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Christians and Principles of Civil Disobedience

Monday, 1 December 2014  | Nick Jensen

I must confess that from the first instance of hearing about the actions of “Love Makes a Way” (LMAW), I felt uncomfortable. I watched the news clip as a group of Christians, including ministers, were led out of the Minister for Immigration’s office, arrested for sitting in his waiting area singing songs and refusing to leave. I watched as they were interviewed by the pre-organised media to explain their campaign—to put pressure on the Coalition government to reverse the ‘children in detention’ policy.

I was unsure, however, as to why I initially felt uncomfortable. In part, I think I was frustrated that prayer and worship were being used primarily as a political statement and what could easily be accused of being a ‘media stunt’. I also wondered whether their critique was simplistic given the complexities of the issue and that they did not present a practical alternative. It could have also been a concern of a perceived partisanship and the targeting of a government rather than the facts surrounding the policy.

But these issues were not at the heart of the matter. After some months of reflection—and, in the meantime, many more political Christian activist office arrests occurred—I realised my core discomfort was theological. Therefore, I offer this reflection to stimulate further friendly discussion on some principles of civil disobedience.

Romans 13 and ‘Civil Disobedience’

Recently Matthew Anslow, a development worker and supporter of LMAW, wrote a piece for Engage.Mail (with a fuller version in Crucible) that explored the question of whether Romans 13 allowed for civil disobedience by Christians. Anslow points out that the government of Paul’s time was an imperial dictatorship and that, in the wider context of Romans, an interpretation of unquestioning obedience to authorities was inconsistent. He also points to broader biblical stories involving, and seemingly affirming, forms of civil disobedience, particularly in the Old Testament but also in the life of Jesus. Lastly, he makes compelling points regarding times Christians will need to choose whether to follow Caesar’s authority when it conflicts which a command of God, but making sure it is in a non-violent way.

All in all, I see this as a valuable addition to the discussion around civil disobedience and a helpful exegesis of Romans 13 from this perspective. However, I believe there is a need to take this issue further and to distinguish different types of civil disobedience and the theological principles behind appropriate and consistent use.

‘Civil Disobedience’ Defined

Civil disobedience is the refusal to obey certain laws, demands, or commands of a government (or occupying power) for the sake of a ‘higher law’. If we translate this into a Christian context, as Anslow has done, it might be defined as disobeying the government on an important matter of principle where God’s will, as understood through Scripture, is contravened. This act of disobedience would be constrained by the principle of non-violence. This is exactly what LMAW have aimed to do with their protest movement.

However, the problem here is breadth. With just this definition to guide us, a vast array of civil disobedience actions—some very unwise—could find legitimation. For example, I could refuse to pay my taxes due to the knowledge that some were being used to pay for things I objected to—perhaps abortions or unjustified wars. To what extent, then, ought I urge others to follow my lead (to follow the moral principle of universalizability)? This would fit well within the above definition of civil obedience, but could have unforeseen consequences—done en masse, withholding taxes might have damaging results for the provision of State services for those in need.

What we need therefore, assuming that civil disobedience is sometimes necessary, are additional principles to clarify when and how a Christian should engage in these actions. In order to develop a fuller picture of civil disobedience from a Christian perspective, we might consult some leading Christian thinkers in history who have wrestled with questions of the relationship between Christian faith and civil law. Here is a start.

Augustine and ‘Unjust laws’

The towering theological figure of St. Augustine (AD 354-430) gives us our first principle for our approach to ‘Caesar’ when he says:

A law which is not just does not seem to me to be a law at all

– ‘On the Free Choice of the Will’ (Book 1, Section 5.11)

This now famous maxim—often paraphrased as “An unjust law is not law at all”—has formed part of the basis for natural law theory. It fits neatly with the Christian definition of civil disobedience (above) since justice (broadly defined) is the basis of all law and, from a Christian perspective, originates in God’s character of goodness and righteousness. Therefore, any government making a law that is not just is acting contrary to God’s will and ultimately cannot be recognised as authentic law by a Christian.

This initially seems pretty straightforward, but for me it raises a question about the approach of LMAW. It could be reasonably argued that children being held in detention is an unjust law and should not be recognised. That law might be resisted. But here is my problem. This is not the law that is being broken by the sit-in movement. Instead they are breaking a just law in order to make a point about an unjust one.

Think back to Rosa Parks and the black civil rights movement. Parks defied a State government law by intentionally sitting at the front of the bus rather than the back which was designated for ‘Negros’. Her act of civil disobedience was the breaking of an unjust law that promoted racial segregation and inequality, contrary to the dignity of being made in God’s image and welcomed equally as sons and daughters of God in Christ (Gen. 1:26-28 and Gal. 3:28). Laws banning appropriate protests, forcing doctors to refer for abortion against conscience, or inhibiting the people to gather their own resources (as in Ghandi’s great salt walk) would also generally fall into this category of ‘unjust laws’ and civil disobedience might directly challenge them.

However, intentionally trespassing and disrupting the work of an elected official does not fit with this principle. It is breaking a just and reasonable—indeed fundamental—law, albeit for the sake of challenging an unjust one, and therefore does not fit within Augustine’s justification.

A direct challenge, fitting with the principle, might be to break into a detention centre in order to release the children. Indeed, Augustine once contemplated whether to pull a group together to storm a ship with illegal slaves on board. St. Ambrose of Milan and other monks were willing to put their heads on the blocks alongside citizens who were being punished excessively for vandalism. The Old Testament examples of civil disobedience and Jesus’ disruptive acts in the Temple can all  be considered the breaking of unjust laws. For civil disobedience to cohere well with the Romans 13 exhortation to submit to authorities, I contend that it must be an unjust law that is being broken, not a just one.

Aquinas and Avoiding Disturbance

However, before we decide to organise covert non-violent operations to free children in detention, we might consider one more principle. This one comes from the great ethicist and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) who famously sought a critical synthesis between Aristotle and Augustine. Following in the steps of Aristotle, one of his key ideas was that the means, environment, and ends all need to be good for an action to be considered good in itself. So, when talking about whether human law binds a man’s conscience he says:

“Augustine says ‘a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.’ Wherefore such laws do not bind in conscience, except perhaps in order to avoid scandal or disturbance, for which cause a man should even yield his right”.

            Summa Theologica (Q96 – Article 4)

Taking the broader context of Aquinas into account, I understand him to be saying that even when an unjust law has been determined, civil disobedience still needs to be subject to an ethical framework. If the breaking of an unjust law has a good intention but the consequences are worse than the results of the law itself, then it is not a good act.

So, if Christians broke into the detention centres to release the children, the consequences of this action might well be worse than those under the law holding them in the first place. Not only would there most likely be serious injury (to the protestors or the children), but the children would also then cease to have access to Australian services by becoming fugitives. It may be justified due to child detention arguably being an unjust law, but according to Aquinas that ‘right’ should be yielded if greater damage is the result.

This is also why Christians shouldn’t stop paying their taxes even when they see Government money being used in part for things they oppose—necessary services for many people who rely in whole or part upon them would be hampered or worse. Although the motivation is good, the evil resulting needs to be taken into consideration. (Please note that I am not accusing LMAW of causing greater evil in their sit-ins. I am simply adding to the original principle of keeping consequences in mind when breaking unjust laws.)


These two principles—that of only breaking ‘unjust laws’ and only taking action ‘if the ends are less evil than the ends of the unjust law itself’—give us a more consistent and ethical picture of civil disobedience from a Christian perspective. I would happily include in this the original non-violent principle that Matthew Anslow has articulated from the book of Romans. Any violent act done by a group in civil disobedience would be very difficult to justify (including under Christian forms of ‘just war’ theory). Moreover, the effective practice is usually to submit to whatever punishment the State may inflict even if it is unjust or excessive as a further witness to a failure in justice. LMAW have been upfront about accepting this punishment for their actions.

I understand the heart and motivation of fellow followers of Christ. I also respect that God may often call us to engage in different ways and play different parts in redeeming our public policy. However, I would want to continue the discussion to challenge the movement to consider not only good motivations and strategy, but also to consider in principled terms the precedents they are setting. If deliberately breaking just or foundational laws become an acceptable part of civil disobedience for Christians then what will the potential consequences be?

One issue of consequence here is the question of perception. When media is involved, we can be too easily accused of creating ‘stunts’ for media attention rather than more clearly challenging the validity of law and working respectfully with those engaged in very complex policy. This is a difficult space in which to tread. For example, some Christians I know who work as political staffers have questioned whether some of the protesters they encountered genuinely wanted to engage with the politicians or were simply pushing for arrest and attention. This perception should not be summarily dismissed.

My alternative at this stage would be to keep working with government as far as possible to creatively develop policy that could balance the spectrum of issues rather than focus on one, albeit vitally important, element. In the meantime, we must continue to do what the church does best: build relationships with elected members and refugees alike, be generous and provide presents, education, and encouragement for these children, continue to advocate for fair and generous treatment, and to invite refugee families into our communities when they are released. There may come a time for stronger civil disobedience—that I don’t deny—but I don’t believe the issue is extreme enough yet. And when that time comes, it should be in a way that not only recognises the complexity of the issues and hard work of policy makers, but also does so without breaking just laws.

Let the conversation continue!

Nick Jensen
is the Director of the
Lachlan Macquarie Internship, a program initiated by the Australian Christian Lobby designed for developing Christian leaders in public policy.


Doug Hynd
December 1, 2014, 8:50PM
A couple of quick thoughts:
1. Civil disobedience in the tradition of the civil rights movement involves a deep respect for and submission to the authorities and thus reflects an obedience to the injunction of Romans 13.
2. Activities such as LMAW can go alongside other involvements in living out the Christian commission to love our neighbours, such as asylum seekers.Certainly some of those who I know have been involved in LMAW have had long involvement in both lobbying government on the policy and practical service in meeting the needs of asylum seekers.
John Altmann
December 1, 2014, 11:14PM
Isn't the discussion about the proper limits of civil disobedience somewhat beside the point? The point, I imagine, about the sit in type protests with prayers or worship is one of speaking up for the powerless and voiceless with an alternative point of view that is otherwise being silenced, not listened to and denied by the government policy/laws. Breaking the law by causing minor civil unrest and inconvenience to a government minister is an assertion of the need for the powerless to be heard and taken account of.

The Christian tradition that ought to be examined here is about the limits of advocacy.

It is an ironic form of deliberately (disobedient) advocacy that is being practised. The irony is in the implicit argument from the minor to the major. If to get the major issue of the way we treat children listened to I have to get arrested then (by implication and appeal to the general voter) haven't things come to a sorry and morally disproportionate state of affairs? They'll arrest me for the minor violation while tolerating a major evil!

Jesus said it best: "You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel."

So isn't the key practical question: is it necessary to break a minor law to draw attention to a greater evil? And the wider discussion should be about whether this will work to change people's hearts and minds compared to other methods of Christian engagement?

There is a rich tradition of assuming that often powerful hearts are dulled and their ears will not hear, in the OT prophets and in Jesus' teaching. But knowing this rarely stops the prophets in their tracks.
Nick Jensen
December 2, 2014, 12:31AM
Doug - I don't disagree with either of your points. The point I am making is that a 'a submission to authorities' by being willing to be arrested is not enough. All facets of justice need to be considered, including just laws.

John - I do indeed understand the irony as well as the need to be a voice for the powerless. I am less sure about the 'necessary evil means' argument of breaking good laws so more serious evil laws can have attention drawn to them. Cannot people's hearts and minds be changed without resorting to this? Is it then just an issue of more creative engagement that doesn't have the difficulty of bad means for good ends?
John McKinnon
December 2, 2014, 9:23AM
"I don’t believe the issue is extreme enough yet"
Makes me wonder how much the author actually knows about the asylum issue. What would he consider an extreme issue? Indefinitely locking up innocent children in inhumane conditions, returning refugees to places of persecution, turning blind eyes to abuse in these concentration camps? Just what is not extreme enough in that?
Also, the author says "My alternative at this stage would be to keep working with government as far as possible". Again, if he was across the issue he would know the govt is not listening to anyone, from the UN to the high court. I would be interested to know what he thinks IS possible on that front and maybe he can point to some effective "legal" (as opposed to civil disobedience) action that has been taken.
Nick Jensen
December 2, 2014, 4:30PM
John - thanks for your comment. I don't know why my personal situation should make any difference to the arguments put forward. However, as part of my work I have had the privilege of discussing this issue and working with Christians in the very highest level of politics, media, NGO's, the Church, and the public service. I have also been very close to people who have worked on the ground at Christmas Island, and even lived with a refugee for a number of years. Not completely relevant but hopefully addresses your concern.

What I have heard from Christian's working in Immigration and Borders, as well as PM&C on this policy is that it is a 'wicked' one (in the complex sense rather than moral sense). They have had great anxiety in trying make this policy balance all the issues at stake, and in their minds it often comes down to an imperfect policy which has the least amount of evil.

Where do I draw the line of extreme? When breaking the kids out would result in a greater good than not breaking them out. As articulated in my piece I think we are a fair way off that, and a very long way off them being concentration camps.

In terms of effective 'legal' manuevers, over the last couple of years we have to recognise, even if one doesn't like the government, that children in detention has dropped 50% and the numbers of children dying at sea has dropped dramatically.

I would argue from experience that if you want a government to 'listen' then you need to articulate workable policy solutions. Simply criticising without a good alternative is the challenge I am giving to LMAW. I do think there are better solutions than what we have that we need creatively develop, but I also think it could be alot worse.
Ted Sherwood
December 2, 2014, 9:41PM
I am not a theologian - just a Christian who is trying to follow Jesus' commands - but before reading either Matthew's article or yours, the campaign didn't feel right to me. I was able to put my finger on the issue quite quickly: how is putting oneself deliberately where a law would be contravened qualitatively the same as refusing to obey a law that went against God's laws?
Byron Smith
December 3, 2014, 2:31AM

Thank you for this thoughtful response to a complex question.

I agree with you in having hesitations about civil disobedience that breaks a law that is not itself unjust. However, sometimes, unjust laws are not easily broken, especially if they are targeting someone other than myself. Indeed, even your hypothetical example would require the breaking of numerous just laws in order to attempt to break an unjust one.

Nonetheless, after much reflection, I believe that under certain circumstances, just laws can be broken in ways that make it clear the real point is about the unjust law, while the just law is upheld and no example is set justifying a general breaking of the just law. As an example, I have myself been twice arrested for blocking a road leading to a horrendously wicked industrial project. Taking for granted for the moment that the project is indeed wicked (and very likely corruptly approved), it is the approval itself that is unjust, rather than the road rule about obstructing traffic, yet it is not possible for me to break the unjust approval directly. By blocking an access road which has no other purpose than providing entry to the site, I am clearly focussing my action against the unjust law (i.e. the approval allowing the project to go ahead) by preventing that project from going ahead (at least for a few hours) with my body. In this way, and by repeatedly affirming in general the justice of a law concerning obstruction, I make it clear that I do not condone a general breaking of just laws simply to make a point. In the many dozens of conversations my actions have sparked, not a single person has asked me whether I condone obstruction in general, or has given me the impression that they were under any confusion about which law was unjust.

Your second major point (that most can and must be said about the means, environment and ends of civil disobedience) is true and proper, but Matt's original piece was clearly not attempting a comprehensive account of a general theory of civil disobedience. It set itself a far more modest task: "a brief attempt to address the question of whether Romans 13 does in fact prohibit the possibility of faithful Christian nonviolent civil disobedience."

So, on the possibility of civil disobedience, Romans 13 notwithstanding, we are agreed. As presumably, we are also agreed on the fact that more needs to be said about what goes into making a given instance of Christian civil disobedience faithful and just than simply that it is peaceful and intended to highlight an unjust law.

So let me add a few more comments on elements of your piece where I think we have larger disagreements.

• "I also wondered whether their critique was simplistic given the complexities of the issue and that they did not present a practical alternative."

Many of the people involved have spent years advocating for and taking practical steps towards concrete solutions. The practical alternative of this particular movement (which is not aiming to be comprehensive) is that we no longer indefinitely detain children convicted of no crime in conditions worse than those faced by murderers. In short, I don't think a fully worked out alternative is necessary to make a negative point: some "solutions" are so fundamentally wicked that they are off the table from the start. Deliberately abusing children convicted of no crime to send a message to third parties seems to me to fit that category pretty straightforwardly.

• "It could have also been a concern of a perceived partisanship and the targeting of a government rather than the facts surrounding the policy."

The occupations have targeted ministers from both major parties, and again, those involved have almost unanimously been involved in this issue in various ways for years, under both ALP and Coalition governments.

"a just and reasonable—indeed fundamental—law"
Why is trespass a fundamental law? These people were seeking an audience with their elected representative in their public office. In every case that I am aware of, the work of the minister was not disrupted by their presence.

"working respectfully with those engaged in very complex policy"
Most of those involved have spent years doing precisely this, and yet those currently in charge of the policy now refuse to even meet with them.

"I don’t believe the issue is extreme enough yet"
Our government is treating innocent people, hundreds and hundreds of them, in ways that very large numbers of independent experts and national or global authorities consider abusive, akin to torture, designed to cause psychological harm, and which are in direct contravention of our solemn commitments under international law. This is done explicitly to punish innocent people, convicted of no crime, who were pursuing a legal right in order to deter unrelated third parties from also pursuing that same right. Meanwhile, the government minister tasked with responsibility for these people (including being the legal guardian of children in detention) point blank refuses to answer questions. Our military personnel are commanded to break international maritime law (or condoned in doing so). We are corrupting the governments of smaller, vulnerable nations that look to us for support and help, abusing their reliance on us by pressuring them into a situation of legal deniability for harms done by them in our name.

At what stage might this issue have become extreme enough to justify doing more than these churches and individuals have been doing for many years while policies have become harsher and harsher?

"the numbers of children dying at sea has dropped dramatically"
We actually don't know this. Sources in Indonesia have claimed that scores of boats have still departed for Australia this year, yet the information blackout means we simply don't know the fate of most of them. Minister Morrison has confirmed that dozens of boats have departed from Indonesia this year. The boats have not been stopped, simply (often illegally) turned back and/or no longer acknowledged if they do go down.

Overall, to return to the big picture and whether these actions are justified, the fact that conversations about refugees and Christian obligations and opportunities in the face of unjust laws is now a topic of conversation in many Christian contexts in a way that it wasn't 12 months ago, is testimony to at least one of the effects of these actions. I personally know of dozens of people who, having seen LMAW in action, are now far more committed to working for a just and sane solution on this issue than they were previously. And for that, I thank God.

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