Three times in my life I have broken the law and been arrested. The charge? Trespassing. The offense? Rescuing unborn babies from being killed and their mothers from being objectivized and brutalized. I was exercising civil disobedience.
The first time, I was arrested with about 120 others. They were teenagers to couples to grandparents, and mostly Christians. I had never felt so alive, so certain of the legitimacy of my actions. But many of my friends thought I had crossed a line. They asked me, “How could a law abiding citizen break the law? How could a Christian break the law?”
It’s an important question.
Two people have profoundly shaped my thinking on this subject: Dr. Francis Schaeffer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
On Good Friday 1963, Dr. King was in jail in Birmingham. Fellow clergy had been asking him the same question: How could he, a minister, break the law? His reply is one of the clearest arguments for civil disobedience I have ever seen.
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.”
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
The principle: A just law is a man-made law that squares with the law of God. More on this can be found here.
In his book A Christian Manifesto, Francis Schaeffer deals with the issue of civil disobedience. He lays the foundation for Christians disobeying unjust laws.
Whereas Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin had reserved the right to rebellion to the civil rulers alone, [Scottish Reformer John] Knox went further. He maintained that the common people had the right and duty to disobedience and rebellion if state officials ruled contrary to the Bible. To do otherwise would be rebellion against God.
To see Schaeffer’s thoughts on civil disobedience unpacked more thoroughly, watch the video here.
Every Good Friday we observe Christ’s death. At one level, Jesus died because he was a trouble maker. He challenged the culture and confronted the religious and political leaders of the day. He stood for justice in a world filled with injustice. He became such a thorn in the side of the political and religious leaders of the day they had him crucified. The cross was the price Jesus paid for the ultimate act of civil disobedience. Christ chose to die to pay the ransom for my sin. And he died to pay for being a trouble maker.
This message is a call for Christians to be the most law-abiding citizens in their nations, and, when necessary, to stand against unjust law to demonstrate obedience to the laws of God. A faithful disciple may need to exercise civil disobedience against the injustices in his own society.
Christ paid the price for us. What are you willing to pay to follow him?
- Darrow Miller