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Civil Disobedience


There seem to be a higher percentage of political activists amongst Quakers than we have observed in any other religious group. The Jesus Christians have some reservations about how much can be achieved politically (See the next article, Christian Politicians.) but they have always been activists. Below is an early document supporting their practice of civil disobedience as a form of peaceful protest.

Why do we sometimes practice civil disobedience?

1. Because Jesus did not condemn it, and he was guilty of breaking laws himself. It was against the law to follow Jesus (John 9:22; and John 12:42) and Jesus said it would be much the same today (John 16:2). Judas is called the 'son of perdition' for co-operating with civil authorities in disclosing Jesus' hideout. The disciples also disobeyed civil authorities whenever they understood it to be necessary as part of carrying out God's will. (Acts 5:28-29)

2. Paul says Christians are free from the law. In Romans 2:17-23 he says people who boast that they obey the law are hypocrites, because everyone breaks laws at times. In Romans 7 and 8 he teaches that we have graduated from civil laws to heavenly laws if we are obedient to Jesus. Jesus said the same thing when he taught that loving God and others is fulfillment of the highest good in all laws (Matthew 22:37-40)

3. Submitting to all civil authorities is impossible, since governments are constantly in conflict with one another. Should Christians in Libya, for example, become terrorists if Gaddafi tells them to?

Obviously we must respect the good in any government while rejecting the evil. This is the spirit of passages like Romans 13:1-3, which tell us governments only have 'authority' if God chooses to grant it. But apart from respecting the good that is in any government, any pretence of them having authority to enforce evil laws or goals is a sham.

4. There are hierarchies of laws; any law which contradicts a higher law is, in itself, illegal. A by-law that is contrary to the constitution must not be obeyed by truly law-abiding citizens. The highest law, of course, is God's law. If we act in love, then we are acting in harmony with what is good in all laws.

It appears that when Peter and Paul were telling Christians to obey the law, they weren't doing so in some absolute, moral way. We understand that the followers of Jesus (i.e. all truly sincere people, who are motivated by love and the truth) are members of the Royal Family, and they reign in a new Kingdom (Matthew 17:25-26). As such, we do not owe our ultimate allegiance to any earthly government.

But in keeping with the law of love that governs this Kingdom, Jesus tells us to do what we can to keep from offending lesser governments (Matthew 17:27).

Paul says the same thing in Romans 13:7-8: "Give tribute to whom tribute is due... but owe no man anything except to love one another; for anyone who loves has fulfilled the law."

(See also Respectability.)

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