Bursting the Bubble! Is Civil Disobedience for Christians?
The civil actions of the pro-life organizations, including Operation Rescue, American Life League and Aid to Women, have captured the media and judicial spotlight. The actions of pro-life supporters encompass participation in the peaceful Life Chain march and the billboard protests at abortion clinics. Further radical civil actions performed in the United States by extremists have included the bombing of abortion clinics and the murder of the abortionists like Dr. Romalis. Even the compassionate involvement of some members of the Canadian Reformed Churches has landed them in court.
A majority of the publicity involves the “bubble zone,” the protection zone around an abortion clinic which pro-life supporters must not trespass. Bill 48, the Access to Abortion Services Act, which legislated the protection zone, has been labeled as the most repressive legislation in North America. Even the caption of an editorial in the Globe and Mail described it as “an excessive law” (June 22, 1995).
So where do we Christians stand, now that the right to assemble for peaceful protest is taken away? Where do we stand on the issues of civil disobedience? Are we allowed to burst the bubble? Are we obliged to break the law in this life-and-death issue? Numerous ethically reflective people have wrestled with the question of whether civil disobedience can be morally justified. Should we be able to morally justify civil disobedience, under which circumstances would it be permitted?
Christians have struggled with these types of dilemmas throughout church history, and unfortunately there is not a unified stance or agreement on the issue. It should not surprise us then that there isn't agreement on civil disobedience (in the abortion issue) among members in the Reformed circles as well!
What is civil disobedience? Civil disobedience, simply put, involves breaking a law given by the government, be it local, provincial, or federal. (Obedience to the federal government includes submission to international laws.)
Further, civil disobedience can be demonstrated in non-violent or violent actions. Many citizens demonstrate with non-violent actions to protest their disagreement of certain laws, for example, in “sit-in” protests within the bubble zone. These non-violent actions go beyond the democratic privilege of protesting or demonstrating to express concern for (proposed) government legislation.
Other citizens express their disapproval of laws with disregard to property or personal safety. These violent demonstrations will range from the violent bombing or arson of abortion clinics to the extreme of murdering the abortionists. Violent demonstrations are merely an abuse of our democratic privileges, taking the law into one's own hands.
Another key distinction in civil disobedience is if the law is disobeyed directly or indirectly.
When civil disobedience is direct there is typically a law which, if obeyed, would require one to do something immoral. Imagine a law that required one to commit adultery with a neighbor's wife. Direct civil disobedience would require that one disobey this law by refusing to become sexually involved with the neighbor's wife.F.J. Beckwith and P. Feinberg “Operation Rescue – Debating the Ethics of Civil Disobedience,” Christian Research Journal, Spring 1995
Direct disobedience occurs when we are personally required to break a law as it compels us to sin or do evil.
Indirect disobedience occurs when we break the law, so as to protest what someone else is legally doing. According to Feinberg, disobedience is indirect “when the law allows someone else to sin, and we break a law or some laws to protest what they are doing.” When pro-life activists enter the bubble zone around the abortion clinic, they are breaking the trespassing laws as well as laws that govern private property. What is happening is that these activists are breaking simple, basic laws as a means of protesting against people's right under immoral laws to have an abortion.
Role of Government
Another consideration of civil disobedience involves the role of governments and authorities in the legislation and judicial effects of these laws. It is important that the context of these laws and the implications to the citizens be clearly understood. Another consideration is the political climate of the country making the laws.
It is clear from the Christian perspective that the government has been established by God (Romans 13:1). It is the government's duty, and not the citizen's in and of himself, to maintain moral and just values by which to govern its people. While governments should take into account the wish of the people, it is their ultimate responsibility to uphold decency and good order and to restrain and prevent evil.
The efficiency and effectiveness of the policing and judicial system are questionable – the backlogged courts and overcrowded jails give evidence to that. While it is a serious act that people break the law, it is more so when the government does not prevent evil, or worse, that it is a party to it. So we should never disparage the government with its huge responsibility, as it is ultimately accountable to God for its actions.
With the deteriorating values and standards of humanity, it is not surprising to witness the corrosion of the legislative and judicial process. It seems that every day the media gives more evidence that the government is losing values of the Judeo-Christian heritage that Canada and the USA were founded on. The stance of our government on the very issue of abortion, along with others such as euthanasia and homosexual rights, reveals its apathy toward God-centered laws.
Although this is a sad situation, particularly for Christians, we must remember that these laws are not compelling its citizens to act in the same manner. These laws gives its citizens certain rights, as immoral as they may be, yet it does not force all citizens to act in the same manner. The democratic government is simply allowing evil to occur in society. Reflecting on the oppressive political climate in France, John Calvin wrote that the wicked ruler “should be held in the same reverence and esteem by his subjects, insofar as public obedience is concerned” as the best of rulers would receive (Institutes, Westminster Press, p. 1513).
We must therefore understand that, although the political climate is deteriorating, it is not at the point that it requires direct disobedience by Christians. Despite our repugnance to these immoral laws, we must show public obedience to the government of the land. The situation would be completely different if our political climate was like that of China. There are repeated reports that families in the People's Republic of China are only allowed one child (Focus on the Family Newsletter, August 1995). Should a woman become pregnant for the second time, the government requires that this child be aborted. If the North American political situation became like that of China, civil disobedience by Christians would be justified.
Civil Disobedience in Scripture
The Scriptures reveal numerous references to civil disobedience performed by God's people with divine approval. In Egypt, under the command of Pharaoh, the midwives were to slay every male Hebrew baby. The story is told in Exodus 1:15-22 (NIV). The two Hebrew midwives, Shiprah and Puah, “feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live.” Scripture reveals to us that “God was kind to the midwives” with the result that “the people increased and became more numerous.” Their inspiration and motivation were not rooted in a simple love for humanity, but “because the midwives feared God.” Incredibly, not only did God approve of their actions, He blessed the midwives because of it – “he gave them families of their own.”
Another example of civil disobedience recalled in Scripture involved Jezebel, the wicked wife of King Ahab. She was intent on “killing off the LORD's prophets.” The prophet Obadiah defied her orders when he took “a hundred prophets and [hid] them in two caves… and supplied them with food and water” (1 Kings 18:4). It is not explicitly mentioned that God approved of Obadiah's actions, but verses 13-15 taken in context imply that God did condone it.
Further references to civil disobedience can be found in Scripture. Rahab lied to the authorities to protect the Jewish spies who entered Canaan (Joshua 2:1-14). The three friends of Daniel disobeyed King Nebuchadnezar's command to bow down and worship his pagan images (Daniel 3:1-18). Perhaps the most well-known act of civil disobedience is recorded in the book of Acts. Here we read how the apostles Peter and John were severely beaten by the Pharisees after the Sanhedrin had forbidden the apostles to preach. They refused to obey the authorities, however, saying “it is better to obey God than man.”Acts 5:29
Civil Obedience in Scripture
While there are numerous references to civil disobedience in Scripture, God's Word also reveals the requirement of Christians in their relationship with the authorities, the civil leaders of the land. The apostle Paul teaches that Christians are “to be subject to rulers and authorities, and to be obedient” (Titus 3:1). The teaching of the apostle Peter concurs with this when he instructs us to observe “all authority instituted among men” (1 Peter 2:13). This includes all levels of authority ranging from lesser authorities to the king (verse 17). Although the new Christians lived under the civil rule of pagans, they were still commanded to obey those in authority. In Matthew 22:21, Jesus tells the scheming Pharisees that they must “give to Caesar what is Caesar's.” Jesus clearly teaches the Jews and the Christians that they must pay their taxes, even to the Roman government. Considering that the worldly Roman authorities and tax collectors were using the revenues in ways contrary to Christian ethics, Jesus' clear command for Christians to pay their taxes is profound. The thirteenth chapter of Romans unmistakably supports Christian obedience and submission to the civil authorities.
Scriptural Precedence for Civil Disobedience
Reading through the definition and evaluating what civil disobedience is in relation to the law, understanding the government's responsibility, and realizing our political climate, it would appear that the issue of civil obedience is rather clear-cut.
This impression is further strengthened when we consider the Biblical incidents of civil disobedience. You will notice from the examples outlined in Scripture that these texts have several ambient factors in common.
First, the civil disobedience was never that of a violent nature.
Secondly, Scripture reveals that the civil obedience was approved by God, either directly mentioned or implied.
- Thirdly, these scriptural instances are of a direct nature, requiring that a child of God should violate one of God's commands. There are no scriptural references that allow a believer to violate a “good” law so as to stop another person from doing their legal right! The only scriptural precedence that has been set and must at all times be upheld, is when Christians are directly commanded by the authorities to violate the Law of God as revealed in His Holy Word.
Black and White?
If it is so clear cut, why the conflicts among Christians? Is the topic of civil disobedience that black and white? While there are several reasons why some Christians believe their (illegal) actions are justified in light of Scripture and social circumstances, I will present for discussion several main reasons.
The primary reason for the justification of civil disobedience lies in the Great Command given by our Saviour to “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27b). As the unborn child is our neighbour, we have the duty to love him (and therefore protect him). Those who defend civil disobedience reason that the government, by introducing the trespass laws, is forbidding them to love their neighbour. Their emphasis is placed on the unjustifiable homicide of the infant (our neighbour) and not on the immoral actions of the mother. Francis Beckwith describes it as “an attempt to rescue innocent human persons from a brutal and morally unjustified execution.” You may say that they focus on the victimization of the unborn child and not on the mother's sin!
The difficulty with the Good Samaritan principle is that the primary focus is on the love for the unborn without due consideration for all (groups of) people. If we break the law for the unborn out of love, does that mean we can steal for the poor out of love? While this rationale may seem extreme, it is meant to highlight the precedence that people may take from the actions of Pro-Lifers.
The Intent of the Law
Another basis for conflict derives from how we evaluate whether a particular law is good or bad. The argument is that a law is not just how it is written, but what is intended or implied by the legislators. One may rightly argue that the law for trespass was intended to prevent the misuse of property, loitering and theft. If that is the case, the pro-lifer is not guilty of trespass as to the intent of the law, yet he is guilty by the content of the law, that is, how the law literally “reads.” If the legislator intended to use the trespass law so as to allow murder, it would be easy to agree that it was a bad law! The pro-lifers correctly argue that the trespass law is used out of the boundaries of its legislated intent. The point is not whether a law is good or bad, but whether we are forced to act contrary to the Will of God. Again, as has been said earlier, a bad or immoral law allows some people to do wrong without forcing everyone.
Some attempt to justify civil disobedience by virtue of the motivation behind the actions. If the motivation is to save babies by breaking the law, then the actions should be judged on the motivation and not the (illegal) act itself. This is an extremely dangerous train of thought as it could allow justification for any and all civil actions to save innocent lives, as long as the motivation is sincere. This becomes close to “the end justifies the means” argument, stating that the intent is to stop abortions occurring, so we must take whatever means it takes, legal or illegal, to stop abortions. Again, these are precarious arguments that disregard the importance of acting within the law.
The final area of difference amongst Christians which I wish to discuss is whether civil disobedience is the prudent and advisable thing to do. The question is not whether we may or may not break these laws, but becomes: is it wise to do so? It is the earnest desire of the Christians who break into the bubble zones to bring to the attention of the general public the liberal abortion laws. Their aim is to reduce or rid society of abortion, and to remove the apathy in society and the government. Others feel that these tactics will “turn off” neutral people (those undecided in the abortion debate) away from the real issue. They question whether the illegal tactics of pro-life protesters makes Christians look hypocritical and enforces a negative stereotype of all pro-lifers.
When discussing the prudence of civil disobedience it may be helpful to understand what the apostle Paul had to say concerning Christian freedom. He mentions that “Everything is permissible for me” (1 Corinthians 6). Yet he did not say this to condone the use of all our “freedoms.” It was out of his concern that the early Christians were using this freedom to “live on the edge,” that slippery dividing line between real Christian liberty and the license to sin.
The same statements with which Paul exhorts the Corinthians, are relevant to the situation of civil disobedience.
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.1 Corinthians 6:12
All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful, but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour.(10:23-24)
The final overarching principle in these passages is to “do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). The point is, even if it is morally permissive (i.e. lawful) to perform a (illegal) protest, it does not mean it is prudent thing to do. Just because we can do something does not mean we must do it! Christians need to evaluate whether these (illegal) protests do more damage than good to the pro-life movement and Christianity as a whole, and whether God will be glorified by them. Consider Paul's closing admonition, “Give no offense… to the church of God.”1 Corinthians 10:32
Is there a Case for Civil Disobedience?
Despite the gray elements that cloud the clarity of the issue, civil disobedience should not be for Christians. The Scriptures is very clear on the call for obedience and obligation to the civil authorities. With the clear exception of laws that require direct disobedience toward God, there is no other scriptural passage (including the portions discussed earlier) that gives precedence for North American Christians to perform illegal actions against the government. Performing civil disobedience would be in direct contrast to the stipulations of God's Law to submit to the civil authority. Not only is it complete disobedience to the government of the land but also toward our Sovereign God. Civil disobedience is merely contempt for God's Word and a minimization of our call to faithful obedience to Him and His servants.
Our Christian Response
If civil disobedience is not for us, what is our Christian response? Are we to be apathetic or neutral in these immoral issues, such as abortion? No, not neutral in the condemnation of the acts of murder, but neutral in our responses combatting the liberal abortion laws.
Too often we slight extremists with a pro-life view in our efforts to renounce the pro-life organization altogether. We imply that these pro-lifers are taking things into their own hands, we question the sincerity of their Christianity and imply that their motives are purely humanistic. While it would be foolish to say that these are not the reasons for involvement of some pro-life organization members, it would be more foolish if we were to use these reasons to justify our neutral position in the abortion issue.
Pray and Work
Our entire Christian response should be modeled on Scripture. Put simply, our Christian response is to “pray and work.” In itself the concept is simple, yet its application is where we continue to struggle. How do we understand this concept and apply it?
Nehemiah perfectly understood the concept of “pray and work.” In the project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, the Jews were faced with great opposition from their numerous enemies. Scripture reveals that as the building progressed, “(the enemies) all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (Nehemiah 4:8-9). Scripture reveals Nehemiah's response to the outbreak of violence. The Jewish people prayed and posted a guard.
Jerry Bridges of The Navigators, writing about this passage, says, “[Nehemiah] recognized his dependence on God, but he also accepted his responsibility to work – that is, to stand guard” (Discipline of Grace, Navpress, 1994, p. 129-130). Not only must we have spiritual dependence on God – our prayer – but we must also show the practical implications – our work. In both of these aspects God is in complete control, for our prayer is our dependence on His Sovereignty and our work is performed through the enablement of His Spirit!
Jerry Bridges puts the scriptural message of Nehemiah in contemporary terms. He divides people into two camps – the spiritual and the practical.
The more 'spiritual' people would call an all-night prayer meeting. To them, posting a guard would be depending on human effort instead of God. The 'practical' ones among us would be busy organizing the guard… but would be too busy to pray. 'What do you mean, have an all-night prayer meeting?' they would say. 'We've got to man those guard posts.' Yet in obedience, Nehemiah knew exactly what was required. Nehemiah and his people did both.
Perhaps this example will help us to understand the two sides in the issues of civil disobedience as well. Often those who are likely to perform (illegal) forms of protest, the “practical camp,” express frustration at the apparent apathy shown by fellow Christians in the abortion issue. Their frustrations are centered at those in the “spiritual camp,” who are content do nothing publicly, but pray privately. They feel that these Christians are not performing their legal and moral obligations to demonstrate peaceably. In effect, the “practical” camp claims that the “spiritual” camp are ignoring the seriousness of the issue. They rightly contend that prayer must be followed with work. It is unfortunate, however, that some of the extreme activists have begun to work illegally without due prayer and supplication, hence the issue of civil disobedience!
There are no excuses for Christians in any camp to be violent extremists or to be apathetic to the government's approbation of immoral laws, be it abortion, euthanasia or homosexual relationships. Christians are obligated to perform their spiritual and civil obligations to their governments in accordance to the divine law. It is both of the camps, the “spiritual” and the “practical” who are guilty of undermining the importance of each aspect! We are divinely called to both: pray and work!
To work is our obligation, yet to pray is our privilege! Prayer is one of the most beautiful gifts from God that we may call upon Him through Christ. It gives us the opportunity to confess our sinfulness, our inner wickedness and acknowledge our utmost dependence on God. In prayer, it is our privilege to give thanks, to give praise and to ask for the Spirit's direction in our life. Heartfelt prayer draws us close to our Maker and allows us to place our complete trust in Him alone.
We must use the privilege given to us to express our deep concern for the evil in society. We must pray for our governments and for changes in the laws, so that they may legislate under the direction of God's Rules. We must pray for the unborn who suffer violent deaths. We must pray for change in those who murder the unborn, those who destroy their own children and those who suffer the consequences of it. The urgency of our prayer is more than compassion for the unborn and others who suffer, it is for the eternal consequences of unbelievers. Our prayer must be for the reformation of the wicked.
Combined with heartfelt prayer, we must contend to work in truth. Our call to work falls within the legal means available to the citizens of their country. In North America we can write “letters to the editor” in our local and provincial newspapers and magazines. We can express our deep concerns to our Member of Parliament. Participate in letters of petition – for example, the successful petition that persuaded the Canadian government not to pass the euthanasia laws. We can be involved with united efforts to change laws, including use of court actions. We may legally and peacefully protest immoral laws, as the Life Chain march does. We need to talk with our friends and neighbours about the seriousness of these issues and give our godly reasons for concern. We must also counsel those in need – those who contemplate abortion within and outside of our church circles. We must show compassion and encourage those who struggle with post abortion trauma. In all of this, our hearts must be directed toward our God of Life, acknowledging that it is only through His Spirit that our work can do any good.
Finally we must show patience. Patience to await God's providential timing. Although there is an urgency in these issues, we must not become impatient or worse, act out our impatience. Continue to pray and to do your work, allowing the Holy Spirit to do His divine work. Let us not lose our perspective, for while we pray and work that evil may be subdued in society, our earnest prayer is for the triumphant return of our Saviour.
Let us patiently await Christ's expectant return for “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish and strengthen you. To Him be the dominion forever and ever.1 Peter 5:10
I have deliberately made a distinction between pro-life supporters and the pro-life organization. It should be noted that those referred to as “pro-lifer” or “pro-life supporter” are those who simply have an anti-abortion stance and may not necessarily hold membership in a pro-life organization.