taking the words of Jesus seriously

The time may be at hand when we will see an outbreak of civil disobedience being practiced by Christians on a scale that has not been witnessed for decades.  Already there are signs that there are those in the household of Christian faith who are so outraged by the unnecessary loss of life and the increasing instance of violence brought on by the oppression of millions of citizens in the middle east (most recently in Egypt and Jordan) that they feel that extreme action against these nations governments are justified.

It is all well and good to advise these troubled individuals to wait until the next election or to give the newly appointed cabinets members and administrations a chance, but there are many who are saying, “We cannot wait another day to put a stop to the insanity of our oppression. We have waited for years and years and the time to act is now!”

On the other hand, there are those who will cite scripture, claiming that civil disobedience is not a legitimate practice for Christians.  In Romans 13:1-2, it reads “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  Given these Bible verses, it seems obvious to them that civil disobedience is contrary to biblical teaching and, therefore, out of the will of God.

As I think about all of this, I remember two particular events in my life during the tumultuous ‘60s which may have a great deal of relevance to our discussion of civil disobedience as it is being considered in today’s circumstances.  The first episode occurred during the early ‘60s when I was a guest speaker on a university campus in southern Indiana.  I had just finished a lecture on the need for Christians to participate in the Civil Rights Movement, when a student rose to his feet to ask me a question.  The twang in his voice seemed to suggest, in my prejudiced mind, that he was some kind of not-too-smart hillbilly.  Accents can often be deceptive.  He asked, “Hey preacher, do you suppose that a Christian could ever deliberately break the laws laid down by society and get arrested, and still call himself a Christian?”

I reared back, as only a “know-it-all” university professor is prone to do, and answered with an air of self-confidence, telling the young man that he ought to consider what the Apostle Paul wrote in the 13th chapter of Romans. Then I quoted the passage cited above.

When I finished, my seemingly naïve questioner came back at me by asking, “Preacher!  Where was Paul when he wrote that stuff?”  I was taken aback by the question, and somewhat embarrassed by my own answer.  “He was in jail.”

Before I could continue, the young man, who had now become my adversary, asked, “How did he get there, Preacher?”

When I tried to say that it was a long story that I’d rather not get into, he interrupted me and said, “Well, let me tell you how he got there.  You see, they were having this problem down in Jerusalem.  The Jews and the Gentiles just weren’t getting along with each other because the Jews were against any kind of racial mixing.  You know what I mean?  So Paul decided to do something about that.  He kind of wanted a racially integrated church so he decided to go down there to Jerusalem and straighten out those folks himself.”

“Now Paul knew that talking was not as convincing as demonstrating the truth, so he decided to travel there with a Gentile as his companion.  He and his Gentile friend—you know, that man from the other race—probably stayed in the same compartment on the ship that took them across the Mediterranean.  I don’t know what you’d call that, Preacher, but it seems like that was the first ‘Freedom Ride’ to me!”

“When Paul and that guy from the other race got to Jerusalem, they decided to get a meal together and that really upset the folks down there in Jerusalem because they didn’t have integrated dining in those days.  Jews just didn’t eat with Gentiles, but Paul and his Gentile friend did just that.  They broke the rules.  I don’t know what you’d call that, Preacher, but it sounds like the first ‘sit-in’ to me!”

“If that wasn’t enough, when the two of them finished eating, they decided to go up to the Temple and pray together.  I mean, Paul was about to take that Gentile into the holy place where only Jews were supposed to go.  I suppose you would have to call that a ‘pray-in.’  Well, that was just too much for those proper, law-abiding folks in Jerusalem, and they rioted.  Now, Preacher, if Paul was really a godly man, he wouldn’t have been breaking the laws of the land and engaging in any race riot, now would he?

“Then some Roman soldiers rushed in and took Paul and his friend into what they called ‘protective custody.’  Those soldiers thought they would teach Paul a lesson or two for causing a public disturbance so they beat him up—you know, they did a little of that ‘police brutality’ stuff.  But when Paul got a hearing the next day, he told the judge that he knew his rights as a Roman citizen, and he wasn’t going to put up with all of this.  So Paul appealed his case to the Supreme Court.  In those days, Preacher, the Supreme Court was in Rome, and it was on his way to Rome in protective custody, probably with chains on, that he got around to writing those words that you just quoted to us.  Now, how could a man who broke the laws and ended up in jail call himself a Christian?  I mean, wasn’t he practicing some of that civil disobedience that he condemns in that passage of scripture you just quoted?”

It was an awkward moment for me because I knew that my questioner had swayed the crowd in his favor.  He had made the case for civil disobedience with his questions in ways that a philosophical argument never could.

The second experience that caused me to reflect on civil disobedience occurred in the early ‘70s.  President Nixon had just ordered the invasion of Cambodia, and campuses erupted from one side of the nation to the other.  In many schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania where I was teaching at the time, classes were called off because the students felt that it was more important to rally against the war than to study.

At Penn, a huge rally was held in the basketball stadium and thousands of students showed up.  Student leaders from various groups made speeches decrying the war and calling for civil disobedience that would shut down the city of Philadelphia until the war in Southeast Asia was stopped.  It seemed like every student group on campus had a spokesperson there.  The woman who spoke for the Feminist Movement cited the war as one more example of what power-hungry men were doing to this world.  The leader of the Black Student League contended that it was one more example of how a white society denigrates people of color.  And the neo-Marxist group on campus declared loud and clear that wars such as this one were nothing more than expressions of capitalistic interests.

In the midst of all of this anti-American rhetoric, a young man who had recently become a Christian came to the rostrum.  Like most new converts, the “zeal of the Lord” was evident in the intensity of what he had to say.  I can vividly recall him addressing that huge student body by saying, “I don’t know how many of you believe in God, but only those of you who believe in God have the right to practice civil disobedience!”  Shockwaves and angry murmurs rose from the crowd while someone shouted out, “Religion isn’t the cure to this war!  It’s one of the causes!  Americans think that God is on their side and therefore they can do anything.”  People cheered.

The young man raised his hands and the crowd quieted to let him speak again.  “You see, ” he said, “if there is no God, the highest law to govern us is the law of the state.  If there is no God, the only laws that exist are laws that come from human inventions.  Now, if you are going to disobey the laws of the land, you have to do it in the name of a higher law.  I mean, the American people elected President Nixon and, whether you like it or not, most of them support him and this war.”

This brave young Christian then went on to say, “I’m opposed to this war and I’m ready to practice civil disobedience, but that’s because I don’t recognize the law of the land as the highest law.  I believe there is a God who establishes righteousness for the nations of the world and I believe that, in this war, America is violating God’s laws of righteousness.  That’s why I feel justified in practicing civil disobedience, because I contend that the laws of the land are not the ultimate laws and that America is not my god.  In the name of the God who transcends America and who is judging America, I take my stand!”  To my amazement, in this secular institution, from a crowd that could hardly be called the “God Squad, ” there was a standing ovation.

I always told my students that if they were to practice civil disobedience, they should not seek to escape arrest.  Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that.  I scolded young men who wanted to run away from the draft during the Vietnam War and seek safety in Canada.  I told them that wasn’t right, that according to Romans 13 they were obligated to submit to the state.  I then would go on to point out that the state always provided two options: either they could submit to the laws of the state, or they could submit to the punishment of the state.  In either case, they would be submitting to the state.  If they understood that, they could practice civil disobedience, but on insofar as they were ready to be put behind bars, or even worse, as a consequence of their disobedience.  To submit to the punishment prescribed by the state for those who violate its rules is a practice very much in accord with what Paul asks for in Romans 13.

Yes, I believe in civil disobedience!  But only after legal options for correcting a hideous social evil have been exhausted.  I admire those in the antebellum south who broke the laws and sneaked African-Americans to freedom.  And I cheered those followers of Martin Luther King who went to jail as they defied the law and marched for civil rights.

Presently, we may be facing a situation wherein civil disobedience will have to be practiced by those who believe that the oppressive actions of governments are against the will of God.  At such times both we in the west and our brothers and sisters in the Middle East must be ready, “to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, ” as hard as that might be. Here in America we must push our leaders to work towards the betterment of our sisters and brothers in the Middle East and those currently in the Middle East must stand united against oppression and injustice.

About The Author


Tony Campolo is Professor of Sociology at Eastern University, and was formerly on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania. For 40 years, he founded and led the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, an organization that created and supported programs serving needy communities in the Third World as well as in “at risk” neighborhoods across North America. More recently, Dr. Campolo has provided leadership for the Red Letter Christians movement. He blogs regularly at his own website. Tony and his wife Peggy live near Philadelphia, and have two children and four grandchildren.

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