With Easter days away and recent announcements that public events are cancelled until June 30, Canada Day (July 1) will either be a large, government-approved nationwide party or a day of basement-studio broadcasts and private family barbecues. Social media is littered with debate about whether this weekend is a time for civil disobedience to Covid-19 restrictions in order to gather for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday celebrations.
Following a few words from the preface to Church in Society: First-Century Citizenship Lessons for Twenty-First-Century Christians, is an excerpt on the matter of civil disobedience from the chapter on the Church’s relationship with politics:
In the pages ahead, I hope to both inform and challenge your perspective on citizenship as a Christian. Like much of twenty-first-century Christianity, you and I have been influenced by the changing society in which we live. What if we could reverse that influence so that instead of changes in society influencing us, as Christians you and I influenced the changes in society?
Church in Society – Chapter Twelve – The Church, Politics
At this point, I think it’s appropriate to reflect on some basic principles of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is generally considered to be the publicly expressed refusal to obey certain laws, regulations, or commands of the government in order to draw attention and seek change to government policy that is considered morally offensive. It is not usually a rejection of the political system as a whole.
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 crucial for us to live together as a society.
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.
A prominent American example of twentieth-century civil disobedience led by a Christian pastor stands out. Martin Luther King Jr. led non-authorized marches and other acts of civil disobedience in pursuit of change to American laws that discriminated against black Americans. King was imprisoned for his efforts and had known that was a possibility before his first engagement. He led a massive march and rally in Washington, D.C. which ultimately resulted in passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1968, which became law just days after his assassination. He knew the risks. He pursued the goal.
On what basis did this Christian leader, who had an earned doctorate in Christian theology, make the decision to break the law in the ways he did?
There is a biblical basis for using civil disobedience, particularly to oppose policies that dehumanize, oppress, or brutalize people. Here are some examples of civil disobedience found in Scripture:
- the Hebrew midwives saved the lives of Hebrew boys whom Pharaoh had ordered to be put to death at birth (Exodus 1:15–22, the story of Moses’ birth);
- Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to obey Nebuchadnezzar’s law requiring all citizens to worship a golden statue (Daniel 3, the fiery furnace story);
- Daniel, one of three presidents in Babylon, refused to pray only to King Darius for a period of thirty days (Daniel 6, the lion’s den story);
- the wise men disobeyed Herod’s directive to return and tell him where Jesus was born, having had it revealed to them that Herod intended to kill the child (Matthew 2:1–12); and
- the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37), in which Jesus endorsed breaking the 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:
- Has the religious community made a careful and balanced assessment of the situation, including the risks of potential harm that might result from the civil disobedience?
- Is what’s at stake of great moral seriousness?
- Has a specific goal been clearly identified that is indisputably of benefit to the common good?
- Have all other reasonable steps been exhausted?
- Will the behaviour planned to challenge the policy in question still demonstrate a general respect for government and the principles of lawful behaviour?
- Will only suitable means, that make sense to non-sympathetic observers, be used?
- 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 the situation in which Dr. King accepted the responsibility and risks of becoming leader of a movement.
Two well-known first-century Christian leaders engaged in principled civil disobedience. When ordered to stop teaching about Jesus, Peter and John stated, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This was not a general statement authorizing Christians to engage in civil disobedience when preaching is restricted by government. It was the 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 Jesus’ directive to them.
Civil disobedience usually takes one of two peaceful forms. Direct civil disobedience is an actual violation of an offending law, usually to bring it to consideration by the public, government, and the courts. Indirect civil disobedience is an act, such as a rally or a march that may break traffic laws or municipal permit bylaws, intended to draw attention to the offending law.
As Christians, our participation in politics starts and ends with prayer. Pray for government officials. Pray about our participation. Pray as we participate. And then pray for government officials, that those in positions of authority would look out for the best interests of all citizens, including Christian citizens.
The section on civil disobedience quoted in Church in Society is taken from my book Under Siege: Religious Freedom and the Church in Canada at 150 (1867–2017) – Chapter Twenty-One – Freeze, Flight, Fortitude, Infiltrate, or Fight?
This link will take you to the Table of Contents for Church in Society, should you want an overview of the book.