Civil Disobedience In an Age of Tyranny:
by Gerald R. Thompson
THE LIMITED NATURE OF CIVIL POWER
The authority framework just discussed establishes a context for properly understanding the nature of civil authority. Being rooted in the law of nature, these principles are not merely helpful, but are indispensable for our task. Because to understand civil disobedience, we have to understand both civil authority and individual authority – it is not enough to know about only one of therm. And to do that, we need a framework of authority into which both will fit.
Without this authority framework to serve as our anchor, any observations we might make concerning civil authority are likely to go off in the wrong direction. But now we, having a firm grasp on the nature of authority in general, can jump into a consideration of the nature of civil authority with more confidence. And as we will see, context is everything.
Romans 13 Revisited
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom. 13:1-2.)
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God . . .. (1 Pet. 2:13-15a.)
When I first visited these scriptures in The Right to Alter or Abolish the Government, I observed that there is no injunction for all people to give slavish obedience and homage to their civil rulers as embodiments of the presence of God among men. I then noted several false readings of the biblical texts, namely:
Civil rulers stand in the place of God to exercise authority which God has either reserved to Himself or delegated to the private sector.
God has placed certain people in positions of civil authority, and if you dare to challenge their authority you will incur the wrath of God.
Everything civil rulers do is by definition approved and sanctioned by God, because the mere fact they are in those positions shows divine approval.
Every act taken to hold civil rulers to the limited authority God has given them is an act of rebellion against God Himself.
In other words, none of these statements (above) are what the scriptures stand for. Now, I want to take things to the next level by adding what we know about the broader context of human institutions.
Namely, the statements be subject to the governing authorities and be subject to every human institution, do not refer exclusively to civil government. For individuals, families and the Church were all instituted by God – they are part and parcel of God’s institutional framework and stand on no less than an equal footing with civil government as far as being considered a governing authority according to the scriptures.
Thus, when 1 Peter commends us to be subject to every human institution, “whether it be to” this civil ruler or that civil ruler, these are to be taken as examples, not limitations. 1 Pet. 2:13-14 is not limited to civil rulers – rather, the respect we show for rightful authority (i.e., authority actually approved by God and not merely a pretended authority) extends even so far as to civil rulers when they are acting rightfully.
And when I say that the private sector stands on no less than an equal footing with civil government, what I mean, of course, is that the private sector actually stands above civil government. Of all the governing authorities, civil government is the least, not the greatest. Rom. 13 and 1 Pet. 2 do not override God’s authority framework previously established, and somehow elevate civil rulers to the top of the authority pile.
1) The private sector gets its authority directly from God, whereas civil government gets its authority from the people, and what God grants is always greater than what people grant.
2) The people only ever gave civil government a portion of what they have inherently, so that the powers of civil government are always less than and inferior to the rights and powers of the people. Just because the people have created a government does not mean they have deprived themselves of the ability to engage in self-government, or that ultimate sovereignty does not still reside with them.
3) Civil government is the mere agent of the people, not their master. Public officials owe a duty of allegiance and obedience to follow the will of the people – that is the consent of the governed, which is the paramount power in any political society.
4) All civil governments are disposable. If the people don’t like what the government is doing, they can always change (alter or abolish) the government. Contrariwise, the government has no power to alter or abolish the people. Inherently, the people are greater.
5) God placed mankind on earth originally with only private sector authority and no civil power. This was all that was necessary for people to survive and thrive. Civil power only came along almost 2,000 years later. Thus, civil government must be less necessary to human existence than the private sector.
Additionally, neither Rom. 13 nor 1 Pet. 2 establish rules of conduct or conscience that are either higher than, or superior to, the Ten Commandments. And if we examine the Decalogue, we find the first four commandments directed to the identity, invisible nature, name and holiness of the Creator, followed immediately by a directive to respect the next highest authority among mankind other than God Himself – parents. And the rest of the commandments are directed to activities we may squarely place in the sphere of the private sector (murder, adultery, theft, false accusations and coveting).
What’s missing? Nowhere in the Ten Commandments is there a directive to obey monarchs, governors, public officials or any civil authority. Nowhere in the Ten Commandments is there a directive to obey pastors, ministers, church elders or any ecclesiastical authority. Church and state? Pffft! They are nothing compared to the authority of God, the family, and the private sector. If you really want to please God, you’d better get your priorities straight.
Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos and Lex Rex
If you think that I am spinning’ the text of Rom. 13 in a new and novel way, or that I am doing a disservice to the biblical text, I am not. In truth, my reading is neither new nor novel. Consider these excerpts from the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos:
It then belongs to princes [civil rulers] to know how far they may extend their authority, and to subjects [the people] in what they may obey them, lest the one encroaching on that jurisdiction, which no way belongs to them, and the others obeying him which commands further than he ought, they be both chastised, when they shall give an account thereof before another judge [i.e., God]. * * *
Now, seeing that the people choose and establish their kings, it follows that the whole body of the people is above the king; for it is a thing most evident, that he who is established by another, is accounted under him who has established him, and he who receives his authority from another, is less than he from whom he derives his power. ***
Seeing then that the king is established in this degree by the people, and for their sake, and that he cannot subsist without them, who can think it strange, then, for us to conclude that the people are above the king?11
Now much of the Vindiciae is specifically concerned with armed resistance to a tyrant, which is a different matter than mere civil disobedience. For the moment, I just want to establish that some of the underlying principles of that document are the same ones I am advocating – there are other jurisdictions co-equal with civil government, civil government is the mere agent of the people, and the authority of civil government is less than the authority of the people.
Further, the Vindiciae is not unique in this regard. Specifically, I refer to Lex Rex, by Samuel Rutherford, a Scottish minister writing against royal absolutism in 1644. The title Lex Rex is often translated as The Law and the Prince (or king), but the title was a bit of word play, chiefly signifying that the law is king, rather than the king is law (Rex Lex).12 This of course put Rutherford in direct opposition to the royalists of his day, leading to his being cited for high treason, and his book being publicly burned.
Here are excerpts from the text where Rutherford is asking whether God’s law places people under a moral rule (or, a mean governing our conscience) requiring us to give a civil ruler passive obedience, i.e., submission without question:
The scope of the place (1 Pet. 2) is not to forbid all violent resisting, as is clear he speaks nothing of violent resisting either one way or other, but only he forbids revengeful resisting of repaying one wrong with another.
No prince has a masterly or lordly dominion over his subjects, but only a free, ingenuous, paternal and tutorly oversight for the good of the people. (Rom. 13:4.) * * *
[N]either Rom. 13, nor 1 Pet. 2, nor any other place in God’s word, any common divine, natural, national or any municipal law, commands formally obedience passive, or subjection passive, or non-resistance under the notion of passive obedience; yea, to me, obedience passive (if we speak of obedience, properly called, as relative essentially to a law) is a chimera, a dream, and repugnantia in adjecto [a contradiction in terms]; and therefore I utterly deny that resistance passive, or subjection passive, does formally fall under either commandment of God affirmative or negative; only the unlawful manner of resistance by way of revenge, or for defense of popery and false religion, and out of impatient toleration of monarchy or any tyranny, is forbidden in God’s word; and certainly all the words used Rom. 13, as they fall under a formal commandment of God, are words of action, not of any chimerical passive obedience, as we are not to resist actively God’s ordinance, as his ordinance, (ver. 1-2,) that is, to resist God actively.
There’s a lot packed in those statements, but essentially Rutherford is saying nothing in either Rom, 13 or 1 Pet. 2, or elsewhere in the Bible, places a duty of passive obedience or unquestioned submission on people with respect to civil government. In fact, Rutherford calls passive obedience a contradiction in terms. He goes on to say the only things prohibited to people in Rom. 13 are to resist God’s laws, to take personal revenge, or to defend false religion.
Rutherford’s analysis would seem to leave the door wide open to civil disobedience. He continues:
Paul established magistracy, and commands obedience in the Lord; and he is more to prove the office of the magistrate to be of God than any other thing, and to show what is his due, than to establish absoluteness in Nero to be of God; yea, to me, every word in the text speaks limitedness of princes, and cries down absoluteness [emphasis added]: — (1.) No power of God, (2.) no ordinance of God, who is a terror to evil, but a praise to good works, (3.) no minister of God for good, etc. can be a power to which we submit ourselves on earth, as next unto God, without controlment [limitation].13
Here Rutherford is refuting the argument made by people of his time (and there are those who continue to make the same claims today) that since Paul wrote Rom. 13 in the time of the Roman emperor Nero, Paul therefore advocated obedience even to him, and that we should likewise be submissive to civil rulers today – no matter how evil they are. This argument Rutherford totally rejects, concluding that there is no power on earth (besides God) that we owe a duty to submit to without limits.
Then there is this little gem buried in the middle of the chapter where Rutherford says,
Resisting is not a mere suffering, nor is it a moral resisting by alleging laws to be broken by him. We had never a question with royalists about such resisting. Nor is this resisting non-obedience to unjust commandments [emphasis added]; that resisting was never yet in question by any except the papists, who in good earnest, by consequent, say, It is better to obey men than God.
When Rutherford uses the words resisting or resistance, he means armed resistance. This is contrasted with non-obedience to unjust commandments (or mere civil disobedience). Rutherford says first, that mere civil disobedience is not the same as armed resistance, and therefore civil disobedience cannot be construed as resisting God. Second, Rutherford says that non-obedience (i.e., civil disobedience) “was never yet in question by any except the papists,” who he accuses of standing for the proposition that “It is better to obey men than God.” This last statement is a clear contrast to Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.”
According to Rutherford, the papists (and by association, the royalists, i.e., people arguing on behalf of the English monarchy) got things exactly backwards. And if you thought like the papists did (in Rutherford’s view) you not only had a wrong view of civil authority, you had a wrong view of God’s authority and Church authority. The bottom line of which is that civil disobedience is a non-issue – something only questioned by people who have everything backwards.
So now we have two venerated documents, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos and Lex Rex, written about four centuries ago, both in the Christian tradition and drawing on biblical principles (one written by a minister), advocating a reading of Rom. 13 and 1 Pet 2 which is entirely consistent with what I have been saying. So much for my view as being extreme, new or novel.
Of Tyranny and Usurpation
This is as good a time as any to address the title of this essay: Civil Disobedience in an Age of Tyranny. What exactly do I mean by an age of tyranny? For that matter, what is tyranny?
People often talk about tyranny in terms of oppression (forced labor, heavy taxation or undue control), suppression (silencing dissidents, limiting or controlling media outlets, etc.) or repression (the denial of the rights and liberties of the people), usually by civil rulers or the organs of civil government. Sometimes, tyranny is expressed in terms of a civil ruler or a government waging war against their own people. But to my mind, these are all just varying examples and degrees of usurpation.
Usurpation, in its most basic sense, is simply exercising authority that rightfully belongs to another, whether man or God. Most commonly, it involves the exercise by civil government of authority belonging to the private sector. Thus, burdens such as forced labor or servitude are a direct attack on private dominion. Heavy or confiscatory taxation, historically used to enrich a civil ruler, but today is also used to forcibly redistribute wealth, is a direct attack on private property. Silencing dissent, controlling the press and media, or waging a war of propaganda, are all ways of directly attacking the individual freedom of the mind, beliefs and values. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
We in America haven’t gotten to the point of enacting tyrannical religious laws yet, but of course many countries in the world still do that. We just have a history of imprisoning people based solely on their ethnic identity, racial profiling, and denying higher academic degrees based on viewpoint discrimination. We now use progressive taxation to openly redistribute wealth. Courts and government agencies routinely require people to undergo various types of “training” – anger management programs, diversity appreciation, marital and divorce counseling, driving school, and others. Call them what you will – they’re all just legally forced re-education which usurps the freedom of the mind.
And the winds of change are fast blowing over America to treat anti-LGBT attitudes and anti-global warming attitudes much as historical inquisitions have pursued heretics. Ah, tyranny! – it never really goes away, it just changes form. N’est-ce pas?
Yet admittedly, not every usurpation of private rights and liberties by civil government makes a case for tyranny. The Declaration of Independence, in describing the despotism and tyranny that burdened the young United States, referred to “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object,” which the Declaration then specified in detail.
At this point, I could easily digress into a discussion of how: 1) God does not authorize any form of tyranny; 2) people have no legitimate authority to consent to tyranny; 3) the people have a duty to remove unlawful rulers; and 4) in short, a tyrant forfeits the authority to rule. However, such a discussion is unnecessary at present.
I am not here considering when or how to remove a tyrannical ruler. I am not arguing that we should now do what our ancestors in Colonial America did, to throw off the entire current system of civil government and replace it with an entirely new one. I am not advocating for open rebellion or insurrection, armed resistance, revolution, or wholesale systemic change.
As a practical matter, if we threw out everybody now holding a public office, who would we replace them with? More people who have been mis-educated by the same schools, influenced by the same mis-leading media outlets and/or social media, and who have their same greedy hands in all the same corrupt pockets? Yeah, right – good luck with that.
No, what I’m suggesting is that we, as individuals, through individual action, have not only the power, but the right and the authority, to individually resist, to reduce the efficiency of government policies and programs hostile to liberty and freedom, to gum up and slow down the driving wheels of government overreach, and thwart the overall goals of government usurpation.
Quoting again from the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos,
There is ever, and in all places, a mutual and reciprocal obligation between the people and the prince; the one promises to be a good and wise prince, the other to obey faithfully, provided he govern justly. The people therefore are obliged to the prince under condition, the prince to the people simply and purely. Therefore, if the prince fail in his promise, the people are exempt from obedience, the contract is made void, the right of obligation of no force.14
Notice what the author of the Vindiciae is saying. All civil rulers swear to rule justly (in the U.S., to preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States). This promise is made unconditionally – in other words, it does not matter what the people do, the ruler or public official is nevertheless absolutely bound to fulfill his promise. A public official’s only choice is to fulfill that promise or resign from office.
The people, on the other hand, promise to obey the ruler only so long as the ruler governs justly. The promise of the people is not absolute – it is conditional upon, and dependent upon, the proper conduct of the public official. If the civil ruler fails to govern justly, the obligation of the people to obey terminates.
Which means that when it comes to civil disobedience, it is not necessary that tyranny be proved before disobedience can be justified. Usurpation is enough. And unrelenting usurpation, which cannot be resolved or removed by any further petitions to elected officials, or by further engaging in the political process, or even by lawsuits (because the judiciary is also corrupt), is more than enough. Friends, we crossed that line in America decades ago. And it’s only getting worse on a daily basis.
The age of tyranny is upon us
In truth, tyranny (not merely abundant usurpation) is already here – in America. You think I exaggerate? The overreach of today’s federal government would shock the living daylights out of our nation’s founders.
The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny. (James Madison – The Federalist, No. 47.)
Are you seeing the significance of what Madison has said, here? Actual tyranny does not require physical torture, killings, maimings or burning someone’s house down. All that’s actually required for tyranny to exist is an amalgamation of powers that should rightly be diffused. Only the Creator is capable of handling all forms of power and authority rightly, without corruption. See, Isa. 33:22.
But if you want to see an unholy amalgamation of powers in American government, just look in on any one of numerous federal “independent agencies.” They make their own rules, enforce them, and pass judgment on violations of those self-made rules. Such agencies include, without limitation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Election Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Trade Commission, National Labor Relations Board, and Securities and Exchange Commission. For further details, consult The Unalienable Right of Government by Consent and the Independent Agency, by Kerry Morgan.
Or consider the U.S. Congress which, in addition to occasionally passing legislation, exercises so-called oversight over all manner of executive departments and other federal agencies, also conducting numerous investigations of alleged misconduct by federal officials (also an executive function), and to top it all off, Congress issues subpoenas to witnesses, takes testimony from people after administering a testimonial oath, and has the supposed power to find people in contempt (all of which are exclusively judicial functions). As per James Madison, the very definition of tyranny.
And what is it that Congress is doing? Simple, basic, everyday usurpation. They are usurping executive powers that have been delegated exclusively to the executive branch. They are usurping judicial powers which have been delegated exclusively to the judicial branch. If you search the U.S. Constitution for an authorization for Congress to conduct investigations, oversee federal agencies, to take testimony, or issue subpoenas or contempt orders, you will search in vain. The very concept of a separation of powers forbids them from doing anything except passing legislation.
Of course, the other branches of government are just as bad. The last few Presidents have routinely issued executive orders that are really attempts to pass laws while bypassing Congress. And though Presidents for the most part have not directly exercised judicial power, many executive departments do. For example, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, part of the Patent and Trademark Office, is under the Commerce Department. All the TTAB does is perform a judicial function. What is particularly odious is that while patents and copyrights are specifically authorized in the Constitution as legitimate functions of the federal government, trademarks are not.
The Supreme Court, as well, routinely regards its opinions as laws binding throughout the nation – an open and notorious usurpation of legislative powers. Although the courts have not yet devolved to the point of enforcing their own judgments in the place of the executive branch, federal judges do routinely participate in the FISA court – rendering secret opinions in secret cases where the defendants are not even given notice that a case or decision has been made against them. In the FISA court, defendants have no opportunity to appear before the court or to make any arguments on their behalf. It is the true Star Chamber of our time – again, the very definition of tyranny.
You want to change the world by writing your Congressman? I tell you, they are the problem. You want to vote for a different party or a different candidate? They’re all the same. You want to file a lawsuit? The judges think they are God. Go ahead. Waste your time if you want to. I’m not playing that game anymore. Game time is over. We are – right now – living in an age of tyranny.
11. Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (A Vindication Against Tyrants) (1579), a Huguenot essay published in Switzerland and attributed to Stephen Junius Brutus (probably a pseudonym).
12. Wink, wink! Rutherford, fluent in both Greek and Latin, was being rather subtle. He dared not come out directly and say Law is King (his book was banned and burned anyway), but he used words in Latin (Lex Rex, or the Law and the Prince) which, if they had been translated into Greek, would implicitly mean Law is King. Since Rutherford used Greek and Latin quotations extensively in his book, knowledgeable readers would have understood this.
13. Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex (1644), Question 30, Whether or No Passive Obedience Be a Mean to Which We Are Subjected in Conscience, by Virtue of a Divine Commandment; and What a Mean Resistance Is, etc.
14. See, note 11.