240 Years Later: Reflections on Civil Disobedience

It’s my habit to read the Declaration of Independence on this day every year. Reading it is powerful; listening to it being read aloud, even more so. I sit in a New England farmhouse with the breeze coming through the open windows, and I wonder if the farmers who lived here 240 years ago were as moved as I am. At least some of them must have been. Why else would they risk being tried and executed as traitors to the Crown?

Independence Day is not a celebration of the Constitution, the American military, or our government. None of those things existed in 1776. Indeed, the document declared that the colonies were themselves free and independent states. They did this in the name of and by the authority of “the good People of these Colonies”. Independence Day is about the people standing up to tyranny and oppression, and doing so in full knowledge of what it may cost them. It was civil disobedience at best, and outright treason at worst. They dared ask for the protection and blessing of God above in their endeavor. One has to wonder, was that a contradiction?

Any discussion of government in Christian circles today will reveal the belief that it is right and Biblical for people to obey the government, regardless of whether it is oppressive or not. Romans 13 it typically pointed to as the reasoning behind this idea. It’s an idea that must be challenged though, no matter how widely accepted it has become.

First, I would point out that Daniel, and his friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, acted in direct disobedience to the Babylonian king. The apostles similarly defied multiple governments and officials by preaching the Gospel. Colonists in America refused to attend the official Church of England services and started their own meetings in homes; then refused to pay the fines levied for breaking the law in this manner. Brother Andrew acted in opposition to the laws of the USSR when he smuggled bibles to believers behind the Iron Curtain. Were any of them wrong to do so? You could argue that the law was requiring them to deny God, and so their disobedience is excused because of the circumstances. Fair enough.

Second, I would bring attention to the Hebrew midwives who were ordered by Pharaoh to kill all of the baby boys born. Not only did they disobey their ruler, they lied to him when questioned about their disobedience by telling him that all of the boys were born before they arrived. In the 1800s, people across America were part of an Underground Railroad that worked to help slaves escape to freedom. Even in the so-called “free states” their actions were illegal and many were tried and punished for it. Corrie ten Boom and her family broke the law when they helped Jews hide and escape the country. Were any of these people wrong to do so? You might counter that their actions directly saved the lives of people, and thus their law-breaking was acceptable. Certainly true.

So, might we then conclude that one need not obey the government when they demand that you deny God, or when doing so saves a life? I imagine that most Christians would agree with that. In any case, we begin to see that this “obey the government” concept is not a hard and fast rule. Let’s step a bit further into the gray areas now.

One can, and many do argue that the American Colonies were acting in sin when declaring their independence and opposing the rightful King of England. Plenty of Loyalists in the 1770s argued that the Revolution was not Biblical. It’s even easier to hold such an opinion today, I believe, because of the amount of time that has passed. None yet live to tell their stories of what life was like during that time. The more recent the history though, the harder it is to be so dispassionate.

Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer: German pastor, spy, and conspirator against the Nazi government. He grappled with the issue of whether he would serve if conscripted into military service. He was eventually banned by the government from public speaking, and yet continued to do so in secret. He was a part of the German resistance that sought to overthrow the government. He was later tied to a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. There were Christians in Germany and abroad who criticized his actions. But dare we assert that he was wrong in opposing the terrible atrocities and acting as much in his power as he could to put an end to them?

Let us not forget Rosa Parks. Liberals, conservatives, atheists, and Christians alike have labeled her quiet act of civil disobedience as heroic. And yet, she had not be asked to deny God. She was not directly acting to save the life of another. In her own humble way, she simply opposed an injustice. The law was not on her side. The courts considered her refusal to give up her seat as a criminal act. Should she have given up her seat? Should the many people who spoke out and actively opposed the injustice of their day have just sit down, shut up, and obeyed the law?

These are weighty questions, and there are no easy answers. But these are questions that can no longer be ignored by believers. Christians must grapple with these issues, and discard the pat answers that we’ve been given. It would be comforting to believe that the circumstances we find ourselves in the midst of are not in any way comparable to the ones that I’ve mentioned in this article. Comforting, but incorrect. We rarely understand the gravity of our present situation until many years have passed.

May I pose a hypothetical question? This proposed scenario is not terribly far-fetched in light of recent events. Should it become illegal for private citizens to own firearms and ammunition, will you willingly turn yours in? Or, will you hide your firearms and lie when asked? Would it be wrong to do so?

Corrie ten Boom choose the second option. When citizens were ordered to turn in their radios, she hid one in the stairs of her family’s home and turned in only one radio. When asked if it was the only one they owned, she replied that it was. Was that wrong?

Let’s look for a moment at Romans 13:3&4 (HCSB)

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.”

It’s clear that governments are established by God to punish the evildoer. What then should we do when government itself becomes the evildoer? Should we by our silence be complicit in their evil deeds? Or should we stand on the side of right, even if it means we are in opposition to our government?

Throughout history, countless Christians faced this dilemma. Each one had to carefully and prayerfully consider the situation that they found themselves in, but the decision was one that they had to make themselves. Christians have landed on both sides of every major political and ethical debate in recorded history. It is not enough for us to simply follow the decisions of others. We must take responsibility for our own actions, and be prepared to justify our actions, or lack thereof before God Himself. It is no easy task, and I’m sure that many of the people living in the American Colonies 240 years ago struggled mightily with it.

Whether we agree with the decisions made in July of 1776 or not, today is a day for us to reflect upon the idea of civil disobedience and what circumstances might justify it. I do not doubt that my generation will face these decisions ourselves. In the end, I believe there is some wisdom for us in these words written by Bonhoeffer:

“…when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it… Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.”

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