The events of January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. are a vivid illustration of the reality of civil disobedience. There are consequences for failing to abide by the law. Since the creation of the nation state, power is the currency of the political economy. When exercised properly, it makes things run. If a person violates the state’s rules, he or she will lose freedom, property, life – or all three. An individual may perceive, or in fact suffer, unjust state treatment, but one person is typically no match against state power.
That is why those who feel they have been mistreated by the state will often congregate together to show, by mere numbers, that they can challenge the state. In a free and democratic society, citizens have the right to express opposition, and group resistance will generally be tolerated up to a point. But if people move toward violence, that will likely be met with state aggression in return. Every state jealously guards its monopoly over violence and will suppress any attempt to threaten or remove its authority. And, more often than not, the state will prevail. When nation states fall or change course because of civil disobedience, it is a momentous and historic development because it is so rare.
To engage in civil disobedience is to challenge the state use (or abuse) of power. Such disobedience is often condemned as foolhardy, at least in the short-term – yet it can also be the catalyst for societal change. In particular, Christianity has experienced both the costs and the rewards of obeying a higher authority than the state. Throughout history, many Christians have been willing to confront the state to defend or advance what they perceived as a righteous cause. Their actions may offer us some guidance as to how we may address the overreach of state power today. Consider slavery.
John Brown and William Wilberforce were both convicted by their religious beliefs not to remain silent on the institution of slavery. For both, it was an abomination of everything they understood to be right. However, they each approached their Christian responsibility very differently.
John Brown: Violent Revolt
John Brown, the American abolitionist, preached and wrote extensively against slavery. He saw himself as especially called of God to stand up against this detestable institution. Disenchanted with the pacifist approach of many abolitionists, he muttered “These men are all talk. What we need is action – action!” (Beard, 50). He devised a plan to be the catalyst for a slave revolt in the Southern United States. In October 1859 he and his supporters raided the weapons depot in Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia), to supply the planned slave uprising. Despite sending word out to the slaves in the area plantations, few slaves were willing to take up the cause. Within days his group was met with local militia and a U.S. Marines contingent. After he refused to surrender, a shootout ensued.
Brown’s followers either fled (five), died (ten, including two of his sons), or were captured (seven). He was taken into custody and tried for several crimes including treason. On being found guilty, on the morning of his execution, December 2, 1859, he was forced to sit on his own coffin while driven to the gallows. Before his death he had weeks to write hundreds of letters, many of which were published in the Northern newspapers, which increased his notoriety. Both national and international attention to his trial and his letters increased support for the anti-slavery cause in the north and his vilification in the south. From jail he wrote to his wife that his “blood will do vastly more towards advancing the cause I have earnestly endeavoured to promote, than all I have done in my life before” (2). John Brown’s death inspired the music to the song “John Brown’s Body”, which became the melody to which Julia Ward Howe added her words to give us the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
William Wilberforce: Pacifist Politician
William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist, was a Member of Parliament who became an evangelical Christian. Early in his political career he became friends with abolitionists and was persuaded to take up the cause as his own. Unlike Brown, Wilberforce took a pacifist stance. His approach was to petition Parliament for a review of the slave trade with the ultimate objective of ending not only the slave trade but the practice of slavery itself.
Wilberforce carried on a close relationship with the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade as they raised public awareness and provided him with the necessary research to present the case before Parliament. His first major Parliamentary speech on slavery took place in the House of Commons on May 12, 1789. It was three and a half hours long and initiated “[o]ne of the great parliamentary struggles of British history” (Hague, 175).
The speech stands out “as one of the true masterpieces of parliamentary oratory,” noted his biographer William Hague (178). After years of research and personal debate on the issue, Wilberforce presented a powerful, reasoned argument, not based on his Christian morals but on his analysis of the facts. Removing the slave trade would bring beneficial consequences to the Empire (178).
Wilberforce insisted that “we ought all to plead guilty, and not to exculpate ourselves by throwing the blame on others” (178). He argued that if the Liverpool merchants could see the wretched state of the slaves being transported from Africa “surrounded with every object that is nauseous and disgusting, diseased, and struggling under every kind of wretchedness” that as “men of humanity … there is no one among them whose heart would bear it” (179). Surely providence would not make one part of the world “depend for its existence on the depopulation and devastation of another” (181).
Once he had presented all the evidence of the evils of the slave trade, Wilberforce warned that the House of Commons “must decide, and must justify to the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the ground and principles of their decision” (183).
Alas, Wilberforce’s initial attempt did not win the day. To all concerned, his most important speech was a complete failure at the time. After many years of delay, Wilberforce’s proposed bill failed by a vote of 163–88 (198). Wilberforce remained undaunted: “Never, never, will we desist till we have wiped away this scandal from the Christian name, released ourselves from the load of guilt, under which we at present labour, and extinguished every trace of this bloody traffic, of which our posterity, looking back to the history of these enlightened times, will scarce believe that it has been suffered to exist so long a disgrace and dishonour to this country” (198).
Through various strategic moves over the ensuing years, Wilberforce was relentless in his efforts to end slavery. The election of 1806 saw more abolitionists elected to the House of Commons. On February 23, 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed by the House of Commons (after already going through the House of Lords) by a vote of 283 to 16 and on March 25, 1807 it received royal assent. However, there was still work to be done: slavery, as an institution, still needed to be abolished. For the rest of his career, Wilberforce continued to advocate for its end. Finally, in July 1833, only a day before his death, he was informed that the Bill for the Abolition of Slavery was to be passed by the House of Commons and the House of Lords. One month after his death it became law that effective in August 1834, slavery in the British Empire would be abolished. It was.
Learning from History
Two people, John Brown and William Wilberforce, both committed Christians, both committed abolitionists, but each with their own view as to how the matter ought to be dealt with. Can we say that one was more right than the other?
On the one hand, Brown’s method was violent and led to a civil war that resulted in the loss of at least 640, 000 lives. Brown’s campaign ended slavery in relatively short order. On the other hand, Wilberforce was not an advocate of violence, and it took much longer to obtain the desired result. Some might say Wilberforce’s method was violent in that the slave trade and the institution of slavery was itself violent to the 800,000 slaves in the British Empire. Yet, Wilberforce ended slavery 28 years before the US Emancipation Proclamation.
How is all this relevant today?
We are experiencing a global pandemic and governments around the world are implementing lockdown measures to slow the spread of the virus. Among other restrictions, many churches have been closed or severely limited by government regulations. This has led to church membership being torn apart, struggling with whether to obey the regulations or to exercise civil disobedience in opposition to measures which are viewed as a violation of liberty or faith. As with issues in the past, we must now make up our minds as to how we are going to address this situation.
Hence the relevance of looking at how Christians dealt with public policy controversies in the past. Of course, slavery is a vastly different issue than public lockdowns during a pandemic. But, I would argue, the principles remain the same. While no one is advocating violence, we can still decide to take a more aggressive stance or a more measured approach. The choice is up to us. But, whatever we choose, we must acknowledge the consequences of civil disobedience. It is not something to take lightly.
The writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who joined in a plot to kill Hitler, may give us a theological perspective on civil disobedience. Bonhoeffer observed that the government’s “demand for obedience is unconditional, qualitatively total, extending to conscience and bodily life.” We, as Christians, have a duty to obey “up to the point where the government forces” us “into direct violation of the divine commandment.” Explained Bonhoeffer, “if government oversteps its task at some point – e.g., by making itself lord over the faith of the church-community – then at this point it is indeed to be disobeyed for the sake of conscience and for the sake of the Lord” (516–17).
Christians then have to decide when or where that specific point of civil disobedience is reached. Right now we are faced with limits on our ability to meet together. We must ask, “If we follow government regulations, are we violating a divine commandment?” Some suggest we are. In Hebrews 10:23–25 we read: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (NKJV). In addition, we are called to follow certain practices that require physical participation – such as Christ’s command to take communion (Luke 22:19) or to baptize new believers (Matt. 28:19). Others take the view that the verses in Hebrews represent an aspirational direction: it is good to gather if we can, but certainly in a pandemic we cannot say we should meet and put others at risk, especially since we may meet virtually over the internet.
Recommendations for the Present Pandemic Controversy
It is my suggestion that when, as a local church family, we seek the Lord’s wisdom as to what to do with respect to government regulations, we may want to keep the following in mind:
First, when confronted with a public policy issue, we must take stock of the context and determine what is the best way forward based on our identity as Christians.
Second, as Christians, we can learn from the past to help us better face and address societal controversies. From history we may be able to apply certain principles or strategies to the current situation.
Third, we need to recognise that our identity is in Christ first and foremost.
Fourth, who we are defines what we do. Christians have an obligation to live as Christ lived. He is our example and our guide in confronting the struggles of how we ought to live. Jesus made it clear that his kingdom is not of this world but is a spiritual kingdom. Even the disciples were confused about the nature of His kingdom when Jesus was taken into custody. So much so, that Peter wielded the sword. Christ admonished him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52, NKJV). He could have commanded legions of angels to defend him if necessary. But, that was not what He was about. “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight” (John 18:36, NKJV).
Finally, as we face continued debate and division, we should not fail to treat each other with respect, whatever decision we – or others – reach. We must also be mindful that there will be consequences for our choices.
Beard, Charles and Mary. “The Approach of the Irrepressible Conflict,” in Slavery as a Cause of the Civil War, edited by Edwin C. Rozwenc (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1949).
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol 16 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
Brown, John. “Brown’s letter to his wife.” United States Police Gazette (December 10, 1859). Online: https://archive.org/details/unitedstatespoli1018cave/mode/1up
Hague, William. William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner (London: Harcourt, 2007).