anyway.

      Consequently, both approaches are rejecting the literal (and quite explicit) teaching of these passages. Whether we admit to rejecting various teachings, or don’t admit to it, the reality is that all Christians (including the leadership) do it. As such, I think it would be great as a family to be able to openly and honestly share our difficulties with certain teachings, without it being seen as a demonstration of decent and ungodliness. Peter tells us to question everything, and doing this with a prayerful and open heart will strengthen our church.

      Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Every difficult issue has a correct response, including that of submission to governments, and faithful questioning can guide us to that.

      Unfortunately a godly facade seems to be the key to being accepted and admired in our churches. We need to have the courage to ask the questions no one else will, even though they may thing them. We will get looked down upon and outcast, but God’s truth will shine as it proves itself able to meet the challenge of any question. Those who are luke-warm, with the godly facades, will be spat out. It is our obligation to search for and expose God’s word: to let it afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.

      Thank you for providing a place for this discussion. To all Christians who may read this, don’t fall into the trap of letting freedom justify ungodliness. These are important issues to consider, but you must never let anything take your focus from the fundamental purpose of a Christian’s life: the love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength; and to love our neighbours as ourselves. If all our actions follow these, then we know we are doing what God wants.

    6. Peter Furst says:

      No reply to my previous post?

    7. James says:

      Sorry I haven’t replied. I do agree that it is difficult to reconcile this teaching with our actual lives, although I think that it is perhaps more complicated than you make it out to be, because not only do we have Peter and Paul telling us to obey the government, we have Biblical examples (Daniel, Moses’ parents, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Esther, etc.) of heroes of the faith who boldly stood up against the government in the name of God. Were they sinning? I doubt it. This is what has led me to provide a caveat to Paul’s teachings in Romans 13. Perhaps he wrote this so strongly, because the tendency at the time was to simply give up and disobey the government. The interpretive principle a mentor-friend gave me a few years ago was “to interpret the unclear with the clear.” It is unclear what Paul and Peter mean here, but it is very clear that these Biblical heroes were in God’s favor as they disobeyed their respective governments. Therefore, it is only logical to conclude that Paul would make some exceptions to his over-arching statement.
      I really appreciate your underlying principle, though, to seek to love God above everything else. If you do this, you’ll probably be doing what is right.

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