Civil Disobedience in Biblical and Historical Perspective

by John C. and Zora Lea Darrow

(submitted to Liberty magazine February 1989)


What is civil disobedience? It is, first of all, a peaceful act. However, it is also by definition an illegal act, involving opposition to some authority. ("Nonviolent direct action" often overlaps with civil disobedience, but may also be legal, such as operating a soup kitchen for those who are hungry.) It may be either positive - to do some good that is prohibited or negative - to prevent, hinder, or call attention to some evil taking place. It is essentially a challenge to the claimed legitimacy of some authority, a declaration that the authority has done something it is not entitled to do or has failed to do something that it is responsible to do.

Biblical examples abound. In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John state to the Sanhedrin: "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." The Sanhedrin had both religious and civil authority, and was recognized by Rome as having jurisdiction in all noncapital (penalty short of death) cases, and as an advisory body in capital (death penalty) cases. They had prohibited a good act, the preaching of the Gospel. The disciples based their defiance of this prohibition on a higher authority, God's law.

One of the earliest examples of civil disobedience is found in Exodus 1:15-17. The king of Egypt had commanded the Hebrew midwives to kill any boy babies born to the Hebrews. Because these midwives feared God, however, they obeyed his higher law and let the babies live. In consequence, the king gave his infamous order to throw surviving boys into the Nile River. Moses' parents responded with a further act of civil disobedience (Exodus 2) and hid him at home for three months, then in a basket among the reeds along the banks of the Nile. God eventually used Moses to deliver the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.

Moses' own defiance of Pharaoh begins a history that frequently saw God's prophets opposing the governmental authorities. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were opposed by the prophets Elijah (1 Kgs 17ff) and Micaiah (1 Kgs 22). King David was rebuked by Nathan (2 Sam 12) for his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. King Asa imprisoned the prophet Hanani for rebuking him (2 Chr 16). The common thread is that even governments are subject to God's laws. This is reflected in the historical Christian understanding of Romans 13: it is NOT a call for unconditional obedience to government, but a call for submission to government ONLY insofar as it "hold(s) no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong" (Rom 13:3). The second beast of Revelation 13 is often regarded as representing that government which has ceased to behave as God's servant, and thereby become an antichrist.

Other examples may be cited: the refusal of Daniel's compatriots to worship Nebuchadnezzar's image of gold (Dan 3), Daniel's continued prayers to God despite King Darius' decree otherwise (Dan 6), and Jeremiah's treasonous call for surrender to Babylon (Jer 21).

Because disobedience to secular law in these cases was based on obedience to God's laws, the term "divine obedience" or "holy obedience" is often used by Christians, rather than the term "civil disobedience."

Historical examples of civil disobedience are also found outside Scripture. Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence sets forth as a "self-evident" truth that "whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends (the unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it." This appeal to a higher law and to the illegitimacy of the British actions is a prime example of civil disobedience.

Before the American Civil War, many defied the laws by running an "Underground Railroad" to assist runaway slaves in escaping, and indeed to encourage their escape. While others pursued legal attempts to outlaw slavery altogether, the Underground Railroad rescued a steady stream of individuals. Today those "criminals" who ran the Underground Railroad are regarded as American heroes.

The American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s involved economic boycotts, sit-ins, and illegal marches. The economic boycotts had direct impact on those practicing segregation or racial discrimination, while marches and sit-ins served to galvanize public opinion by bringing the perceived evils into public view.

Gandhi in India sought independence from Britain through nonviolent non-cooperation. The goal was simply to so hinder the British as to make their task unduly burdensome. Similarly, the people of Denmark passively refused cooperation with Hitler's forces and greatly ameliorated the Holocaust program there.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the anti-Vietnam War movement in the U.S. marched, prayed, and trespassed. The idea again was both to call public attention to the perceived evils, and to hinder the continuation of those evils.

Alongside those who were peacefully practicing civil disobedience in many of these movements often were violent elements. Some in India urged violence against the British, and were disowned by Gandhi. Some in the U.S. urged the Civil Rights movement to respond to violence with violence, and riots occurred in some places. Some on the American Left were not antiwar per se, but anti-American, and bombed ROTC buildings and military research facilities, killing several people. Such violent elements were inconsistent with the predominant peaceful civil disobedience in these three movements.

Other social movements, such as the abolitionist movement, were not as predominately peaceful (although the abolitionist movement involved a substantial involvement by Quakers). With an essentially "just war" philosophy, violence could be used as a last resort. Under this philosophy, John Brown massacred a number of pro-slavery Missourians so that Missouri would be a "free" territory, and led his famous 1859 armed raid on the Harpers Ferry federal arsenal in an attempt to provoke a slave uprising.

Today in the United States, there are substantial numbers of people involved in peaceful civil disobedience in both the peace and proLife movements.

In the peace movement, those tracking the "white trains" publicize their routes in order to make the public aware of the nuclear weapons moving through their communities. Some pray, leaflet, and trespass at weapons plants partly to call the workers there to reconsider what they are doing, partly to hinder weapons production, and partly to call public attention to such production. Some sit on railroad tracks to hinder the movement of weapons. There are also various other "peace actions" with similar aims.

In the proLife movement, Joan Andrews, a pacifist who has also taken part in peace actions, has gained broad recognition by being sentenced to five years in prison for tearing the cord off an abortion suction machine. In her words, she was "disarming" the device. Operation Rescue, led by Pastor Randall Terry, has mobilized thousands of people to stop abortions one place and one day at a time by blocking the entrances to abortion chambers with their own bodies. Both Operation Rescue and Joan Andrews' actions have also done a considerable amount to bring public awareness of the continued killing at these places.

Other examples of civil disobedience include the sheltering of refugees/illegal aliens by the Sanctuary Movement, war tax resistance, smuggling Bibles into countries forbidding or restricting the availability of Bibles, and hiding Jews from the Nazis before and during World War II.

Not everyone today would agree that all the preceeding examples of civil disobedience were for good causes. However, they serve to illustrate the practice of civil disobedience.

What characterizes civil disobedience? What criteria should be considered before engaging in civil disobedience? What should the conduct of those engaging in civil disobedience be like?

One characteristic of civil disobedience is the appeal to "higher law". For believers involved in any of these movements, there has been an appeal to the principle that God's law is higher than man's law. However, even secularists sometimes engage in civil disobedience, appealing to some form of natural law or to International Law as embodied in documents such as treaties, U.N. Resolutions, or the Nuremberg Principles.

A second characteristic of civil disobedience is that it is not for personal gain. It is an action on behalf of an entire class of people - Jews, blacks, the unborn, refugees, etc. The person participating may or may not be a member of the affected class.

To be effective, those engaging in civil disobedience must be generally law-abiding. Their disobedience is not part of a general pattern of rebellion, but highlights some particular unjust activity. It is not something to be entered into lightly. Civil disobedience is engaged in for important issues - such as freedom of worship, protection of human life, opposition to repression - not for trivial concerns. The attitude of being generally law-abiding is also conveyed in little ways, demonstrating respect for the police arresting you, compassion for those performing the evil, and a refusal to treat either the police or the evildoers as enemies.

In many movements, there may also be legal means of addressing the issues involved. Even so, civil disobedience may still be necessary to stop immediate harm or to publicize (witness to) the evil taking place. The illegal activities may make the job of those pursuing legal means either harder or easier, and that certainly should be considered before proceeding.

Those pursuing civil disobedience must be careful not to condemn those using legal means as "less concerned" or "less spiritual." Often both avenues are important. Circumstances (or differences in judgment, or many other reasons) may prevent one person from taking the same steps as another, while still supporting the one taking another route to the same end. Similarly, those pursuing legal means should not be condemning of those taking a more direct approach. There is certainly room for ongoing discussion and evaluation of the wisdom or necessity of any particular approach within a given movement.

For the individual, two extremes must be avoided. One is to act because so acting makes one a hero or martyr. The other is to refuse to act out of fear. Civil disobedience is not just a fad; for the believer, it is part of an ongoing faithfulness of lifestyle, of obedience to God's call. Those engaging in it must be willing to face whatever penalties are incurred, even though those penalties may be unjust.

In summary, civil disobedience has both Biblical and secular support. It has been used both for those issues commonly perceived as Left Wing and those commonly perceived as Right Wing. Various criteria must be considered before it is used, but it is one way to live out Jesus' intent in Luke 6:9 - "Which is lawful . . . : to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?"