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A critical response to Nick Jensen’s “Christians and Principles of Civil Disobedience”

Wednesday, 3 December 2014  | Paul Tyson

Mr Nick Jensen, of the Australian Christian Lobby, has recently expressed his unease with the publicized approach to civil disobedience as used by the ‘Love Makes A Way’ (LMAW) campaign. This campaign uses acts of non-violent law breaking (refusing to leave a parliamentarian’s office after closing time) as a means of procuring a publicized protest against our government’s detention of – currently – around 700 asylum seeker children.

I will summarize what I see as the nub of Mr Jensen’s argument.

Mr Jensen argues that only laws that are just are genuinely valid laws, so to break a just law in protest against a law one sees as un-just is to shoot oneself in the foot. Mr Jensen sees laws upholding the property rights of legitimate owners, and laws protecting elected parliamentarians and civil servants from unreasonable disruption in the course of their public duties, as “fundamentally” just laws. Hence, to gain media attention by breaking just laws so as to make a public protest against placing children in detention, seems – to Mr Jensen – opportunistic, to undermine its own logical integrity, and inadequately theologically thought through.

Mr Jensen does not rule out Christian civil disobedience in toto, but he comes very close to insisting that unless the law broken is itself an unjust law, then the normal process of lobbying via the normal legal means should be upheld. In short, Mr Jensen, as a professional Christian lobbyist, seems rather embarrassed by the unprofessional civil disobedience modus of the Love Makes A Way, and sees that approach as crassly buying in to a ‘media circus’ method of seeking to influence public opinion and government policy.

Mr Jensen does not make any serious attempt to address the substantive moral issue that the LMAW campaign is concerned with. Mr Jensen is primarily concerned with formal procedural matters concerning what type of civil disobedience is consistent with upholding just laws. So the scope of Mr Jensen’s argument is very narrow. In what follows I will firstly problematize the terms of his argument, for it is the very narrowness of Mr Jensen’s response to the LMAW campaign that strikes me as the most inadequate feature of his stance.

It is significant that Mr Jensen appeals to Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas in seeking to argue how Christian civil disobedience should be pursued. Unless we have evidence to the contrary, such sources would naturally tend to situate Mr Jensen’s political theology in a broadly ‘pro-Christendom’ camp.

Saint Augustine wrote one of his masterpieces – De Civitate Dei contra Paganos – against a common sentiment in elite Roman society in the dying years of the Classical civilization. That sentiment held that Rome was failing because the emperors had turned from the traditional gods of Rome and become the patrons of the Christian religion. That is, Augustine was an apologist for the new Constantinean arrangement where imperial wealth and power patronised the Church, and in this arrangement the Christian religion was in turn of great political significance to imperial and civic power. Even so, Western Christendom did not shine in its full luminosity until the High Middle Ages – Saint Thomas Aquinas’ era. In Saint Thomas’ day papal majesty and power was stronger than that of kings and emperors. Further, law, moral norms, learning and commerce were governed and enlivened by the Church. Given such a tight synergy between the authority of the Church, civil power, and the moral, economic and class structures of Western society, it is not surprising that the great theologians of that era were mainly concerned with upholding the status quo – it was a Christian status quo after all. Thus, there is very little grounds for any sort of civil (let alone ecclesial) disobedience to be found in the writings of Augustine and Aquinas that is not carefully countered by arguments upholding the formal legitimacy and glorious authority of church and state power within Christendom.

The point I am seeking to establish here is that Mr Jensen is likely to (correctly) see today’s Western culture as embedded in its Christendom past. Hence, a Conservative upholder of the Christian roots of today’s Western society thinks of Church and State as being substantive partners in upholding a distinctly Western way of life, even where formal separations between church and state are carefully maintained. For, indeed, our laws are still embedded in the cannon law of the Church, and our political institutions are strongly shaped by the glories and convulsions of Western church history. Further, liberal secular democratic modernity is itself a theological invention of the West. Indeed, the classically modern distinctions between subjective private freedoms, respectable public norms and objective necessities is deeply cherished by the kind of Conservatism the Australian Christian Lobby is known for. This Conservatism happily combines modern notions of religious and private liberty, with respectable Western values, and with hard Right notions of political and economic realism (a stance which Tony Abbott, for example, is very comfortable with).

A ‘pro-Christendom’ Conservative political theology – such as I am assuming Mr Jensen holds – is going to feel uncomfortable with just about any sort of religiously motivated act of civil disobedience. Right wing Evangelical, Anglican and Roman Catholic civil consciousness is a strong supporter of the respectable status quo it sees itself as a guardian of. Both of our major political parties – both very conservative, very keen to uphold “Australian values”, very pragmatic in terms of pursuing “the national interest”, very pro ‘border protection’ – are entirely at ease with that status quo, and expect strong electoral support from conservative Christians. Such conservativism is not going to read – for example – Leonardo Boff’s liberation theology. Our pro-Christendom, embedded conservatism does not have the life experience or the theological perspective that will lean it towards moving outside of the established rules of engagement upheld by the status quo, and siding with the oppressed and the marginalized against the respectable and the powerful. Even so, aspects of this pro-Christendom stance do have, I think, an important role to play in Australian public life.

I want to suggest that a dialectical relationship should be upheld where—to swing to Old Testament terminology—a ‘priest and palace’ mentality needs to co-exist uncomfortably with a ‘prophetic’ mentality. Both outlooks have their strengths and their limitations, but it is often not very helpful for one ‘side’ to judge the other ‘side’ by criteria it would use on itself.  That is, I think the Church should try and walk and chew gum at the same time. Some should seek to influence power via established means, in recognition that there is indeed much Christian heritage in today’s Western political institutions and way of life. On the other hand, others should attempt more radical critiques of respectability and established power. For both the Scriptures and Church history clearly teach us that the ‘priesthood and the palace’ does regularly fall to the idolatrous pursuit of debased vested interests that favour the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and marginal – under the cloak of piety, respectable morality and legal legitimacy.

It seems clear to me that Mr Jensen has applied a ‘priest and palace’ conservative criteria of effective and valid lobbying – which he himself is comfortable with – to Christians seeking to exercise a more prophetic challenge to the status quo itself. Mr Jensen’s attempt to produce a universal Christian principle of valid civil disobedience does not recognise the bias of his underlying status quo affirming political theology, which certainly governs how he approaches lobbying, and probably shapes his thinking on the substantive issue LWAM is concerned with far more than he has admitted. And it is to that substantive issue that I would now like to briefly turn. 

LMAW maintains that the Australian government’s policy of detaining hundreds of children of asylum seekers for, on average, 400 days each, with no certainty regarding the outcome of their ordeal, is unconscionably immoral. Further, all Christians and all Australians of good will should strenuously oppose the policies and laws that our governments have implemented in order to create the present situation. LMAW notes that the normal modes of political advocacy that could be used to address this situation have failed because the inhumanity of our policy has bipartisan support in our major political party blocks. Some attempt to speak directly to the Australian people needs to be made, some attempt to make this inhumanity a real political issue in the Australian public needs to ventured. Harmless acts of civil disobedience are symbolically significant as measures of political desperation, and as a means of generating public interest in the matter. But the real point of the exercise is not about civil disobedience, and it is not about the LMAW activists, it is the substantive moral issue of locking up children in degrading and increasingly hopeless (regarding asylum claims) situations.

Mr Jensen has not convinced me that our lawmakers who pass laws and pursue policies that abrogate our national responsibilities as signatories of the Refugee Convention are enacting just immigration laws. Contrary to that Convention, in this century our law makers have criminalizing boat arrival asylum seekers, have refused to process and settle legitimate refugees, and have locking them all up (including their children) in designedly ‘discouraging’ and hopeless conditions. How could this be just? Short of violent confrontation with the guards and police (which a commitment to non-violence rules out), no means of resisting that injustice directly is open to Australian citizens, so some other form of resistance needs to be attempted if the matter is a serious offense against the standards of justice God requires of us, as is strongly indicated in the above sited Bible verses. To that end, Love Makes A Way is doing the best it can to prophetically challenge a degraded status quo. I wish Mr Jensen well if he is seeking to change immigration policy via what he deems appropriate and ‘respectful’ (through the aforementioned established means), but I think the time for a prophetic disregard for the false dignities of unjust law makers has now well and truly arrived in Australia.

Dr Paul Tyson is an Honorary Assistant Professor in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham (UK).



Nick Jensen
February 11, 2015, 12:45PM
Thanks for your engagement Dr. Tyson,

I might just write a short response for those interested in the continuation of the debate.

Myoriginal argument is articulated adequately, that is that for an act of civil disobedience to be just, it should only ever consider breaking unjust laws. Indeed this is a narrow focus intentionally, simply because following on from the analysis of Romans 13 we are trying to develop some fundamental principles not based on complex modern policy debates, but rather solid philosophical and theological foundations.

Therefore I would have rather have avoided personal labels and assumptions, as I don't think they enhance the debate. Surprising as it may be I am not a 'conservative', nor is the ACL for that matter, despite the term being used 8 times to describe my position. I think dividing the debate into 'progressives' and 'conservatives' takes away from good political theology.

In terms of the more interesting discussions around Augustine and Aquinas, the position was that by using figures from a period of intermingled church and State one is undermining a critique from outside of power. This seems to neglect however Augustine's significant mentor of St. Ambrose who has the most famous story of church civil disobedience in history, as well as St. Thomas' well developed position of deposing a tyrant. Both these examples illustrate that these men were more than willing to challenge corrupt rulers no matter how ingrained the church was. We are also forgetting that this debate began with an analysis of Paul in Romans 13 calling us to submit to authorities - certainly long before Christendom.

The main thrust of Dr. Tyson's alternative position is around the prophetic arm of the church to challenge the status quo. In all honesty I have great sympathy and excitement for this aspect of church life and a large part of my role in developing Christian leaders in policy is wrestling with exactly how we can do this in our current culture. However, can not prophetic input be given without breaking just laws? I cannot think of an example of a prophet that broke one (happy to be shown otherwise though).

Finally Dr. Tyson turns the discussion towards the specific issue that LMAW are pushing. My argument was never trying to convince anyone that the immigration laws were just - only that a Christian response should be just. The answer to this seemed to be a subtle shift in the conclusion to emphasise 'unjust lawmakers' rather than 'unjust laws', suggesting that we are in some way allowed scope on breaking good laws if we are doing 'the best we can' and if the leaders are so unjust as to be tyrannical. I'm not sure if I can agree with either of these ideas.

My unanswered question really is:

If it is okay to break just laws for the purpose of civil disobedience in non-tyrannical governments (unless you want to argue tyranny), then where do you draw the line on what is permissible?

Happy for any responses to the two questions above as I am genuinely interested. I am also genuinely interested and concerned about the refugee policy, having lived with a refugee for a number of years. However, please forgive me for once again avoiding placing my position on this as I think a principled theological argument much more helpful than a partisan one.

Blessings, and I pray we may continue to seek to push each other to a higher understanding of truth through this debate.

Paul Tyson
February 15, 2015, 10:23AM
Thanks for responding to my response Nick.

Clearly you and I have a fundamental disagreement about the relationship between the procedural and the substantive. I don’t think the rights or wrongs of non-violent illegal sit-ins entail any serious theological soul searching, but I think legally putting the children of asylum seekers in detention is of very grave theological and moral concern. It seems that you think the rights and wrongs of child detention is a complex matter that intelligent Christians might happily disagree about, but that the question of whether an illegal non-violent sit–in can be theologically justified is something that no serious Christian concerned with political life in Australia should fail to give the most serious consideration to. Why we disagree about this is what concerns me.

Either you wish to (a) isolate the procedural question of whether a just law can be broken in any Christian act of civil disobedience from the substantive matter of identifying an injustice that warrants a politically situated and illegal Christian response, or (b) you are seeking to say that the really important substantive question for a Christian involved in any act of civil disobedience is whether it is ever valid to break a just law in any act of civil disobedience or not. I, on the other hand, either (a) do not think that questions of modes of civil disobedience should be isolated from the substantive concerns being protested against, or (b) I think that the substantive issue at stake with LMAW is not whether property laws are fundamentally just or not, but whether our policy on the treatment of locking up the children of asylum seekers is fundamentally just or not. Either way, you won’t talk about what I think matters and I won’t talk about what you think matters.

Here is how I would seek to say that you are not focusing on what matters.

Contrary to your protestations to be making no claim about the morality or otherwise of child detention, you have not in fact isolated the procedural question from the substantive question, and nor – in my opinion – should you. You cannot reasonably claim to have given nothing away regarding your appraisal of LMAW’s substantive concerns. In your original argument you open the topic up by strongly imply that LMAW’s possibly compassionate looking (bleeding heart?) protest is simplistic (can children really be suffering from being in detention?), that the Australian government’s recent policy regarding holding children in detention is complex – implying that you do not find detaining children of asylum seekers inherently problematic – and that LMAW provided no practical alternative to the prevailing policy – imply that not locking the children of asylum seekers up is somehow impractical. On this last matter, you give the reader reasonable grounds to suspect that you support the Abbott government’s commitment to sending a “strong message” to boat arrival asylum seekers, including locking up their children in detention centres as more or less practically necessary to make their policy of deterrence work. You strongly imply that LMAW looks politically partisan in its actions, hence implying your own tacit support of the government and its current policy in relation to children in detention. It is for these reasons that I have called you ‘conservative’. Only after situating yourself thus do you then shift focus and turn your attention to the more general matter of what type of civil disobedience is biblically justified. I appreciate that on that latter question you are addressing the argument on Romans 13 put forward by Matthew Anslow. But the manner in which your concern is situated in relation to your deep sense of unease about LMAW is what catches my attention, not your argument about Romans 13. For you seem strangely insensitive to the inhumanity successive Australian governments have shown to boat arrival asylum seekers this century, and seem only concerned with upholding due process. Frankly, this looks like straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel to me.


Nick Jensen
February 24, 2015, 11:20AM
Dear Dr. Tyson, thank you for your response.

I find that 'a' (isolate the procedural question from the substantive matter) is probably closest to my approach. The reason I think this is so important to get right before touching specific forms of injustice is that we should always work from the general principle first. If you will permit me to explain my approach if it will help us better to critique.

For a Christian to engage in the question of the political, there needs to be groundwork done.

First, we should focus on our understanding of the narrative Scripture, the fundamental questions it answers, and principles it gives. For example, the answer we give to the question of what is a human creature will fundamentally impact how we view any policy around health, education, welfare, marriage, and, indeed, refugees.

Secondly, we need to study society and culture closely to gain a deep understanding of not only how politics, media, law, and politics work but also what the picture of a flourishing society looks like this side of heaven.

Thirdly, we need to build a political ideological framework that allows us to make decisions quickly rather than have to return to first principles for every decision. This must be done carefully so as not to contradict our Biblical narrative.

Lastly, once these three other points are wisely developed, we should engage effectively and prudently on specific policy questions and acts of injustice facing our modern societies.

What I am saying therefore is that perhaps it is insensitive of me to avoid this particular policy question. However, the question of what are appropriate ways to respond to injustice for a Christian is simply more fundamental (step 1) - and must be decided prior to getting involved in an emotionally charged specific debate (step 4).

My passion and role is to develop foundations of Christian leaders to make sure they have these fundamentals in order to be faithful, effective and grounded Christians in the public arena. Please forgive me as I know this approach may appear cold and detached rationally from clearly a very important current issue, but for me the building blocks for engagement must always come first.

Blessings, Nick

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