On Civil Disobedience

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Civil Rights

What are civil rights?

One working definition would be that civil rights are an expansive and significant set of rights that are designed to protect individuals from unfair treatment; they are the rights of individuals to receive equal treatment (and to be free from unfair treatment or discrimination) in a number of settings — including education, employment, housing, public accommodations, and more — and based on certain legally-protected characteristics.

In a sense, civil rights are the concrete legal expression of the abstract moral concept that humans have certain inalienable rights to be treated with respect and dignity.

Human Rights

The next question would be “Where do human rights come from?”

There are three possible answers to this question (per Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz):
-human rights come from God. God has created us and endowed us with certain inalienable rights
-human rights are based on “natural law.” People have rights because nature dictates that they should.
-human rights are created by us.  It is in the interest of societies to grant people rights.

There are problems with the latter two choices.
-The natural world is ruled by violence and predation, and so nature does not seem to be the best basis for looking for fundamental laws that protect the weak of society.
-If human rights are created by us, then logically, rights that are granted by the majority can just as easily be taken away.

If human rights come from God, then we have a reliable foundation for human freedom and dignity.  The foundation transcends time and culture because it is ultimately rooted in God’s unchanging value.

Human Dignity

We intuitively believe that humans have an intrinsic worth that deserves protection.  The Bible explicitly declares that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

Here is my reasoning process:
-God is eternally worthy and deserves to be honored.
-Humans are made in the image of God.
-Therefore humans have a derivative value that deserves protection.

It would follow therefore that to honor God properly, you would have to love your neighbor.

Perhaps this reasoning is behind why Jesus stated “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:27-40).

Thus we have a conception of human rights that should translate into civil rights that are ultimately held accountable by God Himself.

Human Laws and God’s Laws

In other words, all human laws are to be subservient to the laws of God, to promote the obedience of them with constituents, and never to be either contrary to them, nor co-ordinate, or independent of them; but are to be treated just as the bylaws of corporations are in respect to the laws and will of the sovereign power, which have all their life and power therefrom.

There is just one problem: the translation from human rights to civil rights does not always come so smoothly.  In other words, laws do not always reflect this universal standard of human rights.

Why do we fail?

Laws are rules that govern human behavior.  They act as an extension of governmental authority, and this authority ultimately comes from God and thus should be used for God.  However in our attempt to make good laws to promote the public good, a society will run into mistakes.  Paul once said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12).”  Paul’s statement underlies how we humans have an imperfect impression of God’s perfect justice, but that does not mean the problem is with the standard but instead our problem lies with our failure to meet that standard well.  The failure of human laws to conform to God’s laws comes as a function of our finiteness and fallen state.

As a function of our fallen state, societies may deny certain members human rights because they have legislation that actively persecute them (Fugitive Slave Clause in the Constitution), or they lack any legislation that protects them (when the 13th, 14th, 15th amendments did not exist yet), or the legislation does exist but it is poorly enforced (Jim Crow laws served to undermine the rights protected by the 13th to 15th amendments).

Laws are ideas codified into text and enforced in society

We live in a world where ideas can be free-floating and not bound to any standard.
But we then have to examine whether these ideas conform to a moral standard or not.
Laws are when abstract ideas take concrete expression in society, and therefore we have a moral obligation to consider whether a particular concept would promote the public good and honor God and neighbor.

When we are examining laws, we have to examine the idea, concept, or premise being promoted.
For example what idea is better: regulated access to guns or indiscriminate, unlimited access to guns?  If we are using public good as a standard, we should quickly come to the conclusion that regulated access to guns would be morally superior as this position would protect the public from the irresponsible misuse of guns.

Thus you can have an idea or concept which, if codified into law, contradicts the standard of universal human rights (the right to safety in this case).

Likewise with the Fugitive Slave Clause, the lack of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, or Jim Crow laws; the essential idea behind these legislation is the failure to recognize members of the public as fellow human beings that deserve protection.  The idea that African Americans do not deserve civil rights stands in stark contrast to the fact that they have inalienable human rights by virtue of being made in the image of God like any other member of the human race.

All of this is to say that human laws do not stand on their own, but are ultimately held accountable to a greater standard of God’s justice.  It is precisely because that we are able to make and remove laws that we run into the problem that our laws do not always conform to God’s laws.

Civil Disobedience

Being made in the image of God, we have some sense of God’s laws, and we ought to strive to make laws that conform to those standards.  However in our process of doing so, we will run into problems where our laws do not conform perfectly to those God-given rights, and we need to point those discrepancies out and seek to rectify them.

This is where civil disobedience comes into play.

Authority and laws are not independent entities; they are meant to be subservient to God.
All authority comes from God, and therefore should be used for God and not against Him.
Therefore when God gives authority to government, it should not be used in a manner that contradicts Him.

Citizens should only obey government inasmuch as the authority remains obedient to God. If that authority is used in a manner that goes against God, then the contradiction needs to be exposed and rectified. In the meanwhile, citizens have a moral obligation to disobey laws that contradict God’s character.

Richard Baxter said it this way: “No human power is at all to be obeyed against God: for they have no power, but what they receive from God; and all that is from him, is for him. He giveth no power against himself; he is the first efficient, the chief dirigent, and ultimate final cause of all. It is no act of authority, but resistance of his authority, which contradicteth his law, and is against him.  All human laws are subservient to his laws, and not co-ordinate, much less superior.  Therefore they are ipso facto null, or have no obligation, which are against him: yet is not the office itself null, when it is in some things thus abused; nor the magistrate’s power null, as to other things.”

Christians should not obey the government, when obedience would mean disobeying a command of God. This is indicated by several passages showing approval of disobedience to governments. For example, when commanded not to preach the gospel, Peter says, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Another example is found in Daniel 3:13–27, where Nebuchadnezzar commanded Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to worship the golden statue; they stood firm against the king: “we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Dan. 3:18). God rescued them from the fiery furnace, thus confirming his approval of their stand (Dan. 3:19–30). Other examples of obeying God through disobedience to civil governments include the Egyptian midwives (Ex. 1:17, 21), Esther (Est. 4:16); Daniel (Dan. 6:10); and the wise men (Matt. 2:8, 12).

Thus disobedience is not always bad; only in reference to God’s authority is it condemned. Sin has its own authority and so does Satan but obeying them over God’s authority would be wrong.

Lord Jesus once said you cannot serve two masters.  He pointed out that there is trade-off.  Obeying one master means disobeying the other.  So if you had to disobey, then let it be with respect to evil.

The role of protests

Protests are appropriate because they signal to the government that something needs to change.
-Rosa Parks protested against segregation which violated the individual right to equal treatment
-Japanese internment camps violated the individual right of Japanese Americans to freedom from incarceration for the sake of public safety, but this violation was unwarranted as they were all innocent.
-Student walk outs protest the right to nearly unlimited access to guns which came at expense of school safety.

All of the above have in common a legislative environment that contradicted God’s laws.
People should challenge human laws that stand against a person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights that are ultimately an expression of God’s character.

Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in the civil rights movement.  Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.

The one universal constant for a human being, who is made in God’s image, ought to be obedience to the God who created the creature.

Evil must be resisted and no moral man should patiently adjust to injustice.

Jesus Christ

Jesus was once asked: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
He answered, “Which one of you has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:10-12).

Jesus points out that the Pharisee’s laws stood in contradiction to the universal principle of doing good for your neighbor. He is appealing to a higher standard than the concept that the Pharisees held.  Laws defined as rules that govern human behavior are not always good.  It depends on how the rules are defined.  They can be defined properly or improperly, depending on how they promote the good of your neighbor.

In another instance, Jesus said: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!  For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God)— then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7: 9-13)

Here Jesus points out that the tradition that the Pharisees held in such high esteem contradicted God’s law enshrined in the Ten Commandments.  Therefore we see that when human laws contradict God’s laws, then the human law must give way to God.

Moses

Even in the Exodus account, Moses tells Pharoah: “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me in the wilderness.” But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and moreover, I will not let Israel go.” (Exodus 5:1-2)

Even a pagan ruler, with all his authority, is not exempt from accountability to the God of Israel.  This is because Pharaoh is also made in the image of God just as much as Moses is.  When Pharaoh held Israel in captivity, he did so in contradiction to God’s command that he let them go.  Pharaoh tries to deny his accountability to God, but his stubborn refusal does not exempt him from the reality of his accountability.  He still remains accountable to God whether or not he believes in God’s authority.  His lack of belief in God’s authority does not negate God’s authority.  Pharaoh’s failure to submit to God led to severe consequences for him and his country.

Thus all authority given to government, even pagan ones, must be held accountable to God.

Summary

God’s authority is an absolute standard.
Human authority is a derivative of God’s authority and thus will always remain accountable to God.
Therefore it stands to reason that human authority should strive to conform to God’s standards as much as possible.

When human authority, expressed through laws, fails to conform to God’s standards, citizens (especially Christians) have a moral obligation to pursue civil disobedience for the greater purpose of obedience to God.
We also hope and pray that government would change their mind to rectify their error and thus bear fruit in keeping with repentance by removing legislation that harm the public and replace them with legislation that promote the public good.

One thought on “On Civil Disobedience

  1. MUSICGOON says:

    Thank you for tackling this topic! I appreciate that you looked at the specific examples in my comment. On a recent episode of The Briefing podcast by Albert Mohler, he mentioned how public rallies, walkouts, and demonstrations don’t really change anything. But they are used as a communication to express opinion and effect change. Thank you for helping me see the Christian’s role in this while being under the authority of God (and government).

    Liked by 1 person

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