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Monday, February 21, 2022

The Christian and Civil Disobedience

In the midst of the Covid pandemic, many governments have instituted public health measures which have prevented Christians from gathering in large crowds, and/or they have required them to wear masks and/or to be vaccinated against the virus. This has led some Christians to suggest that the saints should actively resist these government measures, and they have suggested a method for doing so which has been successfully employed by some Christians in the past - that is civil disobedience. They reason that "If a government mandates what God forbids, or forbids what God mandates, civil disobedience may be required." (See Understanding civil disobedience) In support of this principle, people will often reference the incident where the Jewish religious leaders commanded Peter and the other apostles not to preach in Christ's name, and they replied: "We must obey God rather than any human authority." (See Acts 5:27-29)

Now, while the principle of obeying God's law when there is a conflict with human law is well established in Scripture (think Daniel, Shadrach, Meshack and Abednago), I believe that those same Scriptures make very plain that this circumstance is extraordinary and narrowly defined. In all of the instances recorded in Scripture where one of God's saints is forced to disobey the civil authority, they have done so when confronted with a command by civil authorities that would clearly negate or contradict a direct commandment of God (e.g., being commanded to pray to or worship someone other than God or being forbidden to deliver a message which God has commanded them to preach). In general terms, the normal course of action for Christians prescribed by Scripture is to "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar" (Luke 20:25) OR, as Paul framed it in his epistle to the saints of Rome, "Everyone must submit to governing authorities" (Romans 13:1).

Unfortunately, some Christians have interpreted this principle in such broad terms that they have used it to justify defiance and rebellion against civil authorities that was never anticipated by what is revealed in Scripture. I believe that some Christians have gone astray in this regard because of the false notions which they have developed about the "righteousness" of the democratic system of governance and a failure to distinguish between the practice of a "civil religion" and the Christian faith.

As for the "righteousness" of the democratic system of governance, we must all remind ourselves that it is still a humanly devised system in the end (subject to all of the flaws and inconsistencies which that association implies). In other words, whatever its supposed merits compared to other humanly devised systems of governance, a democracy is still NOT God's system - it is NOT to be confused with God's Kingdom!

As others have pointed out before me, while American democracy certainly incorporated some Christian principles into its formulation (e.g., the notion of God-given rights and a covenant between the people and those whom they choose to govern them), it is also clear that the American system was founded on humanistic principles. (See The Christian and Civil Disobedience) As is pointed out in the article just referenced, there are a number of principles laid out in America's Declaration of Independence which clearly contradict Biblical principles. We read there: "'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' are not 'unalienable rights.' Man's right before God is to 'Fear God and keep his Commandments' whatever the cost to life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness. Governments are not instituted and brought down by men, but 'the powers that be are ordained of God.' They do not derive their just powers from the consent of the governed 'For there is no power but of God' (Rom. 13). Neither does man have the right when government becomes tyrannical to 'alter it or abolish it.' Rather 'let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.' When men established 'law' and government according as they felt they 'did what was right in their own eyes.'" Moreover, the United States has clearly NEVER lived up to its ideals regarding the equal treatment of its citizens (e.g., the displacement of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the denial of the franchise to blacks and women, and the discriminatory treatment of its LGBTQ citizens).

In addition to these obvious departures from scriptural principles, we must also confront the phenomenon of America's "civil religion" juxtaposed to our Christian faith. As the New World Encyclopedia pointed out in its article on Civil Religion, Rousseau originally "coined the term" to describe "the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any modern society." In other words, the state creates a kind of secular religion to ensure the allegiance and support of its citizens. The article goes on to cite a number of features of this kind of secular religion that will be immediately recognizable to most citizens of the United States (e.g., references to God and Scripture in political speech, veneration of political leaders, veneration of veterans of the nation's wars, founding and national myths, etc.). Continuing, the article also points out that this "civic religion" is often manifested in certain "ritual expressions of patriotism" (e.g., singing the national anthem, parades and fireworks on the Fourth of July, reciting the pledge of allegiance, inauguration ceremonies, state funerals, etc.).

Moreover, when we remind ourselves of the very human nature of American democracy, we are forced to once again confront the scriptural injunction for Christians to regard themselves as strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Hebrews 11:13) and NOT allow themselves to become entangled in civilian affairs (II Timothy 2:4). As has been stated in previous posts on this blog and elsewhere, Christians must NOT permit themselves to become partisans of the systems and battles of this age. Indeed, the entire thesis of the final book of the Christian Bible (Revelation) is that Christians NOT associate themselves with the "Beast" power - or what is also symbolically referred to as the Babylonian system.

In their insightful article on Religious Freedom and Civil Disobedience, the Canadian Centre for Christian Charities observed that Christians have approached the subject of civil disobedience from two very different perspectives. To make their point, they cite the examples of John Brown and William Wilberforce - both men professed Christians who were opposed to slavery. Nevertheless, as the article goes on to point out, their opposition to that institution manifested itself in profoundly different ways. The article notes: "On the one hand, Brown’s method was violent and led to a civil war that resulted in the loss of at least 640,000 lives. Brown’s campaign ended slavery in relatively short order. On the other hand, Wilberforce was not an advocate of violence, and it took much longer to obtain the desired result. Some might say Wilberforce’s method was violent in that the slave trade and the institution of slavery was itself violent to the 800,000 slaves in the British Empire. Yet, Wilberforce ended slavery 28 years before the US Emancipation Proclamation."

They go on to suggest that the public health measures related to the pandemic have forced some Christians to once again confront the issue of the appropriateness of engaging in acts of civil disobedience. The article then referenced the actions of a Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer who decided to join a plot to assassinate Hitler and went on to ask Christians to consider whether or not his justifications for such a departure from normal Christian practice should be accepted as legitimate. In other words, do circumstances ever warrant more aggressive action by Christians? In my opinion, these are the very kinds of questions that any Christian who anticipates engaging in acts of civil disobedience should be asking themselves. It is, after all, a profound matter of personal conscience in the final analysis.

In reaching this decision, the CCCC made a number of suggestions to help individual Christians in this regard. They are: 1) "we must take stock of the context and determine what is the best way forward based on our identity as Christians," 2) "we can learn from the past to help us better face and address societal controversies," 3) "we need to recognize that our identity is in Christ first and foremost," and 4) "who we are defines what we do. Christians have an obligation to live as Christ lived. He is our example and our guide in confronting the struggles of how we ought to live. Jesus made it clear that his kingdom is not of this world but is a spiritual kingdom." If Christians seek to apply these principles to the question of civil disobedience, I think that most of us will not be too quick to take any actions that will interfere with our primary duty as citizens of God's Kingdom. What do you think?  

1 comment:

  1. The following comment was posted to my private e-mail account:

    Some decisions (see Bonhoeffer) can indeed be tough. But too many times I think we just conflate our opinion with God's will. "Since I am a true Christian, and I have submitted to God, then whatever I think must reflect God's mind. And since I don't like vaccines or Democrats, ergo God doesn't like vaccines or Democrats."