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When should a Christian engage in civil disobedience?


Recently a group of Christian leaders – including a friend of mine – walked into the office of the Minister of Immigration, Scott Morrison, sat down and conducted a prayer vigil.

They stayed until they were arrested for trespass and taken to the police station. Later, the charges against them were dismissed. As Eternity reported at the time, the protesters saw themselves engaging in a “non-violent act of civil disobedience in the form of a prayer vigil.”

Their cause? To highlight the plight of the more than 1,000 children living in detention centres in Australia – or in centres controlled by Australia offshore.

It’s a good cause, and there has been sadly little attention given by either this government or the last to this terrible situation. The Australian populace seems to be saturated by apathy and self-interest. There’s a good deal of inertia surrounding these innocent children and the evil being committed against them. And we are responsible. They are, as the Bible would say, “the alien within our gates” who, by dint of their presence among us, are our kith and kin.

…the idea of Christian civil disobedience is not completely absurd. When obedience to God contradicts obedience to the government, there’s no question what a Christian is called to do.

Did they do the right thing, when in the eyes of the law they had done the wrong thing? Is there a Christian case for what is classically called “civil disobedience”, even of the non-violent variety—even when it is just praying in an MP’s office?

It would seem, at least at face value, that the Bible is pretty clear about the duties of Christians as citizens. In the first place, they are to be taxpayers. Although Jesus was taking a bit of a sideswipe at Caesar when he said it, he certainly urged his disciples to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17).

Paul repeated this in Romans 13; and more, he showed that the paying of taxes to governments is a necessary part of submitting to their authority, which is given by God for the preservation of society:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” he writes. And obediently paying taxes is part of submitting to the authority that God has established.

The flipside is that disobedience to the authority of the emperor is a rebellion against God himself: “Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”

Now let’s think about this for a second. Paul is this saying to Christians living in Rome – a tiny minority of religious dissidents, exposed to the possibility of marginalisation and persecution.

The Roman Emperors were not nice democratic government ministers who were accountable to the people and committed theoretically to engaging in conversation with their people. They were not convinced of moral principles like “human rights” or “equality”.

In fact, the book of Revelation will demonise Rome and its emperors, seeing them as malevolent forces, which will be ultimately overthrown. Rome is a beast.

And yet, Christians are called to “submit”, “honour” and “obey”.

How can this make sense when a government may be pursuing a course of action that is in direct opposition to the will of God for the world? How can we possibly submit to the Emperor who may command us to offer sacrifices to him as God? How could a Christian in North Korea possibly “honour” and “obey” the regime that is there – a regime that has caused untold suffering to its people and relentlessly persecuted Christians?

After all, we must obey God rather than human beings. That was Peter’s comment to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5 when he had been forbidden to teach the gospel. What?! And it reminds us of a number of instances in the Bible of disobedience to rulers and authorities.

For example, Miriam did not hand over the baby Moses to the Egyptians under orders from the Pharaoh to kill the newborn Hebrew boys.

The book of Daniel is a particular case in point. Daniel and his friends give no heed to the commands of the Babylonian rulers to bow down to their idols, or to pray to no one but the Emperor alone.

The Christian martyrs of the first few centuries likewise did not cave in to the demands of governors and rulers that they commit acts of false worship.

But there’s much to learn from the manner in which these exemplars of faith went about their disobedience. They did not show disrespect to the ruler in each case – in fact, quite the opposite. They have the clarity that comes from the knowledge that the rule of the human ruler is only a second-tier authority; he rules because God allows him (or her) to rule, and for no other reason. Therefore he is not to be feared, if the Christian does the right thing that honours God, because it is God who ultimately rewards the righteous and punishes evildoers.

Clearly then, the idea of Christian civil disobedience is not completely absurd. When obedience to God contradicts obedience to the government, there’s no question what a Christian is called to do.

We might however complain that these instances from the past are so clear cut: it is either a case of disobey a clear command of God or obey it, and the Christian can only choose the one and repudiate the other, surely.

Fast forward to a democracy like Australia and things aren’t so easy. The lines are not as easily drawn. There is no one forcing Australians to worship idols. There is no one asking us to sacrifice to false gods or be killed.

What’s more, the biblical instances were cases in which the person simply carried out worship of God as normal—praying when praying is banned, preaching when preaching is forbidden.

The contemporary examples involve cases where some Christians have judged that a great evil is being perpetrated in our midst by the governing authorities and that, though the ordinary channels of persuasion and debate and legal appeal are still open, the just outcome is clearly not being achieved by these.

The arrests have taken place because the Christians concerned have actively sought to be arrested, not for worship but for trespass. But still, given the necessity for obedience to God above humans, the need to act out of love even when it is at cost to ourselves, and the examples from the Bible, we should not rule out other instances of civil disobedience entirely.

How can we then think through a case for a possible act of civil disobedience by Christians in a secular liberal democracy in which dissent is legal and there is freedom of religion? How can we act wisely?

First, the cause has to be profoundly serious. The Christian will always want to recognise and support governmental authority. The Christian is no anarchist, and so it is only with extreme reluctance that a Christian person should break the law of the land.

How can the seriousness of a cause be judged? There are any number of instances in which injustices and infelicities are committed by even the best governments.

How do we choose which “hill to die on”? Because of their doctrine of sin, Christians will subject their own judgment to the scrutiny of the Scriptures and their brother and sister Christians, and will, I think, not be hasty.

Second, the legal and political channels of appeal must be prioritised. Respect for our government means that we ought to seek a solution to any situation from within the system we have been given – which normally allows for discussion and review.

Now, let’s not be naïve; we all know that big business interests and political corruption and pandering to populism mar the political decision-making process in our country and lead to unjust outcomes. Nevertheless, the preference for the legal is deeply Christian.

Third, the planned action should be non-violent, should minimise, where possible, the bother to the police, and should involve accepting, not avoiding, the legal consequences.

The bombing of abortion clinics in the USA clearly fails this test. The model of the martyrs of the Church – and of Daniel, Peter and Jesus – is that they did not evade the legal consequences of their disobedience, but rather accepted them willingly.

Even given these considerations, Christians may disagree about the right course of action in the face of ongoing injustice in our land.

Hopefully, however, they will agree that it is right to speak out against the evil that we so readily normalise in our society, not as those who are morally superior but as those who know the depths of divine forgiveness, in the name of the God who is both merciful and just.

Michael Jensen is the rector of the St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point and is the author of Pieces of Eternity.  His Twitter handle is @mpjensen.