I write reluctantly about a subject I have studied only occasionally over the years. But friends have asked me to address it—particularly friends in pastoral ministry whose churches in Canada, the United States, Australia, and elsewhere are being riven by partisan politics—and so I’ll do what I can to help us think better about when Christians can and should defy the law.
1. The burden of proof is on the Christian who would disobey the law. To be clearer still, Christians are not free to disobey any law they find unjust, let alone any law with which they disagree.
You might read people quoting other people to the effect that “an unjust law is no law,” but that is simplisitic. Yes, there may be unjust laws we should disobey. But Christians, and people generally, are obliged to obey authorities unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. And merely finding a law inconvenient, unfair, or even positively unjust isn’t reason enough.
The Bible is clear about the obligations of servants to masters, children to parents, and citizens to governments. Human society cannot work at all—not just properly, but at all—without the default position of deference to authorities, even as the Bible is utterly clear-eyed about how many of those authorities will always command what is right and good—namely, none of them.
2. Clausewitz famously proclaimed that war is the furtherance of politics by other means. If one affirms, as I do, that Christians can engage in just wars, then perhaps the various considerations surrounding just wars can instruct us in civil disobedience, the furtherance of politics by still other means.
• The cause must be just, and it must be taken up with good intentions. This principle isn’t as bland or blunt as it might sound. Too many Christians, like too many people generally, wrap their politics in rags of righteousness when in fact they are merely self-interested, seeking advantage for themselves and their kind.
Self-interest is a God-given reflex, and it can serve as a legitimate motive. But the Christian is commanded explicitly to love God, love one’s neighbour, and love the world. Seeking one’s own interest ahead of others’ is not a Christian option, as Christ’s own example makes clear (Philippians 2).
• Lawbreaking, which amounts to peace-breaking, must be the least bad option, the one that offers the best route to the greatest shalom. Sometimes just war theorists say that war must be undertaken only when all other routes are exhausted, but that strikes me as unrealistic. Sometimes violence must be undertaken before one knows for sure that diplomacy cannot and will not succeed—as in Rwanda in the early hours of what turned out to be a national massacre. But violence, coercion, and law-breaking of any sort can be the Christian’s option only when she is as sure as she can be that this is the most shalom-producing of the available options.
• The measures taken must be proportionate to the expected outcome. And innocents must be spared. If instead the damage done by acts of civil disobedience outweigh the benefits gained, and particularly if people not implicated in the wrong to be righted are injured, those acts are not justifiable. It’s one thing to put oneself in harm’s way; it’s quite another to be blithe about “collateral damage.” Beware the easy rationalization of violent means to justify righteous ends, for thus has so much blood been spilled by every previous revolution.
3. Christian thought leaders have recognized the danger in any resistance to authority: the danger of anarchy, which they generally viewed as always worse than the evil being resisted. (Here is a warning I issued to would-be Christian anarchists.) Only legitimate authorities were tasked with resisting unjust authorities. Even in democracies, mobs (= popular movements dominated by crowds) are not the way to get things done, even as we acknowledge that large demonstrations can be occasions to signal that a change in leadership is necessary.
Indeed, leadership matters. Capable people with clear and reasonable agenda can direct the energy of a popular uprising toward a useful, practical reformation. Crowds led by mere shouters end up invariably acting out mere rage at any convenient target, with little gained and almost always a backlash that actually sets back their agenda.
4. In the wake of the French Revolution and similar movements, many of Europe’s greatest minds have cautioned against mass civil disobedience and the quest for a quick, violent solution to entrenched problems. Thinkers as diverse as Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Michael Polanyi, C. S. Lewis, and Reinhold Niebuhr have advocated only realistic incrementalism, not idealistic revolution—not because they themselves didn’t want big changes before tomorrow morning, but because they understood both human nature and human history.
Even God doesn’t try to fix big problems overnight. Human individuals and human institutions just cannot change for the good that quickly.
(Before anyone invokes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, let’s be clear that, willing as he was to defy the Third Reich and even to participate in plots to assassinate Hitler, he did so as part of a group that would then have put another member of the German elite, although not a Nazi, in place. He was no revolutionary.)
5. Finally, for governments to impinge on the freedom of a Christian citizen is bad. But that’s not the same as forbidding us to preach the gospel (per Acts 5:29, or the Barmen Declaration). Compromising our freedom to worship together as we like is not the same as forbidding us to preach the gospel (ditto).
The early Christians, as portrayed in the New Testament, were not nearly as free or as prosperous or as politically powerful as we are in Canada (or the U.S. or Australia) today. And yet they did not engage routinely in civil disobedience. Only when the freedom to proclaim Christ was at stake did they defy the authorities that were undoubtedly godless and even antipathetic to God and yet were ordained by God.
Canadian Christians cannot, therefore, simply decide what portion of their taxes is spent wrongly and then withhold that portion. Nor can we simply decide what laws are wrong and then disobey them.
Jesus told Peter to pay taxes to the Roman Empire, whose policies we can be sure did not entirely meet with his approval. Paul and Peter told their churches to do all they could to avoid civic disruption and to quietly go about their business.
Again, we modern Christians have votes and dollars and freedoms that the early Christians didn’t have to influence politicians and policies in our societies. If the democratic system seems resistant to change, well, yes, it’s supposed to be resistant to fads and extremes, even as it is made more resistant still by entrenched vested interests. Such is the way of the world, and that’s not all bad.
Lasting and useful change comes from adults being willing to play a long political game. Frustrated and furious adolescents, by contrast, can disrupt things and win a few concessions for a while. But if the powers that be are not slowly but surely replaced, they will bide their time, ride out the impatient protest, and then turn the screws again.
Civil disobedience, therefore, must be considered only with great reluctance, great knowledge of the situation, great coordination with other political means, and great leadership. Even the movements under Gandhi and King provoked tremendous violence and highly ambiguous outcomes.
Breaking the law is thus never going to produce a quick fix. But it will certainly provoke great response, for which we will largely be responsible.