Saint Peter:  ‘Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.  For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.’  (Acts 4:19f.)

Saint Paul:  ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.  For there is no power but of God:  the powers that be are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God….’  (Romans 13:1f.)

In theory these apparently warring Biblical proof texts may be synthesized and rendered mutually compatible, but without doubt over Church history they have in fact formed the starting points for two very different approaches to the practice of civil obedience and of civil disobedience.

In Acts 4 the apostles, Peter and John, refuse to accept an unjust command to cease preaching, which runs directly counter to a positive duty imposed by Jesus himself.  The apostles imply that the demands of divinely-guided conscience are higher and more pressing than any obligation to obey civil authority or human laws.  It does not follow, of course, that individuals are free to obey or disobey positive laws as they please:  indeed, the summary of the apostles’ position just made includes a number of terms which are subject to varying interpretations.  ‘Unjust command’, ‘imposed…by Jesus’, and ‘divinely-guided’, all invite discussion, debate, and qualification.  Simply quoting a proof text seldom settles matters by itself, and in this case one wants particularly to ask about the extent and the limits of the authority of individual conscience in relation to public authority.  Even if one grants that disobedience to public authority can be legitimate or even necessary under some circumstances, when and under what specific conditions is such disobedience legitimate?

Context and sound Biblical exegesis often prove that proof texts prove less than they seem and in a less fool-proof manner than they imply.  In Acts 4 it is arguable that the apostles in fact faced a mere panel of some Sadducee members of the Sanhedrin council which was insufficient to act officially, to impose any binding command, or to do anything more than give private advice.  If in Acts 4 the Sadducees were acting beyond their competent authority, then their right to command obedience is entirely or partly limited.  But Peter and John did not say, ‘You not acting as a lawful court or legislature.’  The apostles claimed more:  that duty to God is greater than duty of human authority.  The theoretical question concerning obedience therefore remains.  When is disobedience to public authority legitimate and under what conditions?

Likewise, even if Saint Paul in Romans 13 imposes a general obligation to obey the civil law, it does not follow that the duty is absolute and exceptionless.  Paul in Romans 13 largely seems concerned to assert something about the source of the duty to obey rather than the exact limits of its extent.  That is, Paul says that the general obligation of obedience should be understood to flow not merely from fear of punishment for disobedience, but even more from divine command and will.  That is, obedience to the civil magistrate has a positive source (love of God’s will and respect for the natural benefits of law and order) rather than a negative source (fear of human punishment).  God’s will that Christians obey the law establishes an internal obligation upon conscience, while fear can do no more than force a mere, servile, and grudging compliance.  Paul seeks to develop within Christians this sense of internal obligation, flowing from love of God.  But even such a general obligation with its divine sanction may have limits.  What are those limits, if any?

In the case of Acts 4, surely the apostles’ words mean at least that the directives and dictates of a rightly informed and sincere conscience are always binding, for to do what one believes to be wrong is sinful, and it is never right to do what we know or believe to be sinful.  It cannot be right to do what we believe to be wrong.

The requirements that conscience be ‘rightly informed’ and ‘sincere’, however, limit the individual.  The moral agent is required to make a reasonable effort to inform himself about the decision before him.  He must seek information about the existence and content of relevant laws and about the applicability of those laws to his current situation and its varied circumstances.   So, for instance, if I feel an impulse that I believe is from God to build a house on a pretty piece of land by a remote lake, I have a duty to inquire about the ownership of the land, the regulations limiting the construction of houses, and similar laws that reasonable people should know govern house building on pretty pieces of lake property.  Acting on mere impulse, even if I feel it may be an impulse from God, is not enough.  If I feel an impulse to take the life of my neighbor, this duty to inform myself carefully is even higher and more urgent.  The more serious the matter at stake, the more effort and inquiry are required.

My actions also should be sincere.  I may not simply shirk a lawful obligation because it is onerous or troublesome to me.  Usually the requirement for sincerity includes willingness to act in an open fashion and to accept challenges to or even punishment for my violation of public laws.  So, for example, I may refuse to fight in what I believe (having carefully informed myself) to be an unjust war, but not by fleeing the draft.  Instead of unlawful draft-dodging, a conscientious objector should refuse the draft publicly, as a witness to others, and should show his sincerity by accepting alternative service, if such is available, or by accepting punishment for disobedience from the civil authority if such is imposed.  Likewise, one may not simply refuse to pay taxes, even though he is fairly certain that the tax is unjust or that he would make better use of the money in question than would the government.  If one finds it necessary to withhold some taxes, he is obliged to do so publicly and not furtively, and he must accept the consequences imposed by the state for a sincere and public act.

Famous examples of such conscientious, sincere, and public disobedience are Gandhi’s march to the sea in opposition to the colonial salt tax in India and Martin Luther King’s actions explained in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’.  In both cases the disobedient person accepted punishment for violation of what he believed to be an unjust law.  In both cases the willingness to act publicly and to accept punishment exerted a moral influence that over time altered public opinion, perceptions, and (eventually) law.

Legitimate public authority has rights, flowing from its divine institution for the public good, and those rights and their source are assumed in Romans 13.  In a doubtful or indifferent case, when the obligation to obey is unclear or ambiguous, the fact that the magistrate commands something should resolve the doubt in favor of obedience.  The good of public order requires that the benefit of the doubt be given to the state and its laws, otherwise more confusion and ignorance, which are very common, would produce endless disobedience and lawlessness.  Even a very bad state deserves to be obeyed in most matters:  stopping at traffic lights, for instance, is for the public good, even in an authoritarian or totalitarian state.  Also, in many matters the magistrate may be assumed to have more information about large public issues, and the individual should tend to defer to those who are better informed and who are charged by the community with general, as opposed to private, responsibilities.

But what if a person is persuaded that the magistrate commands that he do something clearly immoral?  Moral theologians in general agree about the answer to this question in some cases and disagree about the answer in other cases.

Theologians agree that active obedience to a clearly unjust command is sinful and immoral and must not be given.  In such a case, after doing our best to inform ourselves in all sincerity and after giving the benefit of any doubts to public authority, we must refuse to perform acts that we believe are clearly sinful.  This right and necessary refusal of active obedience to evil commands produces a position one may call passive disobedience, a refraining from doing what one believes to be wrong.  For instance, a soldier must refuse to drop a bomb on what he knows to be a purely civilian target, even if the war in question is just and moral in general and even if the order is clear and comes from a undoubtedly legitimate superior.  Likewise, Christians must refuse to cooperate directly in abortion and other forms of killing of the innocent, whatever putative authority commands such cooperation.  Saint Thomas Aquinas summarizes this position as follows:

…[I]f sin is commanded, which is against the virtue to which authority is supposed to contribute, then the subject is not only not bound to obey, he is also bound not to obey, in imitation of the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than carry out the impious commands of tyrants.  (II Sentences, 44.ii.2)

In such cases, the words of the apostles in Acts 4:19 are conclusive:  we must obey God rather than man.  Thomas Aquinas, quoting precisely this text, writes in the Summa Theologiae that if legislation or a ruler commands anything immoral or contrary to the divine law, ‘Under no circumstances are such laws to be obeyed:  we must obey God rather than man.’  (I.II.xcvi.)

Christians are generally agreed that such passive disobedience to unjust commands is licit and necessary.  Historical debate and disagreement in the Western Church concern what may or may not follow such necessary refusal of cooperation with evil.  After offering passive disobedience, by refusing active cooperation with evil, may or may not a Christian further offer active disobedience?  That is, in addition to passive refusal to do something sinful, may Christians also actively resist a sinful command?  May Christians even actively resist a thoroughly evil magistrate or tyrant, who systematically demands wickedness, by engaging in revolution or tyrannicide?  This question will be dealt with in a subsequent article.

3 thoughts on “Civil Obedience and Civil Disobedience: Part 1

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