Questions for a Christian Analysis of Civil Disobedience

What is civil disobedience?

Civil disobedience is the intentional breach of legal duty. It is breaking the law. Those who engage in such disobedience lack the legal right to do so, i.e., their behavior is illegal, not legal. However, this sort of disobedience is to be distinguished from mere defiance, rebellion, or criminality. It is disobedience on the grounds of some claimed moral justification or duty.

One expression of civil disobedience is [a] the refusal to comply with and obey a law based on conscience — it is thought that to obey the law is to do evil, thus justifying (or even demanding) disobedience. The perceived evil may be “sin of commission” (being commanded to do wrong) or “sin of omission” (being commanded to refrain from good).

Another expression of civil disobedience — requiring its own distinct evaluation — is [b] the deliberate attempt to change the legal order through disobedience (think: protest). In other words, one disobeys the law in an attempt to change the law. At times, such disobedience is directed at the law in question — breaking the law that is the object of protest. At other times, such civil disobedience is indirect — disobeying a law other than the one that one seeks to change.

Questions for Christian analysis:

(1) The Bible commands us to submit to our governments. So are we ever allowed to disobey?

[a] How does one justify creating an exception to the Christian command to submit to government when passages like 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Romans 13:1-7 do not mention an exception to this mandate, and especially when the reasons they give for the command seem so absolute (“because of God”)?

[b] But the Bible also portrays folks disobeying their government for right reasons. How do these portrayals fit into our understanding of submission to government? If all civil disobedience is disallowed, what does one make of the (seemingly) positive expressions of civil disobedience that we find in (Acts 4:19–20; 5:29, Exodus 1, Daniel 3 and 6, Esther 4, etc.)?

(2) When are we to disobey the government?

[a] How does one determine when a law is unjust enough to justify disobedience? In other words, if we allow civil disobedience in principle, what restricts, limits, or qualifies its use? If it is allowed in principle, may it not also be allowed in cases of the most minor infractions of justice? And if it is actually admirable, should it not only be allowable but commendable in these cases of minor infractions of justice?

[b] Often what is deemed unjust is not agreed upon. What checks or criteria can be implemented so that, if civil disobedience is sanctioned, this allowance does not result in “everyone disobeying as they deem right in their own eyes,” or people appealing to civil disobedience whenever they want to disobey a law with which they don’t agree or don’t like?

[c] Is civil disobedience only for when the government would tell us to do wrong (“sins of commission”), or also for when it tells us not to do right (“sins of omission”)?

[d] If we are compelled to disobey laws that would involve us committing sin, should we disobey civil laws (or obligations) that would make us involved (and seeming complicit) in sin (e.g., taxes going to evil things)? If no (e.g., on taxes see Mt 22:21; Rom 13:6-7), then how do we morally explain our involvement in these things?

(3) Are we to engage in civil disobedience as a means of protest?

Are we only to disobey unjust laws when they directly infringe on us (compelling us to do wrong and refrain from doing right), or should / may we engage in civil disobedience of laws in protest of their unjust nature?

(4) From where do we get the right or justification to disobey? Is disobedience morally legitimate?

What grants one the authority and prerogative to show contempt to civil law by disobeying it? Does not condoning civil disobedience allow people to take the law into their own hands and thus promote social chaos? And under a constitutional government, does not civil disobedience ignore the available legal means for change?

(5) If we are to disobey, how do we do it?

[a] How do we define what expressions of disobedience constitute or qualify as “civil”? (One may object, is not all disobedience by definition uncivil?) If one permits civil disobedience under some criteria, it raises the next question, what expressions or methods of disobedience are permissible?

[b] Does it make a difference to our answers here if we define civil disobedience as something inherently non-violent?

Appendix: popular quotes related to civil disobedience —

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so. – Attributed to Thomas Jefferson (unverified).

Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt. And a citizen who barters with such a state shares in its corruption and lawlessness. – Mohandas Gandhi

Civil disobedience is the assertion of a right which law should give but which it denies. – Mohandas Gandhi

Anyone in a free society where the laws are unjust has an obligation to break the law. – Attributed to Henry David Thoreau

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer