The soul of civil disobedience


I volunteer for Big Brothers-Big Sisters in its "Real Men Read" program. I read to second graders at a nearby public school.

The first book this academic year was about a black high school girl in Birmingham, Alabama, during the early civil rights movement. She decided that she would go to jail in protest of segregated public buses. She sat in the whites-only section, was arrested and went quietly to jail. The book’s goal was to make her a heroine, but I amplified this with a discourse on when and how civil disobedience is appropriate. Here are the points I made to these seven-year olds, all of it, incidentally, arguing against the rioting this summer in our cities:

Be sure you are acting in accord with a higher-level principle rather than just your own prejudice or pique. I counseled them to avoid self-indulgent, self-important narcissism without ever using any of those adult words.

Do not resort to violence and never harm anyone else by your actions.

Never deny others their rights by demanding yours. This includes inconveniencing others who are going about their lawful business. Shouting down speakers, blocking entrances to businesses, vandalizing the private property of others, etc., is not civil disobedience; rather it is simply undemocratic, and often criminal, behavior.

Be willing to accept the legal consequences of illegal activity, even when you believe the law is immoral or unconstitutional.

So where is the line between righteous civil disobedience and just plain disobedience to the law? For the Christian this is not easily determined. We have Peter’s declamation to the Sanhedrin that we should obey God rather than man, but God’s perfect will is not always properly discerned by imperfect man. Too often, those who say they refuse to obey a law are abrogating to themselves the right to know God’s will.

My own church body, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, has tried to maneuver this labyrinth on the immigration issue. We are committed to perform acts of mercy to the least of these His brethren (see Micah 8 and Matthew 25) while still owing obedience to the state.

My synod’s response to the crisis has been to care for these unfortunates by providing for their basic needs and helping them through the immigration process to legalize their status, but never violating the law by employing them illegally or circumventing public benefit requirements. This is on our dime, not the public’s, and it is a demonstration of our compassionate faith.

So what is a devout Christian who is also a classical liberal to do?

We have been blessed in America not having to face the gut-wrenching, life-threatening scenarios that confronted a St. Augustine or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I fear we are lurching toward one, however, even though our discourse hasn’t reached the fever pitch of the 1850s — as yet. At least no congressman has caned another on the floor of the House of Representatives.

One could have predicted, though, that our national leaders’ rhetoric would incite such violence, if not from our elected representatives themselves then from their less controlled and controllable acolytes on the college campuses and in the urban centers.

The Anglo-Saxons had a prayer for strength during the age of Viking depravations. Now the Vikings’ ideological progeny are at our gates and it will take strength on our part to hold them off. Maybe the Angelo Codavillas and F.H. Buckleys are right and we should face up to the test now before it becomes a bloody auto de fe.

It is the Christian in me, however, that pushes back on this analysis, believing that intelligent people of good will can find a compromise solution to a dispute.

Putting this Pollyannaish nature aside, however, leaves me with the unwanted realization, reinforced by the pictures of urban rioting, beating and looting, that many today are not of good will and certainly not acting intelligently.

Which takes us back to first causes — politically not theologically. The battle is between classical liberals in the Founding Fathers mold and radical progressives (who have gone well past the Wilson-Roosevelt-Johnson idea of the welfare state in favor of a revolutionary, confiscatory, command economy by force majeure.)

The Constitution has no truck with them, hence their vehement attacks on it and its principles, and it is only time before they launch an assault on the Declaration of Independence. After all, wasn’t it written by white male slaveholders?

One should never end an essay this way, but I just don’t know the answer. I do know that we had better figure it out if our nation is to survive as the land of the free as the Founding Fathers constructed it. We owe it to our grandchildren to secure these blessings of liberty.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. This is excerpted from a larger work in the current issue of The Indiana Policy Review accessible here. Send comments to [email protected].

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