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Social activism: Should we act in civil disobedience?

4.12. 2017 Posted By: Glen Guyton 187 Times read

Glen Guyton is chief operating officer for Mennonite Church USA. This post originally appeared on the Youth Specialties blog

Yes! I believe that as Christians we should engage our world. We are called to engage, but that can mean different things to different people.

Jesus clearly pushed the limits when dealing with the institutional church back in his day. You know, like claiming to be the son of God and healing on the Sabbath. But maybe his most violent act of civil disobedience comes in Matthew 21:12 (NLV): “Then Jesus went into the house of God and made all those leave who were buying and selling there. He turned over the tables of the men who changed money. He turned over the seats of those who sold doves.” Jesus got pretty wild in this passage.

There is a cost to civil disobedience and living out your faith. It might not cost you your life, but the cost may come in the form of friends, family, finances or your freedom. Please understand that Christ paid the ultimate price for rebelling against the powers that be. He was crucified.

It is a big detail that today’s Christians minimize or at the very least gloss over as some catchy cliché. Sure we quote John 3:16, but I sense that we are somewhat numb to equating living out our faith with experiencing deep sacrifice. The Scripture reminds us more of Monday Night Football than it does of an unselfish father giving up his flesh and blood. Jesus said, “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it” (Mark 8:35 NLT).

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to church leaders about civil disobedience as he sat in the Birmingham jail:

“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire…We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

Should the church engage in civil disobedience? I say, “Yes! We should. But only to the extent that it is a demonstration of the love and power of Jesus Christ.” We should follow the leading of God’s spirit and use wise discernment (not social media) to determine the appropriate course of action.

Here are some questions you could ask yourself before engaging in civil disobedience: 

  1. What policy or injustice am I trying to change?
  2. What changes are acceptable? Be specific and make a list of demands/requests.
  3. What will happen if I reach my goal? There are always pros, cons and unintended consequences of any change process. Diversity of viewpoints, culture and gender in the leadership/planning team for any movement or event helps offset this.
  4. Who will be affected by this change? Understand the ripple effects of your civil disobedience. For example, maybe you are boycotting a hotel because of the policies of the owner. How will workers be affected? How will vacationing families and other guests be impacted? If applicable, what about the police or other city workers that have to respond?
  5. Who do I need on my team? Who is planning and organizing what is going to happen? What if someone gets hurt or arrested? Who is in charge?
  6. How will you make the change stick? Ultimately change movements have to be institutionalized to bring about sustainable change. That is often why you need both insiders and outsiders working together to bring about institutional change. Will this act of civil disobedience just bring about awareness? Is this a one-time event or part of a sustained effort?

Finally, consider this: 

Acts of civil disobedience are often responses to institutional crises or policies. Institutions are large, unwieldy things that don’t like to change. The people that lead them are often slow to respond and they seek to preserve the status quo. Changing an institution can often be like stopping a locomotive. They don’t stop on a dime. The average freight train is about 1 to 1¼ miles in length (90 to 120 rail cars). When it’s moving at 55 miles an hour, it can take a mile or more to stop after the locomotive engineer fully applies the emergency brake. An 8-car passenger train moving at 80 miles an hour needs a full mile to stop. It takes a lot of energy to get institutions moving and a whole lot of energy to get them to stop doing what they are doing.

I can’t tell you when to engage in civil disobedience or when not to engage; that is between you and the Holy Spirit. But if you feel led to engage: be prepared, have a clear purpose, partner with the right people and pray for God to be your advocate.

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One Response to “Social activism: Should we act in civil disobedience?”

  1. Aaron Yoder says:

    Glen, I appreciate your piece in that you are asking Christians to pray and count the cost before engaging in civil disobedience. However, I would have liked to see stronger scriptural reasons why someone should engage in civil disobedience. Jesus wasn’t pushing the limits of Judaism for the cause of “freedom.” He was simply calling them to return to a correct and godly interpretation of Scripture, since they had added laws to God’s Word. It seems as though the primary reason you believe Christians potentially should engage in civil disobedience is because MLK Jr. did. Could you provide stronger scriptural evidence as to why Christians ought to engage in civil disobedience? I’m not necessary disagreeing with your piece. However, a biblical foundation would be helpful since there may be some who read your article and believe action is necessary without first grounding their actions in God’s Word.

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