Stop signs, speed limits and civil disobedience

“Civil disobedience” is generally considered to be the publicly expressed refusal to obey certain laws, regulations or commands of government in order to draw attention to, and seek change to, government policy that is considered morally offensive. It is not usually a rejection of the political system as a whole.


So, what does civil disobedience look like?

People who roll through stop signs instead of stopping, looking carefully and then proceeding, rile me. For me, this is a moral issue of road safety.

Drivers who travel at or below the speed limit on a highway, especially in the passing lane, also irritate me. I routinely travel up to 20 km/h over the speed limit on roads signed at 100 km/h.

For Gloria, my wife, both situations present occasions to remind me that the people in other cars cannot hear me admonishing them.

This traffic hypocrisy on my part may be troubling to some, and laughable to others. However, this inconsistency illustrates the error made when the moral decision about civil disobedience is made based on personal preferences rather than principles.

The biblical principle of submission to government authorities is repeatedly stated in the New Testament. (Matthew 22:20-22; Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-14) It is reflected in Western democracy’s expectation that citizens will generally adhere to the laws of the land – from traffic laws to the prohibition on taking the life of another person. This social contract is vital to our life together.

But what if laws are inherently evil or harmful to our common good? And, how does one assess whether laws are good or evil?

For Christians in Canada, our first public effort in dealing with a harmful law is to seek to amend or replace it using democratic means. Similarly, we approach unjust laws in other nations first through diplomatic means.

Civil disobedience may be justified when all other peaceful options have been tried, and failed.

Two prominent examples of 20th century Christian pastors stand out. One, the participation of German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Flossenbürg concentration camp as a result. The other, Martin Luther King Jr. who led marches and other acts of civil disobedience in pursuit of change to American laws that discriminated against black Americans. King even received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, before leading the massive marches that resulted in passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1968, which became law a week after his assassination.

What resulted in these two men, both trained in systematic theology and holding earned doctorates in theology, making the decision to break the law in the ways they did?

Jesus’ statement that we are to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s” was later supplemented by a statement He made to Pontius Pilate, the representative of the government of the day. Jesus said Pilate had no authority except that given him “from above.” (John 19:10-11) The concept of the state and the Church having separate spheres of authority granted them by God has long been held. Ultimately, each must answer to God for the exercise of their authority. Both are intended to serve people, but in different, although sometimes overlapping, ways.

There is a widespread belief in the Church that, despite the principle of submission to authorities, there is a biblical basis for using civil disobedience, particularly to oppose policies that dehumanize, oppress or brutalize people. The theological support for civil disobedience in such situations is considered in light of several Bible passages. Here are some:

• the Hebrew midwives saving the lives of Hebrew boys ordered to be put to death at birth by Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15-22), murder of children being commanded of them;
• Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refusing to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s law requiring all citizens to worship a golden statue (Daniel 3), worshipping this false god being the law for all, including these high profile devout Jews;
• the wise men disobeying Herod’s directive to return and tell him where Jesus was born (Matthew 2:1-12), having had it revealed to them that Herod intended to kill the child;
• the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in which Jesus endorsed breaking of religious law to help someone in dire need.

John H. Redekop identifies seven considerations for a Christian community before engaging in civil disobedience. I pose them here as questions:

1. Has the religious community concerned made a careful and balanced assessment of the situation, including the risks of potential harm that might result from the civil disobedience?
2. Is what’s at stake of great moral seriousness?
3. Has a specific goal been clearly identified that is indisputably of benefit to the common good?
4. Have all other reasonable steps been exhausted?
5. Will the behaviour planned to challenge the policy in question still demonstrate a general respect for government and the principles of lawful behaviour?
6. Will only suitable means, that make sense to non-sympathetic observers, be used?
7. Are participants prepared to accept the consequences for breaking the law that may be imposed as a result of their civil disobedience?

These questions address well the situation in which King became leader in a movement, promoted from member of the committee that made the decision. Redekop does not explore the matter of an individual decision making process or the complexities of violent civil disobedience. But, his process does parallel that followed by Bonhoeffer.

After Hitler used his position as Chancellor to secure control of the Lutheran Church’s elected leaders, Bonhoeffer co-founded the Confessing Church, which declared its obedience to Christ before Führer. He travelled to the USA and England to demonstrate that not all Germans supported the Third Reich and to appeal for help for the German resistance. And, Bonhoeffer was involved in establishing underground seminaries for the Confessing Church, to train Christian leaders who would put Christ ahead of the state (Lutheran) Church.

Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, until he evidenced the escalating atrocities being perpetrated by the Third Reich. He was particularly impacted by the treatment of Jews. John G. Stackhouse Jr., succinctly states the turmoil surrounding the significant personal decision made by Bonhoeffer that would ultimately cost him his life. Bonhoeffer joined the small group inside the Reich’s department of military intelligence that ended up plotting Hitler’s assassination because of the evil they had witnessed; and, the apparent reality that stopping one man would end the reign of terror.

He did so, to be sure, only with the strongly conflicted sense that this was the thing God wanted him to do and yet he was doing something evil for which he needed – and hoped for – forgiveness.

Bonhoeffer did not play a direct role in the ensuing failed assassination attempts, but he knew of them. When arrested, he refused to reveal his co-conspirators and declined the opportunity to escape; choosing instead to put his life fully in God’s hands.

Two well-known 1st century Christian leaders engaged in what may have been the first incident of Christian principled civil disobedience. When ordered to stop teaching about Jesus, Peter and John stated, ““We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:17-42) This was not a general statement authorizing Christians to engage in civil disobedience when preaching is restricted by government, but resolution of a genuine dilemma between obedience to God for the good of others and obedience to authorities. These men were numbered among the disciples when Jesus told them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem. (Acts 1:8) They had been in prison for doing so and were prepared to go back in order to obey Christ’s command to them.

In addition to the general principle of submitting to government authority, Christians are urged to pray for those in authority and lead quiet lives. (1 Timothy 2:1-2) Prayer is an appeal to the authority that Jesus said is above that of government; and, the first action for Christians considering challenge to an immoral government policy. Civil disobedience is the last.