I’d like to take just a moment to make the case for civil disobedience, especially for my Christian brothers and sisters who may be reluctant to see going to jail as a legitimate form of faithful witness.
There are a lot of ways to change the world. Going to jail isn’t the only way to do it. But it is one way. Some of the great movers and shakers of history ended up behind bars: Jesus. Mandela. Dr. King. Gandhi. Dorothy Day. Cesar Chavez. Emma Goldman. Crazy Horse. Rosa Parks. Aung San Suu Kyi. And on and on.
Civil disobedience has played a critical role in the movement to end slavery, from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights movement. Sit-ins at “whites-only” lunch counters, wade-ins at segregated swimming pools, and the bus boycotts are just a few expressions of holy law-breaking. Freedom movements around the world have used civil disobedience to protect indigenous land, expose bad laws, stop militarism and oppressive regimes, and forge a new world.
But even before modern-era social movements, there is a history of civil disobedience weaved throughout the Bible and Christian history. It’s worth highlighting just a few of those, especially in light of the pushback I get from some older Christians who don’t think good Christians should go to jail.
First-century Christians were branded as lawbreakers for refusing to bow to the Roman emperor or his image. Martin Luther broke ecclesiastical laws of the Catholic church over freedom of religion. The American revolutionaries broke laws imposed by King George that oppressed the colonies. During the tyranny of Nazi Germany, Corrie ten Boom’s family disobeyed German law by hiding and protecting Jews. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller stood against German laws instituted by Hitler’s Nazi regime. The Anabaptists, Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren communities refused to adhere to laws pertaining to engaging in war. Christians smuggled Bibles into the Soviet Union and other Soviet Bloc nations against laws that prohibited importing Bibles. American abolitionists broke laws in order to bring about racial equality. Martin Luther King, Jr. broke laws intended to enforce racial division. The list of Christian civil disobedience is endless … and keeps getting new additions as time passes.
I prefer to think of civil disobedience as “divine obedience” — that we are obeying God even when the “laws of man” stand in the way. It becomes helpful to remember that whatever we call it — civil disobedience, divine obedience, moral resistance, holy troublemaking — disobeying bad laws has not only held a historic place in social change but it has also been an ever-present part of the Christian story.
All the way back in the Old Testament we have the Exodus story of the Hebrew slaves escaping Pharaoh’s plantation — an iconic act of liberation and of holy rebellion.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing a royal order that violated their commitment to God. Daniel ignored the king’s law prohibiting prayer, and Darius flung him into the den of lions…and on and on.
Moses’ very birth was an act of civil disobedience when his mother floated him down a river to escape Pharaoh’s slaughter of the innocents, and the Hebrew midwives rescued him in defiance of royal orders.
Then there’s Jesus — from birth his life is marked with a subversive twist. The magi defy Herod’s orders and protect Jesus. He challenges Caesar’s power, and is accused of insurrection. Eventually he is executed on a Roman cross, next to two other rebels…and crosses were reserved for the worst agitators in the empire.
Just as Jesus went to jail, so did many of his followers. The book of Acts and the accounts of the early Church are filled with stories of jail time, beatings, and even state-sanctioned executions of folks such as John the Baptist. Paul and Silas have a great story of the Spirit busting them out of jail. Paul’s letter to Philemon was written to urge a former slave owner to illegally welcome back a fugitive slave (Onesimus) — and to welcome him not as a slave but as a brother … a crime punishable by death.
Of course, the martyrs were known precisely for their faithfulness to God over Caesar. One of the early Christians said that every time a Christian proclaimed “Jesus is Lord,” they were saying “Caesar is not.” The early Christians were known to be rebels and revolutionaries, albeit in a very different kind of revolution — a revolution that was as much for the freedom of the oppressors as for the freedom of the oppressed, a nonviolent revolution marked by enemy-love, gentleness, and audacious grace. But it was a revolution nonetheless.
“These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here…They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7, NIV). We see this holy mischief all the way through the Bible, even to the book of Revelation — where John, the writer of Revelation, gets exiled.
Here are a few quotes from the earliest days of Christianity that illustrate the subversive nature of the early Jesus movement:
“We are charged with being irreligious people and, what is more, irreligious in respect to the emperors since we refuse to pay religious homage to their imperial majesties…. High treason is a crime of offense against the Roman religion. It is a crime of open irreligion, a raising of the hand to injure the deity…. Christians are considered to be enemies of the State … we do not celebrate the festivals of the Caesars. Guards and informers bring up accusations against the Christians … blasphemers and traitors … we are charged with sacrilege and high treason … we give testimony to the truth.” — Tertullian
“The Christians form among themselves secret societies that exist outside the system of laws … an obscure and mysterious community founded on revolt and the advantage that accrues from it.” — Letter to Origen
“They form a rabble of profane conspiracy…. They despise titles of honor and the purple robe of high government office though hardly able themselves to cover their own nakedness. Just like a rank growth of weeds, the abominable haunts where this impious confederacy meet are multiplying all over the world. Root and branch, it should at all costs be exterminated and accursed.” — Minucius Felix
Indeed, as we look at Church history, it is hard to miss the collision between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Jesus promises the disciples that the world will hate them, that they will be dragged before courts and magistrates. It is a promise that if they live real good, they will get beat up real bad. But what is important is that they are to return love for evil. They are to stare into the face of those who persecute them and say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
You get the point. There is a subversive element all through the history of Christianity. Augustine himself, one of the most prominent ethicists in Christendom said, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
Actually, there are only a couple of verses that can be used to argue that Christians should NOT go to jail, or that they should obey every leader and every law, even if the leader and the laws are in contradiction to God’s law and God’s love.
The most prominent verse used to debunk civil disobedience is Romans 13. It’s noteworthy that the entire chapter before (Romans 12) is about not conforming to “the patterns of the world” and such. And then Paul writes Romans 13 about how we should submit to the authorities because they are established by God. The same Paul who wrote this in Romans 13 also wrote Ephesians where he says that we do not wrestle against flesh and blood (people) but against the powers and authorities (and he uses the same word he used in Romans) — and he writes from jail. The same Paul who wrote that we are to submit to authority goes to jail for subverting authority.
I suggest this — there are two ways to respectfully submit to authority: (1) Obeying the good laws (2) Disobeying the bad laws openly and being willing to suffer the consequences, thereby exposing injustice and making a spectacle of it. As Gandhi and King said: “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”
That is what good resistance work does — we expose injustice, and make it so uncomfortable that people can’t help but respond. We are willing to suffer the consequences of disobeying the laws or authorities. We are willing to suffer with those who suffer in order to end the suffering. This is exactly what Jesus did and calls his followers to do. Theologian John Howard Yoder calls it “revolutionary subordination.” We submit to the authorities to expose the injustices they defend.
Humility is a central component to faithful civil disobedience, which is why nonviolence is so important. Nonviolence exposes the violence precisely by contrast. By not mirroring the evil, we are able to make a spectacle of it. We must continually remember that we are not fighting against “flesh and blood” but against “principalities and powers,” as the Apostle Paul reminds us. We always want to win new converts to the movement and soften the hearts of our opponents.
These are the words of Dr. King:
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our houses and threaten our children, and we will still love you. Beat us and leave us half dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”
There have been times when we have gone to jail for sleeping in a park to challenge anti-homeless ordinances, and the very police officers who arrested us showed up to trial to argue on our behalf and to challenge the unjust laws they arrested us for breaking.
Good resistance work holds up a mirror to the world. That’s how movements change laws. When you see militarized police spraying nonviolent protestors in Birmingham or Standing Rock, it makes you ask questions about who is right and who is on the right side of history. When we’ve gone to jail for sharing food with the homeless or sleeping in public parks, we are able to put the laws on trial and change them.
When I went to Iraq in 2003 during the war, I joined a team that included many Christians, pastors, and doctors. We took medication to the hospitals, hung out with families, and worshiped with Iraqi Christians. This was all technically illegal, because the U.S. sanctions prohibited us from taking medication and other supplies to the people of Iraq. When we returned, the U.S. State Department declared a lawsuit against the group, specifically the doctors who faced up to 12 years in prison. What we argued and continue to believe is that the sanctions and bombing were violating God’s law to love our neighbors (or enemies, for that matter) as ourselves. And we were willing to go to jail for that.
In the end, no one went to jail. However, some of the doctors were fined about $20,000. In an act of revolutionary subordination, they paid it … in Iraqi dinar. What would have been the equivalent of $20,000 in Iraqi currency tanked to be worth around $8, continuing to expose the devastating consequences of the war — the destruction of life and of livelihoods. That’s what good civil disobedience looked like. We’ve even seen judges and prosecutors moved to question the laws we broke.
More recently, 18 of us held a banner that said “Stop Executions!” in front of the Supreme Court, and we were arrested. What many people did not know prior to our arrest is that ironically the First Amendment ends on the steps of the Court that is meant to protect it. Even though we were not blocking doors or disruptive in any way, the simple act of protest is illegal on Supreme Court property. We faced up to 60 days in prison and a fine of $90,000 for holding the banner. At the very moment we were arrested, the government was preparing to execute a man named Ricky Gray in Virginia. It is clear that there is a difference between what is legal and what is right or ethical. It may be legal to execute people, but that doesn’t make it right. And it may be illegal to protest in front of the Supreme Court, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong. It is a strange thing to live in a country where it is legal to execute people but illegal to hold a banner in front of our highest court.
So yes, we go to jail for getting in the way of wars, for standing against the death penalty, for supporting our most vulnerable people, and speaking out against hatred and violence in all its ugly forms. As one of my friends and co-defendants said in court a few weeks ago, “I am a man with many deeply felt convictions.”
I am proud that I can tell my children and my children’s children that I went to jail the week of Donald Trump’s inauguration. And I anticipate going to jail many more times during his presidency. In fact, I am honored to join more than 6,000 other leaders who are willing to go to jail in the days to come.
There is an entire movement in Philadelphia committed to nonviolently resisting federal deportations of immigrant families. There is a moral movement happening in our country, with thousands of us willing to go to jail. There are lots of good things to go to jail for these days.
Dozens of disabilities advocates were arrested last month outside Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell’s office, many of them handcuffed in their wheelchairs. And this past week, 11 faith leaders were arrested at that same office, many of them carrying signs that said: “Love Thy Neighbor (no exceptions).” In an age of injustice, civil disobedience is a holy response, or as Gandhi said “our sacred duty.”
As we go to jail, we will take courage from the rich community of saints we find ourselves with — both now and throughout history. And when I get home, the kids will ask me why I went to jail. And I will tell them as I always do: “You can go to jail for doing something wrong. And you can also go to jail for doing something right. We went to jail for doing something right.”