Civil Disobedience In an Age of Tyranny:
Part 5

by Gerald R. Thompson

Previous: The Limited Nature of Civil Power
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With all of the preceding discussion in mind, I want to draw a sharp contrast between what I am saying about civil disobedience and what the authors of the Manhattan Declaration have said. The Manhattan Declaration is a document written by two academics, Robert George and Timothy George, along with Chuck Colson, circulated in late 2009 for the purpose of establishing a consensus between Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians.

The Manhattan Declaration advocates a limited right of civil disobedience in three areas: sanctity of life (i.e., the unborn, disabled and elderly), dignity of marriage (i.e., traditional marriage), and religious liberty. My view of civil disobedience is much more robust than that weak and anemic effort. Here’s a brief excerpt from the Manhattan Declaration for comparison:

We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral. … Going back to the earliest days of the church, Christians have refused to compromise their proclamation of the gospel. … Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required. * * *

Because we honor justice and the common good, we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality and marriage and the family. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.15

Obviously, I agree that Christianity has taught civil disobedience is sometimes permitted, going all the way back to the examples of the early apostles in Acts 4 & 5. That’s why I quoted from the Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, Lex Rex, and James Wilson, etc. And I agree, in general, with the sentiments in the second quoted paragraph above. Yet, there are problems with the Declaration.

First, biblical civil disobedience is neither based upon, nor tied to, the proclamation of the gospel. Civil disobedience is fundamentally not a religious issue – it is a legal issue. To understand and apply the principles of civil disobedience, we must understand and apply all of God’s laws, i.e., the full breadth of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. Civil disobedience is not an expression of religious faith so much as it is an assertion of legal rights, and there’s a big difference between those.

I categorically reject the idea that any expression of religious faith is higher, more virtuous or godly, more desirable, more important or worthy, or more biblical or Christian, than an assertion of God-given legal rights. Religion is not higher than law. Theology may be the queen of the sciences, but law is king. Lex Rex. 😉

As an initial proposition, therefore, civil disobedience – even when motivated by an adherence to the laws of God – is not Christian civil disobedience or the exercise of a Christian conscience. The rights of conscience and disobedience are not limited to Christians, because the laws of nature and nature’s God are God’s laws for all men, Jew and Gentile, believer and non-believer. There are no special laws of God applicable only to Christians, and no rights of disobedience or conscience Christians have that non-Christians do not have. To add the appellation of Christian to the phrase civil disobedience or the word conscience clarifies nothing, and only confuses the issue with unnecessary religious overtones.

Second, at a fundamental level, there is absolutely no reason to suppose or infer that biblical civil disobedience extends only to issues regarding the sanctity of life, the dignity of marriage and religious liberty. There is nothing special about these areas of life that render them more biblical, more sacred, or more essential than any other aspect of the laws of nature and nature’s God. So for heaven’s sake, stop treating these three areas as though they are more clearly defined or carry a higher priority than any other facet of God’s laws. To give them pre-eminence in this way just shows how ignorant people are of the true scope of God’s laws.

This is, in fact, the very reason I went to the trouble of making out a (partial) list of natural rights earlier. Sanctity of life, marriage and religious liberty don’t even begin to cover all our God-given natural rights which can serve as a valid basis for civil disobedience.

Third, the Declaration states, “We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians … make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities.” I suppose that’s a typically political thing to say if your primary target audience is church people, but it’s less effective if you are trying to justify your actions to a governmental body. The writers of the Declaration have not fully embraced corporate rights as opposed to individual rights, but they have fallen well short of an enthusiastic embrace of the rights of all individuals.

There is no sense in which the right of civil disobedience is tied to membership in a community. As an individual, I do not need the approval of any religious body or other community to validate my decision to disobey. My individual rights are not contingent on whether my beliefs are accepted and openly affirmed by any religious body or other community. I say this because, in fact, some specific federal tax exemptions (such as the privilege of clergy to be exempted from social security taxes) are directly tied to what their ordaining bodies teach and accept. The right of civil disobedience is not a privilege of this nature.

Anything less than a full affirmation of the right of disobedience as an individual right free from any ties to a community is unacceptable. The rights of conscience are individual, not corporate. The nature of all natural rights is that they are individual, not corporate. The locus of the ultimate civil authority is with the individual, not the community – because as I have shown, a group possesses no more authority than its individual members. I must therefore conclude that the rights of civil disobedience and conscience are also fundamentally individual, not tied to any community affiliation. I will explore this matter in detail in the next major section of this essay.

Fourth, in the closing words of the Manhattan Declaration, the signers pledge that “We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.” All of which is well and good, so long as the jurisdictions of both Caesar and God are accurately defined. By which I mean that the jurisdiction of Caesar is properly limited and not granted too much, and the jurisdiction of God is properly expansive and not granted too little.

I refer to the unholy practice of granting to Caesar that which by the laws of nature and nature’s God belongs to the private sector, i.e., individuals, families and voluntary associations, and failing to recognize that God has equal jurisdiction over these as much as He does over religion and the Church. Specifically, I am talking about the world of business, commerce, occupations, labor and the economy.

The problem is the Declaration – by naming only God and Caesar and no other parties, and then phrasing civil disobedience in terms of “we” and “our institutions” – sets up a false choice between only two alternatives, God and Caesar, which far more often than not is simply code language for church and state. As I said earlier, both church and state have, historically, been the engines of the greatest impediments to individual liberty. So appealing to churches to save us from the oppression of the state isn’t a solution – it’s an integral part of the problem.

Looking back to Jesus’ original statement which the Declaration quotes (Mat 22:21), the contrast is between God and man, not church and state. Yet, after stating the God and Caesar principle, the Declaration’s analysis focuses exclusively on matters of religious liberty and proclaiming the Gospel – a typical church vs. state analysis. Can no one see there is more to the private sector (and God’s jurisdiction) than merely the Church, Christianity or religion?

Consequently, neither the Church nor Christianity are the starting point for a consideration of civil disobedience, nor do either of them constitute the major part of the scope of our rights under the laws of God.

Fifth, civil disobedience is not limited to instances in which “laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral.” Putting this quaint notion from the past in the graveyard of history is one of the principal reasons why I am writing this essay. Students of God’s laws know that in His legal system, laws are never a matter of degree. God’s laws are always higher than man’s laws, but between various laws of God, there is no hierarchy of rules, i.e., there are no superior laws and inferior laws, because God’s laws never conflict with one another. All of God’s laws are of equal authority.

Thus, it is unnecessary to justify civil disobedience by labeling a law of man as gravely unjust. It is enough to say it is unauthorized according to God’s authority framework, and therefore constitutes usurpation. And for our purposes, it does not matter which of God’s laws it is, or whether such law is “big” or “little”. Man-made law is either authorized by lonang or it is not – we need not, and should not, inquire as to the degree to which it is unauthorized because that is very much the same as asking whether any particular act is a little sinful or a lot sinful. If an act is any part sinful, that is enough. This is the clear lesson of Jam. 2:10, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.”

Sixth, I reject the idea that civil disobedience is limited to instances where a person is required to do something unjust or immoral. It is enough that man’s law prevents a person from carrying out authority God has given him. If you think about it, this is actually where most claims of a breach of religious liberty come into play – you want to worship God in a particular way and men are using laws to stop you. It’s not a question of whether abstaining from worship is an immoral act. You can do the verbal gymnastics of casting a religious liberty claim in the light of doing something immoral if you like, but it’s really that the law is preventing you from doing what you think God wants you to do. An infringement of your lawful liberty is enough to justify disobedience.

Take child-bearing, for example, in light of China’s historic one-child policy (limiting families to having no more than one child). Students of God’s law know that when God authorizes mankind to do something (such as to be fruitful and multiply in Gen. 1:28), mankind has a duty to actually be fruitful and multiply. Thus, while obeying the one-child policy is arguably not immoral of itself, yet it clearly frustrates a God-imposed duty – and this is a sufficient basis for disobedience for couples who have the capability and the desire to have multiple children.

No, I’m not saying every family has a duty to have as many children as possible. I’m only saying that child-bearing is a matter between a family unit and God – civil government plays no role in the decision-making process. But one of the really big problems among Christians is that even though God delegated to mankind the authority to have children and to take dominion in the very same sentence (Gen. 1:28), people treat one as sacred (can’t touch this!) and the other as secular (go ahead and regulate it as much as you want). Christian schizophrenia – that’s what that is.

Seventh, it is enough that man’s law requires a person to do something which by itself is neither immoral or unjust, but which God has established men as being free to refuse to do, which is the same thing as saying that men have no duty before God to do it. Thus, let us assume buying automobile insurance is not inherently unjust or immoral, but if God’s laws say you have freedom of contract (which necessarily includes the freedom not to enter into a contract), then legally mandated automobile insurance is unauthorized from God’s perspective, and is arguably a proper candidate as the basis for the exercise of civil disobedience.

Again, I refer back to the principle that ungranted powers never default to civil government. In other words, if God’s laws say nothing about auto insurance, that does not give civil rulers a free hand to regulate the matter or make it malum prohibitum. Unless God expressly extended civil power over private contractual matters (which of course He did not), then the default authority runs in favor of the private sector. Which is to say, people have freedom of choice whether, and under what terms, to insure any of their property or activities – it isn’t for civil government to say one way or the other. The default is private liberty, not government intermeddling.

Some may argue that being forced to buy auto insurance isn’t as grave as an infringement of religious freedom, but as I’ve already said, the degree of wrongfulness isn’t the issue, and neither is the importance of the law. You may well decide it isn’t worth it to risk your life, liberty or fortune over a man-imposed contractual duty as a practical matter, but that’s not the same as saying civil disobedience is inappropriate or unlawful in that instance – disobedience may merely be imprudent. Individual actions which are unlawful and those which are unwise are not necessarily the same.

You always have to be wise about choosing which laws to disobey (i.e., picking your battles), but it doesn’t remove the possibility that in some circumstances for some people it may well be vitally important for them to disobey a law that for you has only minimal importance. That’s why civil disobedience is inherently tied to the matter of individual conscience. Civil disobedience is not a matter of community or consensus – it is an individual choice. Different people will pick different battles, and that’s the way it should be. We need to support each other in making such decisions. [I will further discuss these last three points under the heading of Command and Prohibit, below.]

Eighth, and finally, the Manhattan Declaration takes the common position of extreme deference towards public officials. But when I say that, you know exactly what I mean, right?

As Christians, we take seriously the Biblical admonition to respect and obey those in authority. We believe in law and in the rule of law. We recognize the duty to comply with laws whether we happen to like them or not, unless the laws are gravely unjust or require those subject to them to do something unjust or otherwise immoral.16

In other words, the Declaration readily accepts civil rulers as being persons in authority to which obedience is owed, but nowhere treats individuals and families with the same high regard. Sure, the authors of the Declaration affirm a right of individual conscience and a need for familial integrity, but they never go so far as to acknowledge that civil government should observe, respect and defer to private sector authority. Much less do they regard private authority (as I do) to be of equal or very often even greater authority than civil government within their spheres of operation.

The authors claim to “believe in law and in the rule of law,” but apparently that only extends to the laws of society. Because the root principles from which their manifesto springs are not legal rules from the laws of God or the laws of nature and nature’s God, but from the motivations of religious duty, Christian faith, and the Gospel of Jesus.

And notice how the final sentence quoted above completely sidesteps the issue: civil disobedience has nothing to do with whether we like a law or not. Biblical civil disobedience is based on whether a law of society conflicts with the laws of God or not. But the word conflict is never used in the Declaration – so all we’re left with is a vague nod to personal notions of justice and morality. Not exactly a strong endorsement for the full scope of the laws of God.

As I see it, the goal in this discussion of civil disobedience is to get to the point where we can firmly answer the question of how to resolve conflicts between individual rights and civil powers, and who gets to decide such questions. Specifically, what authority do individuals have to countermand civil authority, if any, and what are the proper means available to address the wrongful exercise of authority by public officials? Unfortunately, the Manhattan Declaration won’t get us there.

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Next: Presumptions of Validity and Legality


*     Copyright © 2018 Gerald R. Thompson. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
15.    Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, November 20, 2009.
16.    Ibid.