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When to Disobey Authority

Jefferson on Liberty


We Have a Moral Responsibility to Disobey Unjust Laws In the Same Way We Should Obey Just Laws


The governmental state always insists that its citizens obey without question. Most of us are law abiding citizens even though the truth is, there will always be many unjust laws and even more unjust commands by those in authority that should not obeyed, simply because they are wrong or illegal and sometimes legal but unjust. But if we're honest, most of us close our eyes and refuse to let ourselves think about the evil all around us with our rulers.

I was drafted into the US Army during the Viet Nam War. During my time in boot camp they had several classes for us primarily designed to instill fear with the troops about the way the Uniformed Code of Military Justice would work to keep us in check. In my naivety, I raised my hand in one such class and asked the Lieutenant teaching it, "We're hearing a lot about what happens to us if we disobey the commands given to us. Will we be instructed about what we should do in the event that we are given unjust or illegal orders which we would be under a moral obligation to disobey?"

You could hear a pin drop for a second there. The officer (who was also my C.O.) stumbled around for a few moments until it quickly became obvious that there would never be any instruction about how to handle illegal orders or about what our responsibility was to disobey such orders. In looking back, I'm surprised that I didn't get canned right there for my "impertinent" question.


But that question was certainly appropriate. During the Viet Nam conflict, there were several incidents like the My Lai Massacre where American troops were illegally ordered to slaughter a whole village of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Those who didn't obey were threatened with death on the spot and some who who refused to participate in the atrocity and took action against it (like pilot Hugh Thompson Jr. who maneuvered his helicopter between the unarmed civilians and advancing US troops to stop the slaughter) were actually court martialed.

Martin Luther KingIn about the same period of time I was being drafted into the army, Martin Luther King Jr. appeared on Meet the Press and answered reporter's questions about why he had disobeyed some of the laws of the land. He stated: "There are two types of laws; one is a just law and one is an unjust law. I think we all have moral obligations to obey just laws. On the other hand, I think we have moral obligations to disobey unjust laws because non cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.

He went on to say: "I think the distinction here is that when one breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, he must do it openly. He must do it cheerfully; he must do it lovingly. He must do it civilly not uncivilly and he must do it with a willingness to accept the penalty. And any man who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community on the injustice of the law is at that moment expressing the very highest respect for law."

King hit upon a principle here that is so very important. That those who wish to change a law or a country's interpretation of their law have to be willing to pay a price for their civil disobedience in order to make their statement.


But let me point out that the mood of our country today has changed dramatically since the time of the civil rights movement. Today standing up for what you believe is more likely to just get you searched without warrant, arrested without due cause, imprisoned without due process and then targeted afterward for an IRS audit if you survive!

For years we have lived in a country struggling with its own identity and now it is definitely begun to lean towards becoming a full totalitarian police state. While the United States still maintains the facade of a free country, the oppressive influence from the executive branch of the Federal government (i.e. the White House) has increased so dramatically that we are in fact today a police state.


This police state has developed to the point where many officers believe the law begins and ends with what they do and say. Police are now killing citizens with impunity, even when their victims are running away and not posing any sort of threat. In some cases a victim of police murder is already in custody and may even be handcuffed. While these examples are certainly not universal, these types of totalitarian police methods and attitude is now so much more pervasive than anything we've seen in the past. This is exactly what happened in Germany during the rise of Adolph Hitler.

In Germany during the early 1930's, the people were desperate after their defeat during the war and the horrible economic depression that came upon them afterwards. When Hitler appeared with his charismatic speaking ability, he seemed to be like a savior and the answer to the prayers of the people. Many of the pastors at the time encouraged the Germans to embrace him.


"The time is fulfilled for the German people of Hitler. It is because of Hitler that Christ, God the helper and redeemer, has become effective among us... Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God for the German people to enter the Church of Christ." These are the words of pastor  Hermann Gruner. Amazingly, another pastor even stated: "Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler."


But there were Christian pastors who did not see Hitler as the Messiah. One young pastor in particular, whose name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, became alarmed by what he saw and determined to refute the National Socialism movement. As Hitler's anti-Semitic actions intensified, Bonhoeffer and several other pastors organized the Confessing Church, which announced its allegiance first to Jesus Christ not a government.


In 1937 Bonhoeffer wrote "The Cost of Discipleship" which was a call to more faithful and radical obedience to Christ. It was also a severe rebuke of comfortable Christianity that was in bed with the Nazis. He said: "Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."


Because the government had banned him from teaching, Bonhoeffer began to teach pastors in an underground seminary. But then the seminary was discovered and closed and the Confessing Church became increasingly reluctant to speak out against Hitler.


It is interesting that Bonhoeffer realized at this point that his moral opposition had proven itself to be increasingly ineffective. So he changed his strategy. Up to this point he had been a pacifist but now he decided that he must do whatever it took to overthrow Hitler.


Amazingly, Bonhoeffer signed up with the German secret service (to serve as a double agent—while traveling to church conferences all over Europe). He was supposed to be collecting information about the places he visited. Instead, he was working to assist Jews as they tried to escape the Nazis. Bonhoeffer even became directly involved in plots to assassinate Hitler.


Eventually he was found out and arrested. When imprisoned, the authorities told him that he would be released if he would recant of his views against the Nazis. He refused saying that National Socialism was the enemy of God. After two years in prison he was executed on the personal order of Heinrich Himmler shortly before the end of the war. What an example this man gives to those of us who live in such a perverse generation, facing a similar slow rise of tyrannical oppression.


Bonhoeffer said that: "Silence in the face of evil is evil itself: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." Also, "We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself."


Today the state bureaucracy wants you to believe that whatever the "proper authorities" tell you to do must be obeyed. But that is not the rule of law upon which America was founded. Our founders specifically stated that all true authority comes from the Creator who is the one that endows us with our rights. Those rights are unalienable. Government does not give us our rights; they come from God. Our own Declaration of Independence, adopted on July 4, 1776 states that fact perfectly:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."


Even if we are not Christians, we answer ultimately to God, not to the state. God is the one who gives power and if the government abuses that power we can take it away. Because the ultimate Authority is God and we must obey the state only when it is not disobeying God. If the state tells us to perform an unjust or illegal action, we must refuse, or else actively work against that evil.


Jefferson made another statement that I love: "Whenever our affairs go obviously wrong, the good sense of the people will interpose and set them to rights... What country can preserve if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?" Just like the original American patriots, we have a right and a responsibility under God first to warn our government that it has gone too far. And if it fails to heed that warning, we will alter or abolish our government when it becomes destructive of our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.


A government is lot like a lion tamer. Its people are more like the lions being paraded into the ring and made to sit quietly on the stools. Lion tamers have a noisy painful whip and an authoritarian control over their lions. Their command is obeyed quickly or they offer a crack of the whip. But who really has the power? The lions of course. They just don't realize it because they have been so cowed down by the tamer's methods. But woe is the tamer whose lions suddenly realize the truth. And so it is with the citizens of any nation.


If all the lion-hearted citizens in this world would say "enough!" all at the same time, our despotic rulers would surely tremble (just as they did recently in Egypt). Nothing is more fearful for dictators and their minions than the thought that they might lose their power and their safety. Government leaders must truly fear the collective power of the masses when they realize their people will only put up with so much abuse.


Governments and those who run them must learn to fear their people even if they don't fear God. We must be involved in Pushback to keep them as honest as we can. Our leaders must realize that the people whose rights are being trampled upon will eventually rise up against THEM if they go too far.

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