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Civil disobedience involves a conscientious, nonviolent, and public violation of law or government policy with the intent of affecting social change. Since acts of civil obedience involve nonviolence and publicness, they are distinguished from illegal acts, and therefore, easier to defend. The motivation for civil disobedience is conscientious, as opposed to considerations that are merely pragmatic or prudential. The decision to participate in such an act is typically for the benefit of society, such as causing attention or interest to be directed toward injustice, which thereby stimulates moral consciousness and initiates the vigorous activity of social change.
The concept of civil disobedience traces to antiquity. Socrates chose death rather than cease pursing truth and wisdom. Addressing his countrymen, he declared, “I shall obey God rather than you.” Even the Bible provides lucid examples for civil disobedience. The Hebrew midwives refused the command of Pharaoh to violate the sanctity of life (Exod 1:15–22).Although the authority of a government may be vast, a Christian understanding of human authority is that none is absolute. Romans (13:1–12) teaches that the legal ordinances and statutes of the state must be obeyed because God ordains the powers. However, it would appear that Paul was referring to legitimate governments and just laws. There are illegitimate governments and unjust laws so that obedience to corrupt or immoral practices is not an option. Obedience to the law of God may require participation in civil disobedience, and those who engage in such acts must be willing to accept the consequences of disobedience from the authority of the state.
Although there are ancient and biblical examples of civil disobedience, the first modern exposition of such obligations is written by Henry David Thoreau in his famous essay of 1849, “Resistance to Civil Government.” Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax as a protest against slavery and the United States–Mexico War (1848). He compared government to a machine and the problems of government to friction. When injustice is the major characteristic of government and people are forced to follow injustice, thereby becoming “the agent of injustice,” then principled people must let their “life be a counter friction to stop the machine.” Thoreau’s act of civil disobedience was not the first in nineteenth-century America. During the years 1829 to 1839, missionaries to the Cherokee Indians were confronted with a Georgia state law that demanded an oath of allegiance to reside in the Cherokee territory of the state. The legislation against the missionaries required them to obtain a special permit from the governor, which would express their support of Indian territory forfeiture and removal of the Indians from their lands. The missionaries disobeyed the state law and were imprisoned. The concept of civil disobedience was later renewed in America as a result of groups that organized to nullify the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.Also significant, the notion of a conscientious minority who could “clog the machine” of an unjust government was a tremendous influence upon Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in the twentieth century.
Civil disobedience contrasts with revolution. For instance, the colonial revolutionaries disobeyed English laws. As a development of the limited view of government advanced by the Protestant Reformers, John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1690) provided intellectual justification for revolution. Revolution occurs suddenly and violently in sociopolitical processes, with the goal to defeat and seize control of government power. Revolution, then, is directed toward the complete overthrow of an existing government power. The first criterion for participation in revolution would be whether it is a just cause; revolution must not be engaged because of burden or inconvenience, or even for the benefit of a narrowly minded ideology. A just revolution should always consider the best interests of society as a whole (i.e., it should not serve the special interests of a private group). As such, it would be appropriate in defense of basic human rights, such as individual and religious liberties. However, a peaceful revolution must always be acted first, with violent means being only the final option. Another criterion rests on existence of evidence that the revolution will be successful. Considering the potential for loss of life and civil unrest, it would be foolish and irresponsible to engage in a revolution that has no hope for victory or that might make matters worse. Revolution must also be justly engaged through the use of just means. Though revolution may be justly engaged, there is never any rationale for unjust means, such as mutilation or torture. The essential requirements of justice must be a greater priority than the normal inclination for nonviolence and social constancy.
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- Griffiths, Brian, ed. Is Revolution Change? Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter Varsity Press, 1971.
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- King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letters from Birmingham City Jail. Philadelphia: American Friends Service Committee, 1961.
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- Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods, and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. New York: New American Library, 1980.
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