A Law Higher Than the Law: The Religious Basis for Civil Disobedience

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Martin Luther King, Jr. in Jail for Civil Disobedience

A nation without law becomes chaotic, even unlivable, with citizens having their rights violated and they, in turn, violating the rights of others. The value of law is that it creates peace, which is the tranquility of an ordered society. That is why America is a nation governed by law. Those who live in America should follow the law, even if they do not always agree with it.

The Moral Presupposition of Civil Disobedience

However, there are some laws which a person cannot, in good conscience, obey, because they contradict what he or she believes. To follow such laws would mean that a person is not being true to himself or herself, that is, his or her deepest beliefs and values.

Obedience, then, is limited by the very fact that a human being has a conscience. Civil disobedience presupposes that a person cannot obey a law, because it is unjust, not morally right. In fact, an unjust law, according to Thomas Aquinas, “is no longer a law but a perversion of law.”

The Civil Rights Movement

Such reasoning is behind the protests of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1950s and 1960s. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. led a public demonstration, protesting policies of segregation and discrimination in that State. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King gave a biblical and philosophical defense for civil disobedience, saying,

“I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.”

The laws in Alabama promoted discrimination and segregation. But King would not accept the simplistic notion that law, by virtue of its own authority, is morally right. He writes,

“We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’” and that “It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany.”

Hence, discrimination and segregation were legally right and yet morally wrong.

The Non-Violent Approach to Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is most effective, gains the attention of civil authorities, when it is peaceful or non-violent. Men and women should do everything within their power to resolve a conflict peacefully. As citizens of the United States, they also have the right to protest the interpretations of the Constitution of the United States by the Supreme Court of the United States. For example, former Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas wrote,

“From our earliest history, we have insisted that each of us is and must be free to criticize the government, however brashly; even to advocate overthrow of the government itself. We have insisted upon freedom of speech and of the press and, as the First Amendment to the Constitution puts it, upon ‘the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’”

What Civil Disobedience Does Not Mean

Civil disobedience does not mean immediately rushing out into the public and protesting a law, because a person or group disagrees with it. There is a political process leading up to civil disobedience and protestors should not attempt to circumvent it. Democracy in the United States presupposes that rational men women will use words (hence, freedom of speech and of the press), not resort to weapons, to change unjust laws. Violence as a method of civil disobedience begets counter-violence, resulting in social chaos.

Accepting the Consequences of Civil Disobedience

Dr. King went to jail in Birmingham, Alabama, for civil disobedience. King, practicing what he preached, wrote,

“One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”

That is to say, there is a legal penalty for civil disobedience and those who break the law must be willing to accept it, such as being arrested and even going to jail. Those who honor Dr. King’s memory and his peaceful practice of civil disobedience should do the same.

Endnote

Abe Fortas, Concerning Dissent and Civil Disobedience (New York, N.Y.: New American Library, 1968), p. 24.

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