The 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government”, better known as “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, by Henry David Thoreau is one of the most influential writings of the 19th century. Written to expound Thoreau’s ideas on resistance to a U.S. government that at the time permitted slavery and was waging an unpopular war against Mexico, the essay inspired other famous activists, most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to espouse the notion of changing unjust laws and government policies through active but non-violent resistance.
In this media-driven age civil disobedience seems to have taken on yet another meaning. Today it most often refers to instances in which activists for a particular cause engage in public lawbreaking (usually trespassing or blocking access to public facilities) designed primarily to attract attention and/or provoke authorities into arresting them.
As a result we have actions such as PETA’s public displays of nudity and their attacks upon fur wearers; Greenpeace’s placement of banners in unauthorized locations; anti-war protesters trespassing upon, vandalizing or defacing military installations or missile sites; abortion clinic blockades; gay activists disrupting Catholic Masses; and pro-life activist Randall Terry’s entering the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last fall and tearing up a copy of the 2,000-page healthcare bill, all being characterized as “civil disobedience” in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King.
But do these actions truly represent what civil disobedience is all about? Before we can answer that question, I believe we need to distinguish between three types of actions that are or can be classified as civil disobedience:
1. breaking an unjust law to protect others from injustice, to avoid committing or cooperating in an action one believes to be wrong, or to demonstrate the inherent injustice of the law;
2. breaking a just law in order to prevent an imminent, greater evil; and
3. breaking a just law purely to call attention to one’s cause.
Examples of the first kind of action (disobeying an unjust law) include the refusal of the early Christian martyrs to worship the emperor or other pagan gods; helping fugitive slaves escape via the Underground Railroad; helping Jews hide or escape from the Nazis; sheltering priests and nuns from the authorities in Elizabethan England, revolutionary France, and other regimes that persecuted the Church; Gandhi’s campaign against the “salt laws” of colonial India; and the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the 1960s.
In each of these cases, the law being broken was inherently unjust because it prohibited people from doing something they had a natural right to do (earn their own living, practice their religion, sit at a lunch counter or in a seat of their choice on a bus), or compelled them to do something they believed to be wrong (worship false gods).
In the second category (breaking a just law to prevent or put an end to a greater evil) would fall — in my opinion — abortion clinic “rescue” operations whose primary goal is to at least temporarily shut the clinic down. The law being broken (against trespassing) is just and reasonable in itself, but is being breached in order to prevent the greater evil of unborn children being killed on the premises. Instances in which pro-life protesters are arrested merely for violating “bubble zones” around abortuaries may fall into the first category if the zone in question is unreasonably large or the ordinance or court order creating the zone forbids even non-threatening actions such as prayer. In that case the law itself can be classified as unjust.
Other examples of the second type of civil disobedience might include refusal to pay taxes as a means of withholding support for abortion, war, or other immoral actions of the government; refusal to be drafted into military service to fight in an unjust war; a parent’s refusal to obey custody laws that would cause his or her child to be placed in the hands of an abusive or dangerous ex-spouse; or a reporter refusing to obey a court order to reveal confidential sources, if there is serious reason to do so (for example, the source’s employment or personal safety may be endangered).
In each case, the law being broken exists for good reason and in most circumstances may promote the public good, but in the particular situation at hand, may result in or facilitate a grave injustice.
Finally, we have instances in which activists go out of their way to break just and reasonable laws against trespassing, harassment, vandalism, and other actions primarily for the purpose of being arrested and thereby raising awareness of their cause. Although the goal of raising awareness may be laudable (depending on the cause), I believe there are a number of significant disadvantages to this kind of action:
— it does little or nothing to rectify the injustice being protested. Randall Terry did not save a single unborn child by his actions at Pelosi’s office. PETA members do not save any animals from abuse or slaughter by running around naked in public. Hanging a banner on a cathedral spire does nothing to stop global warming.
— in most cases it is not required to prevent or to halt an imminent evil. (If it were, it would fall under category #2.)
— the participants have not been compelled by the law to do anything contrary to their beliefs; rather, they voluntarily go out of their way to place themselves in violation of the law.
— it may, intentionally or not, unjustly violate the rights of others or even endanger their safety (for example, large crowds of protesters blocking public highways or entrances to public buildings may prevent someone from responding to a medical emergency).
— the purpose of the demonstration is to call attention to the activists themselves. As a result participants in this type of civil disobedience may come off as mere publicity seekers, and alienate people who otherwise would be sympathetic to the cause in question.
Also, from a Christian point of view, to break the law when it is not morally necessary to do so does not seem to comport with Christ’s command to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” nor with St. Paul’s directive to Roman Christians to obey and pray for their emperor and pay their taxes. There is certainly a time and place for resisting Caesar when he clearly goes to far, but to invite unnecessary persecution or martyrdom has rarely if ever been seen as a virtue in Catholic thinking.
So to summarize, I believe the most genuine and fruitful forms of civil disobedience fall into the first two categories. These kinds of actions may in some cases be morally obligatory and in most cases, I believe, would at least be morally justified. The third kind of action, however, may not always be morally justified, particularly if it causes disproportionate hardship to innocent parties.
What are your thoughts on this topic?