Mar 21, 2009

Activist or Anarchist?

Freedom of speech. The rights of the people. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. These are familiar concepts to every American. They are the very foundation of our government. Yet, every American has had moments when they feel like the law has infringed on their individual rights in some way – like their opinion has been passed over, like their view has not been considered. There is not a person who has not witnessed moments of injustice or of morality being threatened, but what can be done about it?
Some protest, some picket, some write letters or put bumper stickers on their cars. They speak, write, and convince, all under the heading of exercising freedom to speak their mind. It is the right…no, the responsibility and privilege of Americans to have a voice. Still, there are some who chain themselves to trees, they stand in the way of police, some riot, and some lay in the roadways blocking traffic. These engage in different forms of civil disobedience to make their point.
This brings the question, is it the right of a Christian to break the law if they feel that their freedoms have been infringed upon? This is a controversial question and the answer may seem somewhat elusive, but it does exist.
The Christian has been commanded to “obey God rather than men.” (New King James Version, Acts 5:29) He has to live by a higher standard and if the laws of the land conflict with the law of God he has no choice except to disobey. But, there is a place where a line must be drawn.

Activism vs. Civil Disobedience
In order to address this issue in more detail, the delineation must be made in the differences between activism and civil disobedience. According to one dictionary definition activism is, “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue”. (Random) Civil disobedience is defined as, “refusal to obey governmental demands or commands especially as a nonviolent and usually collective means of forcing concessions from the government”. (Webster)
Simply put, activism is to be active. It is to have a voice, to make a statement, to present another view on a subject visibly and vocally. Civil disobedience is to break the law in order to force a law to be changed.
All would most likely agree that Christians are to be active in our nation. However, is civil disobedience wrong? Is it un-American? Is it un-Christian? Both the intent of American law as well as the commands of God’s law seem to give a balanced answer so each should be considered carefully.

The Intent of American Law
It is well known that this American government was created by the Founding Fathers expressly so that it could be open to the will of the people. It is also obvious that the laws put in place were sacred to the men in the earlier days of this nation’s history. Abraham Lincoln put his view very passionately in an address when he stated, “Let every man remember that to violate the law is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the charter of his own and his children’s liberty.” (Lincoln 12) Men died so that Americans could have the sort of laws enjoyed today. Yet the Declaration of Independence states:
“…that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and to institute a new government…” (Jefferson)
Here were men who had been under a government where they were oppressed – where their opinions mattered not at all and where a king or parliament dictated how they were allowed to live, speak, and worship. When these men had an opportunity to form a more perfect government they determined to submit it to the will of the people who must live under it. The founders of this nation knew better than any the importance of the individual having the freedom to express opinions, so they made provision that if the laws of the country infringed on the rights of the people that those laws could be easily abolished.
Yet, they held the law dearly. They knew that every country must have laws, and that in order to have a civil society those laws must be enforced strictly. Josiah Gilbert Holland put it this way: “The moment law is destroyed, liberty is lost and men, left free to enter upon the domains of each other, destroy each others’ rights, and invade the field of each others’ liberty.” (Holland 42) For the sake of each man, woman, and child, all must be held to the same standard. If they were to form a good government the Founding Fathers knew they must form it with the principle in mind that no man could be above the law, and no man below it. No person, no matter their wealth, politics, social standing, or religion could be allowed a different set of standards. What was enforced on the majority must be enforced on the whole!

The Conscience Issue
This presents a problem, though. As legislative and governmental leadership changes, there may be those who could create laws that directly oppose the moral views of a portion of society. Would it then be required for that portion to obey the law at the expense of their conscience? This should not be done because it would create a society of mindless, conscienceless, immoral people! Provision must be made, then, so that this moral segment can be heard without becoming lawbreakers. But, on the occasion that no such provision is available, Christians – that moral segment – must walk the fine line between godliness and anarchy.

God’s View of Civil Law
In the Bible, Paul writes, “Let every man be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God.” (Romans 13:1-2)
This verse shows how God feels about civil government and the Christian’s responsibility to obey it. It is sobering to think that any resistance to the government could be seen as resistance to God. Do many Christians, in an attempt to stand up for the law of God, really end up subverting it by rebelling against the law of man?
God’s instruction is to obey civil authority; however, His instruction was also to put His law first and foremost. So, what if civil authority is opposing of the law of God? What is the obligation the Christian should hold to civil law on the occasion that it calls upon them to disobey the higher law of God? The line is defined on the basis of whether the law is broken out of necessity versus breaking it merely to make a political statement.
Daniel in the Bible had a point of his life where he had to make a choice. He could either continue to obey God and die or he could disobey the law and live. He chose the law of God – the correct course of action. It was not out of rebellion, but out of true obedience to the highest Authority. It was his only option, there was no other path he might have taken and honored God.

Modern Religious Activism
Consider now what Christian activism looks like today. The Church has been warned of persecution to come, but rather than being proactive in its approach to insuring that its freedoms are preserved, it often becomes reactionary instead. Christians don’t appreciate their liberty and don’t take steps to safeguard the things held most dear until they are snatched away. Of course then the Church and other parachurch organizations cry about it but the damage has been done. So, what does the Christian community do? They take the law into their own hands. “We’ll show them!” they say… and they do. They show that Christians are no more committed to the law than a criminal. They obey the law only as far as it benefits them, and then manipulate it from there; if it cannot be manipulated, they rebel against it outright. Is that right? Should that be the attitude of Christians? Looking from not only a logical but also from a biblical standard one would cry that it should not!

Consider if a man believes abortion to be murder and there is a prominent abortion clinic in his city. The man gathers friends and they begin to picket outside the clinic. The owner of the clinic becomes angry, goes to a judge to complain, and eventually gets a restraining order taken out against the picketers. The man is left with two options: First he could continue his picketing just as before and, in doing so, break the law. This would prove his point and get him desirable media attention most likely. Or, the second course of action he has would be to stop picketing and find another way within the boundaries of the law to continue his cause.
There are positives and negatives on both sides. With the first course of action this man would make his point, possibly get him much desired attention, but it would also get him arrested. The far reaching effects could be that with his new criminal record he could stand to lose a great deal of credibility. If he was to then try to get the law changed, how much would his voice be heard if he has already established himself as a lawbreaker?
The second course of action would attract less attention to the issue, but it would leave his reputation as a respectable citizen intact. It would honor God, it would honor the king, and he would still be free to continue his work unhindered…and un-imprisoned! Also, would not any judge or legislator be more willing to listen to his arguments if he had already proven to them that he was a mature man who held the laws of the country in highest esteem? Would they not view him as proactive, seeking the good of society rather than selfishly reacting and causing possible harm? Could he not go further in his cause because he has the favor of those that ultimately decide the issue? He would have striven to take action against something he believed to be very wrong, yet he would not have performed another wrong in the process. As the old saying goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right” and that is what must be considered here.
The man, in this illustration, is an American presenting his opinion so long as he stays within the boundaries of the law. The instant that he crosses the line into disobedience of the law, though, he becomes an anarchist. He virtually destroys the law simply by disregarding it.

Law: The Safeguard of Liberty
Here is another consideration: If the law is thrown aside and destroyed in an attempt to do a good work (or to do well), it will not be in its rightful place to secure and safeguard the good once it is established. It is a frightening idea that the very thing that should be the defense in troubled and evil times could be destroyed by the men it was made to protect.
Not only is the protection of the law removed when men disregard it, but also freedom itself! The law is a servant of the people, yes, but it is not to be taken lightly. When honor is withheld from the authority of the law, liberty is destroyed. Alexander Hamilton put it this way:

“The instruments by which it [government] must act are either the AUTHORITY of the laws or FORCE. If the first be destroyed, the last must be substituted; and where this becomes the ordinary instrument of government there is an end to liberty. (Hamilton)

The Reconciliation
The Christian’s loyalty should be first to the law of God and second to the law of the land. Usually, if this is the case, he will not only obey civil law, but will go above and beyond. He will be a model citizen.
In the condition of a liberty being violated by the governing authority, lawful means should still be used, as far as is possible, to remedy that. If a Christian, to right a disregard of the law also disregard the law how will that in any way prove his point?
Again, I will quote Abraham Lincoln:

“When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all laws, let me not be understood as saying that there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still, while they continue in force for the sake of example they should be religiously observed. So, also, in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay; but until then, let them, if not too intolerable, be born with.” (Lincoln, 12)

When a man breaks a law his conscience tells him is unjust, the question must be asked, “Was there no other way to go about gaining justice?” Sometimes the answer is no, but the urgent consideration of this question is called for. The Christian must strive to his upmost to honor that civil law and God so far as is in his power.

The Course of Action
There are nations that have forbidden Christianity. America could even legislate that which would outlaw the basic principles of the Christian faith. Should such a calamitous event ever occur in our nation civil law ought to be set down and the divine laws of Scripture upheld as the guiding principles.
It is permissible according to Scripture to break the law when that law requires one to personally defy God’s law. If the decision is set before the Christian, he ought to do as Daniel of old did and continue to obey God in the face of evil legislation, but he ought to do it personally. He should do it, not to be seen or because he is angry, but out of personal conviction that what he is doing is the command of God.

Christians…Americans…all who love this country. Uphold the foundation of law on which America stands. Hold the law of God in highest honor – and lend staunch loyalty to the laws of men that emulate it. Be men and women of morality by not condescending to petty disobediences in order to gain attention. Rather, be pillars of society, and influence this nation to return to righteousness. Be active, be proactive; be an American and a Christian.

Works Cited:

The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982

Random House Unabridged Dictionary. Toronto: Random, 2006

Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. Toronto: Random, 1995

Nicolay, John G. and John Hay, ed. The Complete Works of Abraham Lincoln – Vol. I. New York: The Century Co., 1894

Jefferson, Thomas. Declaration of Independence. June 28, 1776

Holland, Josiah Gilbert. Gold-Foil Hammered from Popular Proverbs. London: William P. Nimmo, 1878

Hamilton, Alexander. Tully, No. 3. August 28, 1794


Post a Comment