In his TV series Edges, Christian communicator and broadcaster MAL FLETCHER examines some of the big issues of the day. Here, Mal looks at just how far we can go to protest against injustice.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

Power is amoral - it can be used for good or evil. How should we react when someone is abusing the privilege of power? How should we respond when authority figures ask us to do things we believe to be wrong?

Throughout history, people of good will have often responded to those questions with what has come to be called "civil disobedience". Civil disobedience is a form of protest in which people deliberately break a law or withdraw their support from a system which they consider to be unjust. Usually, the law they violate is the one that they're protesting at the time. Most activists who use civil disobedience are committed to non-violence and they're willing to accept legal penalties that might arise from their actions.

The term "civil disobedience" was coined by Henry David Thoreau, the 19th century American naturalist and writer. Thoreau refused to pay war taxes as a protest against slavery. In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi called on Indian people to refuse to pay British taxes, especially the heavy tax on salt. One hundred thousand people were jailed for heeding his call but over time campaigns like this one helped to buy India's independence.

Thoreau and Gandhi had a profound effect on another moral leader, Martin Luther King Jnr. King was also moved by the way men like these practically applied a key teaching of Jesus Christ: "Love your enemies and do good to those that hurt you." Like Gandhi, King saw this teaching not just as a passive principle, but as a tool that could be used to overcome oppression.

Through the years, Jesus has been the inspiration of many major civil disobedience activists. In the way he lived, Jesus practiced a form of passive resistance. Even in the face of death, he refused to lower himself by hitting back at those who were assaulting him, verbally and physically. When Jesus talked about loving our enemies, he didn't mean we should just lie down and submit to any injustice that comes along. When asked whether people should pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus said: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's [ie. your taxes], but give to God what is God's [ie. your life]!"

People of faith will sometimes need to resist an order just because they're people of faith - because they know there's a higher law to consider. Jesus taught that if we're persecuted for making a righteous stand, we should fear God rather than men and obey him above all else. Men may have some power over our bodies, he said, but God alone has power over the soul.

Martin Luther King was convinced that "noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good." Sometimes we just have to make a stand, at work, in our local community or even at a national level. How can we make sure our stand is really effective? First, we need to search our hearts for any double standards. There's only one thing our world needs more than people with strong convictions - that's people who have the right to express strong convictions! Why did people respond to Jesus and his teaching? Because he possessed a moral authority; he lived what he preached.

Second, we must act with a clean conscience. According to the Bible, conscience is an inbuilt, God-given alarm system that warns us when we're in moral danger. We are wise to obey it. Yet the Bible also says this: conscience must be disciplined by the Word of God. Conscience is useful only as long as we keep it from being clouded by bad choices. If we repeatedly do things that we know are wrong, our consciences are thrown off balance - they lose their sensitivity and can no longer tell us which way is up. Conscience is fine-tuned by a constant exposure to the Word of God.

Third, we must also make sure we're not acting out of a rebellious spirit. We need an attitude that wants to respect authority. The question here is not whether a particular authority has earned our respect, but whether we have a problem with authority, period.

The Christian apostle Paul was martyred for his faith. He lived and worked during one of the most turbulent times in Roman history. Yet he said that, wherever we can, we should submit to secular authorities - because we want to have a good conscience before God. God doesn't call any of us to spend all our time fighting the system - he wants us, as much as possible, to get on with life.

Conscience may sometimes give us a reason to resist governments - even the first apostles did that to support their faith. But most of the time, conscience gives us a reason to obey. The church, said King, "can be a great transforming power if it will be true to its mission." Jesus showed us how to approach opposition in a non-violent way. He showed us how to change things by responding in a firm but godly way, acting in the opposite spirit. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.