Tuesday, April 08, 2008

When Should We Disobey Our Government?

Over on the blog of Craig Alan Myers, from the BRF (Brethren Revival Fellowship) which is the conservative wing of my denomination, Craig says:
THERE ARE only two times when the disciple of Jesus declines to obey human authorities: (1) If the government forbids him to do what the Bible plainly commands; (2) If the government commands him to do what the New Testament clearly forbids. Note the following examples which illustrate each situation:

(1) The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) commands us to preach the Gospel to every person. If rulers forbid our doing what God clearly commands, we do it anyhow, like Peter and John did (Acts 4:13-20).

(2) Jesus prohibits the taking of human life and teaches us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). If rulers command us to take human life, we refuse to do it, like the early church did for three centuries after the time of Christ

The prevailing atmosphere in the New Testament is one of respect for those persons in the places of civil authority. Very seldom does it happen in a nation which is a republic that one is required to do what God’s Word clearly forbids. If we must ever disobey human government, it should be done with a spirit of humility and not in a spirit of defiance.
Is this really true? A couple of thoughts.

First, notice what Craig says is the only authority for deciding whether to obey or disobey civil authorities: the Bible. God doesn't speak in any other way? To one's conscience, for example?

Second, Craig says that "the prevailing atmosphere in the New Testament is one of respect for those persons in places of civil authority." Is this true for Jesus? I don't think so. Take for example this teaching of Jesus from Matthew 5:41:
41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.
In the passage from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is addressing one of the much resented reminders of the Roman occupation of Palestine: soldiers forcing civilians to carry their packs on military marches. What is Jesus saying here? Kill them with kindness? Ingratiate oneself with the enemy to stay out of trouble?

This example clearly does not meet Craig's threshold for resistance to civil authorities. It is not about preaching the gospel or killing another person. Jesus is addressing a humiliating and unjust act sanctioned by the goverment. What is his instruction?

Here is what Walter Wink has to say about Jesus' instructions in his classic, Engaging the Powers:
Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to exercise a supererogatory piety, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a non-political message of spiritual world-transcendence. he is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity. (p. 182)
Jesus is teaching a strategy of non-violent resistance to unjust actions sanctioned by civil authorities. A practice Jesus himself employed in the passion story: riding the donkey into Jerusalem making messianic claims about himself in the midst of a highly charged Passover atmosphere, overturning the tables of the money-changers in the temple, refusing to answer the questions of Pilate, etc. Each of these actions is an example of non-violent resistance to civil authorities. (I suppose we can debate whether over-turning tables in the temple is non-violent.)

Our (Craig and me) Church of the Brethren ancestors misread these passages and others as examples of non-resistance to evil. They did not know what we know now about the sitz im leben, the setting in life, of these passages. They did know all too well about oppression against the anabaptist movement. But what they took from the scriptures was a lesson on non-violent (right) non-resistance (wrong) to the injustices perpetrated by government in the name of keeping the peace.

It is certainly true in theory that, as Craig says, because we live in a republic there ought to be rare moments when we need to resist civil authorities. But the practical history of the long struggle for civil rights in our country, as well as the recent history in my life-time of political leaders taking us into two wars on false pretenses and of having a current administration willing to sanction illegal wiretapping and torture of prisoners suggests otherwise. And my reading of the teachings and practice of Jesus tells me that when our government acts in unjust ways and we are unable to remedy the situation through the ballot box then we are called to non-violent resistance to this injustice. Just like Jesus did.

No comments: