A Christian Philosophy on Civil Disobedience

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In todays society, it is not unusual for the common people to disagree with the forces governing them. Recent studies estimate that only one out of every five Americans trusts the government (CNN). The relating question that is more difficult to answer, is when is a simple disagreement enough to allow disobedience? People tend to find it hard to discern when it is acceptable to disobey the government, because it is generally assumed that a world where no one listens to higher authority, and does what they themselves want, is one of chaos. Though people are in agreement of the above statement, that is about the only area where their ideas overlap. The various thoughts and concepts regarding civil disobedience are abundant and range to very different points on the spectrum. Through analyzation of the numerous opposing views on civil disobedience, it becomes evident that the one that most certainly coincides best with Christian thinking, is the Anti-Promulgation or sometimes but only if argument. When discussing the issue of civil disobedience, there are mainly just two extremist views and one that falls in the middle. One of the extremist views is radical patriotism or the idea that it is never, under any circumstances, ok to disobey the government. The typical radical patriot believes that a world without law is chaotic and that any law, no matter how unjust it is, is better than no law at all (Geisler 273). Many famous people, including philosopher John Locke, would fall into the category of this, saying that, wherever law ends tyranny begins(Geisler 274). Though this viewpoint can seem a little extreme, it is important to note that most of the argument for it comes from the bible. The radical patriots typically think that the government is ordained by God, and therefore should always be followed under any circumstance. They use verses such as Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13:1 to show that God commands his people to follow the government, so if they do not they are disobeying God (Geisler 253). One of the most popular verses supporting this argument says, He who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted. There have also been distinct places in the Bible where God has called people to submit to rulers who were unjust, the biggest example being Nero. Christians who disagree with this view say that the radicals are taking these scripture verses out of context, thus distorting the intended message. Verses such as Exodus 1:20 clearly contradict the ones mentioned by Radical Patriotists, because it shows the women disobeying the pharaoh to save childrens lives, and God is pleased with them afterward. Related ideas are also introduced in Daniel 3, where the government commanded the people to worship idols, in which the children defied, and worshipped God instead. They too were rewarded by God. Though verses such as these can clearly put the idea of radical patriotism to rest, the supporters of this view claim that those were singular instances, and are not enough to be referenced and used to justify disobeying the government. Other arguments against radical patriotism include verses from Romans. Romans 13:4 says that those in authority are, God's servants to do you good. This verse implies that people in authority are supposed to be just, and if they are not, one should be able to disobey them, because they are not following God either. However, a question that arises, in this case, is, just because someone in authority is not following Gods word, does that mean one should follow that example? Refutations to radical patriotism are not only limited to biblical instances either. There have been multiple occurrences in history where public people were commanded by governing forces to commit heinous crimes that violate human rights. Humanitarian author, Odd Nansen referenced the Holocaust when writing on this issue. He discussed the harsh conditions that Jewish people were put through in Germany during this period, and said that though citizens were told to report where they were, many of them proceeded to help and hide Jews, in order to protect them from the inhumane treatment they were bound to receive. (Urquhart 153). He goes on to say that anyone with a heart and a conscience could realize that disobeyal to the government is what needed to happen at that point, and through the bible says that the government should generally be followed, there comes a point where laws of humanity need to hold precedent. The second extremist view when it comes to civil disobedience is the idea that the government should never be obeyed, and that the individual has the right to do what they want at all times. Most of the people who fall into this category are against the government for personal reasons and have separated themselves from it altogether. These people typically say that ones duty is to follow laws of humanity, not the ones of the world (Thoreau 311). Some of these people also agree with the idea of personal gain and gratification over that of the whole. Henry David Thoreau, a famous philosopher who falls into this view said that the government has proved time and time again that it is unjust, in its support of slavery and unnecessary war crimes, and therefore is not something to be followed. However, he also makes it clear that his issue lies with the democratic government of America, and not all forms of governments. Thoreau and many others who agree with this viewpoint say that the idea of democracy in the way that it is currently used is simply a facade and that though it does not appear that the whole is being controlled, they actually are. Thoreau says that basing hard decisions off of what the majority of the people want leads inevitably to failure since the majority of people can collective select the wrong choice. He also says that the government and all of its rules actually limit the progression of the American society and that he himself has washed himself clean of any dealings with it. In his life, he was actually arrested many times for blatantly disobeying the government and not paying taxes. Since the current form of government is actually a fairly new concept, he does not think it is really such a bad thing to refuse to follow it. Thoreau says that the people should do want they want because they are the ones who do the hard work. The government does not keep the country free. The government does not settle the west. The government does not educate. He says that since the public are the ones who take responsibility for everything else, they should be the ones deciding what they can and cannot do. The idea that obedience to the government actually hurts more than it helps is a common one shared among those who identify with this belief. Erich Fromm said, All martyrs of religious faith, freedom, and science have had to disobey those who wanted to muzzle them in order to obey their own consciences, the laws of humanity, and reason. Fromm makes it clear that he believes disobeying the governing forces is actually necessary for the growth of an individual and of a society. The people who come up with new ideas for the progression of the whole typically are straying from what is normally accepted, and in the end, it is rewarding. Fromm says that in the past, people have wrongly associated obedience with virtue, and disobedience with sin, and this is why people so commonly think that disobedience is automatically a bad thing. On the history of obedience, Fromm says that it originated with the rich wanting to keep the poor, poor, and in line, so they taught them the idea that obeying rules was necessary for their growth. He notes that those who do go against the norm require a lot of courage and bravery, and even goes as far to say that disobeying can build character. Most people who believe this view are also non-religious. This is an important fact to note because, in the same way that they reject rules of the government, they feel the need to reject the rules in the Bible. People in this view tend to believe that following rules hinder the freedom and abilities of the individual and that the government tends to be distorted and used in negative ways anyway. Thoreau says, I heartily accept the motto that the government is best that governs the least, I also believe the government is best which not governs at all. Thoreau makes his aversion to the government in place very clear and though is typically remembered to be Anti-Christian, some of his reasoning for being on this extremist side of the spectrum overlaps with Christian beliefs (Geisler 273). The final view and the one most people fall into is the idea that civil disobedience is necessary at some times, but most of the time, the government should be followed. The reason this view is most popular is due to the fact that it in itself is very lenient and non-binding, making it the most inclusive of collective ideas. These factors, however, can also lead to very different views within this view itself. Since various areas differ strikingly in standards of living, it becomes hard to distinguish what civil disobedience actually means in each context (Thoreau 310). This in the middle perspective can break apart into three other views, two religiously based, and one that encapsulates those who do not believe in religion. However, the non-religious people who fall into this view most often base their ideas on morality, many of which coincide with what the Bible preaches. The non-religious side of this view uses both reason and claims of an innate sense of what is right and wrong to justify their disobedience. One of the most popular arguments here is the notion that there is nothing to say that those who are in the roles governing the people, have no more preparation than the people themselves. The idea is that people elected for positions in power are only superior in their charismativity, and not intelligence. Since there is no reason to assume that those in power are somehow more capable than other humans to foresee events or deal with them accordingly, there is no reason to allow them to make decisions that need to be followed at all times. The other side of this argument says that humans have a moral obligation as people to reject what is wrong and do what is right, and that somehow is able to discern them from something within themselves. This view does, however, make sure to note that while the law should not be followed so strictly that it harms people, it does still have an important role in society. This view also says that disobeyal is justified if the only reason for obedience is fear. It says that genuine obedience should come from the heart, and if it does not, it leaves a constant threat of revolution anyway (Geisler 127). On the subject, Spanish pacifist, Salvador de Margarida states that legitimate law should be followed, while illegitimate law should be ignored. He continues on to say that if an individual knows for a fact that they are right, and the majority is wrong, then said disobedience is justified. However, making such a claim requires a lot of arrogance, and leaves an abundant room for error. (Urquhart 157). Refutations for this belief are evident as well. First, is the idea that those in power are more adequately equipped than others, in the fact that they usually undergo schooling before pursuing their roles. Secondly, is the fact that the morals one is supposed to listen to in accordance with this argument have no credible source, giving no real reason as to why they should be followed. It also creates a blurred line, because everyone now becomes liable to following their own individual sense of what it means to be moral. An unclear line is also credited in what defines a legitimate law from an illegitimate one, and even Salvador de Margarida said himself that it was a question he had not yet found the answer to. The Christian based arguments in this view are called biblical submissions. This breaks into two further arguments; the anti-compulsion and the anti-promulgation argument. The anti compulsion view says that all law should be followed, except that which reaches the point of compelling one to go against what the Bible says. The anti promulgation view says that if the law allows evil behavior, even though it may not compel it, disobedience is justified (Geisler 257). Obviously, these two ideas are virtually the same except for the minor detail of allowing, and inciting evil behavior. The support for this view says that the government, is under Gods law, it is not Gods law(Geisler 254). They also state that a government without Gods law is considered a tyranny. Similarly to the non-religious side from this middle viewpoint, the notion that there is a moral code to obey before that of the government comes into play. However, as said before, this viewpoints morality comes from the Bible, whereas the others is from oneself. The anti-compulsion and anti-promulgate say that humans are bound together only by Gods law, and we should do whatever possible to protect each other from anti-biblical principles. Herbert Read, who identifies with this view says, Civil Disobedience is the weapon of those who despair justice. We disobey the laws of the state because we believe that the state is lawless and can no longer protect our lives and liberties. (Urquhart). He also says that he supports this view because he believes that all issues can and should be solved by non-violent means, which the American government does not support. There have been instances, recently in culture where civil disobedience has occurred on religious grounds. In 2016, a young Christian woman decided to climb the North Carolina state capitol flagpole, and tear down the Confederate flag hanging there. She was arrested, and while being carried away by the police recited Psalms 23. She continued on to say, In the name of Jesus, this flag has to come down. You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.. Though it is debatable whether or not the flag being there hindered her abilities to do as called to in the bible, there is no question that the use of civil disobedience in the church is still evident. However, some do still have arguments and concerns against the anti-promulgation and anti-compulsion views. Most of which who are against this view, are non-christian. These people say that blaming disobedience on a higher being can lead to a state of disorder. Blaming bias against conservative Christian culture-warring only goes so far. After all, most people instinctively realize that society can not function if everyone feels free to ignore laws they oppose. Replacing the rule of law with the rule of private conscience is a recipe for anarchy. (Koyzik) The concept of civil disobedience is one that has to apply to Christian life and thinking because as people who are ultimately called to follow the rules of God, it is necessary to consider if the earthly rules hold importance as well. Taking both scripture and laws of humanity into account, the idea that the government should only not be followed when infringing on ones ability to do as God called or the anti-promulgate view, is the one that appeals mostly to how a Christian should think. Since the overarching purpose as a Christian is to bring others to know Christ, the only time one should disobey the government, is when it is hindering on their ability to do so. Though sometimes it is necessary, God makes it abundantly clear in the Bible that the leadership put in place is still important, and should be followed when possible.
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A Christian Philosophy on Civil Disobedience. (2019, May 13). Retrieved July 12, 2024 , from
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