I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the concept of Civil Disobedience. We all know that when it comes to unjust laws, we’re supposed to obey God and not man. The classic text for this is Acts 4:19 where Peter and John defend their right to continue preaching in the name of Jesus. Preaching the gospel in countries that forbid evangelism is an obvious form of civil disobedience. My wife and I have done this in the past and we continue to support those doing that today. So, in one sense, we’re breaking man-made laws, but we’re obeying a higher law.
But what about other forms of disobedience that aren’t dealt with specifically in the Scriptures? Did Peter and John set a precedent that goes beyond preaching the gospel when the powers that be forbid it? We can say that Corrie Ten Boom practiced Civil Disobedience by hiding Jews in her house during the time the Nazis occupied her country, and we all see her as a hero for that, but that’s an obvious example where the other option would have been to actively participate in an injustice.
But what about the form of Civil Disobedience that purposely pushes the envelope to challenge unjust laws that aren’t so obvious? In Shane Claibourne’s book “Jesus for President”, Claibourne talks about how a group of Christian activists challenged a law in Philadelphia that forbade people from feeding the homeless. As a form of protest, Claibourne and a group of friends went to a park and held a “communion” service with the homeless-the communion being in the form of Pizza and grape juice. After they were arrested, they went to trial and the judge challenged the constitutionality of the law. The key to the story is that Claibourn and his friends didn’t try to evade the consequences for their actions, but worked within the system already in place. Another example of civil disobedience is when Rosa Parks sat in front of the bus reserved for white people only but didn’t refuse arrest when the police came to get her. This helped launch the Civil Rights movement.
Perhaps the most inspirational example of forcing direct confrontation with the law comes in Martin Luther King’s essay, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This is considered one of the most important essays in America history and, if you haven’t read it, you should. It’s not very long, but it will definitely make you think. In the essay, King challenges a group of white pastors in Alabama who also believed that black people should live in equality, but they felt that King’s approach of pushing direct confrontation with the law (through protests, boycotts, sit-ins) was a distraction from the higher calling of preaching the gospel. The eerie part about it is the pastors King was challenging in the essay were not racist, they were simply indifferent. Not to in any way put myself in the same category, but many people felt the same way about me when I went to Israel to spend time with Palestinians and then came home and spoke out about the injustices I saw. A significant amount of people thought it was wrong for me to do what I did because the purpose of my trip was not specifically to preach the gospel to the Palestinians. I’ve defended my actions by saying, “Of course we should preach the gospel to Palestinians. I just think we’re being inconsistent when we tell a people “Jesus loves you” on one hand and then turn a blind eye as they’re driven out of their shops, orchards, and homes.
Am I right or wrong?
In Acts 17:6-7, we read:
“But when they did not find them, they dragged jason and some brethren to the rulers of the city, crying out, ‘These who have turned the world upside down have come here too. Jason has harbored them, and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another King-Jesus.”
There’s a lot in this passage, but what I want to focus on is the part that says the early Christians were accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar.” Could this be a biblical basis for civil disobedience in addition to the classical example of Peter and John disobeying the decree not to preach in the name of Jesus? Is it possible that the early Christians occasionally pushed the envelope to disobey laws that they believed were contrary to the higher law of love? If so, then what are some of the ways that Christians can challenge unjust laws and structures today?
Talk amongst yourselves!
P.S. As I reread this post, I realized that I’m talking about two issues. The first issue is civil disobedience, which is the act of disobeying unjust laws or pushing the envelope to challenge unjust laws. The second issue with the Palestinians isn’t about whether we should preach the gospel or work for social justice, but the question of whether we can we preach the gospel to a people while at the same time denying their struggle (like the White pastors did with blacks and like many Christians do with Palestianians….They say you can preach the gospel to them, but don’t get involved in any sort of struggle for justice on their behalf)