Let’s Talk About Civil Disobedience and Passive Resistance

It was the fall of 1963. I had transferred from Centralia College to Washington State University. One of the first courses I enrolled in was Sociology.

At the time, college campuses were in an uproar. The Vietnam War was beginning to explode into a full-scale clash between the U.S. (along with its allies, with the increase of thousands of troops being sent to Vietnam,) against the onslaught of fighters infiltrating the South from the North, supported by communist countries including China and The Soviet Union. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

History is still being written as to just what that nineteen-year long engagement meant. Both sides of the conflict had supporters who vehemently opposed and/or supported this or that. In my less-than-perfect hindsight, I recognized at the time that our government was not acting with one voice, the voice of the people. How could it when the voice of the people was so divided.

I, a new professing believer, was still not walking with the Lord and still engaging in worldly behavior such as drinking (to excess), and smoking. I was not yet enjoying the fellowship and support of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. That came a few months later after being confronted regarding my behavior by friends and loved ones, some of whom were believers and others simply good people.

It was with this backdrop that I was assigned to write a paper on some current social issue. I chose Civil Disobedience and Passive Resistance (for space I’ll use CDPR). I wanted to address the cry of the loud voices, including many of my friends on campus, calling for CDPR.

I studied Gandhi and other like-minded leaders who advocated CDPR over the years in other countries. Many governments had been toppled or radically changed by the use of CDPR. Gandhi, in particular decades before, was able to lead opposition forces in India to force the British to turn the nation over to the Indian people. Martin Luther King Jr. was using CDPR to force changes in race relations in the U.S. with marches in Albany, Birmingham, and other places.

My conclusion following this research was this: Civil Disobedience and Passive Resistance does not work unless there is violence.

I do not have a copy of that paper nor do I have access to the references cited. However, a quick search of the internet today, which of course was not available then, provides ample evidence that for CDPR to be an effective tool for change, violence will eventually take place. Here are some reasons why:

  1. CDPR, when used as a tool for social change, is for the purpose of force in and of itself. It is to persuade by force of numbers those in power to change.
  2. CDPR, by its very nature, is lawless. By this I mean that it is used when the perception is that legal means have been exhausted.
  3. CDPR takes on a life of its own. By this I mean that individual effort becomes group effort and therefore takes on the mind of the group, i.e., crowd psychology. Personal identity becomes meaningless.
  4. CDPR becomes a tool for anarchists to commit acts of violence with impunity.

CDPR has become the tool of choice for change in society today. Even Christians are readily engaging in it. Christian leaders are advocating it, some in ignorance. CDPR must be distinguished from peaceful demonstrations and the constitutionally guaranteed right to public assembly. However, distinguishing the former from the latter is not always easy and often impossible. It takes a strong personal moral compass to make this distinction.

As an individual and a pastor, I have been in many situations where individuals and groups encouraged me to join them in public displays of resistance.

On one occasion I was asked by a Christian leader to join other pastors to sponsor an ad in the local paper against followers of Sun Myung Moon who announced they were starting a chapter in our town. I refused to allow my name to be printed on that full-page ad. My reason was first, that they had a right to come. Second, I was being asked as the leader of a local church. This church had not taken a stand and no official authorization had been given. In the end, the signatures were counted, and it was found that only one religious leader in the county had not signed. Guess who?

On another occasion, I was asked to join forces in a community to stop the use of a large adjacent lot from being used as a junk yard. As is often the case in this type of situation, I was asked to be the leader of the group. I accepted. We petitioned the county to rescind its permit. We were successful.

A second time, the same community came together to insist that the county enforce existing laws against a neighbor. The party was a hoarder. The house stood vacant but, looking through the windows, one could see piles of newspapers and other junk so deep that no one could possibly live there. Outside were numerous vehicles and piles of junk so high that the house was almost concealed. We were successful in this situation as well. The owner was threatened, in addition to a large fine, with having to pay the county to clean up the property, and with losing possession of the property altogether.

A third example is more recent. We live in a mobile home park for senior citizens. It was owned by a family for years. I believe they were doing a fair job of maintaining the community and enforcing the rules we all agreed to when we bought homes there. Over time the rent had gone up slowly, not keeping pace with the cost of inflation. It was announced that the rates would be increased again.

A group of residents got together and formed an association to protest. I was leading a Bible study in the park with a number of the residents attending. I was asked by a Christian who attended the Bible study to join the new organization and lend my support. I refused. He became belligerent and demanded to know why I refused to join the group.

I realized that for some on limited income, raising the rent was a problem. But I believed the owners had the right to do so. I was going by my own moral compass and not by economic and social concerns of the community.

Last year the park was purchased by a corporation. It was believed by individuals in the park, including myself, that the new owners were not abiding by laws that protect senior parks such as ours. Decisions were being made and edicts handed down in a way that gave the appearance that we no longer had any rights as property owners. We protested.

I joined the protest this time because there was the appearance of violations of existing laws and regulations and because of the lack of communication with the homeowners. Again, I was acting according to my moral compass.

At the outset, I informed the protest group that the minute they turned negative, I would drop my support. What we were seeking was better communication, observance of our rights as homeowners, and fairness. For once I was not asked to be the leading spokesperson. Those who stepped forward did a marvelous job quelling the tempers of others who tended to react with anger. Much good came from this effort.

This morning I watched in wonder with you as we saw the capital buildings in Washington D.C. having been attacked and breached yesterday. Four individuals reportedly were killed and others injured. What was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration turned violent. Anarchists, whether on the right or left, took advantage of a peaceful gathering and proved the point that CDPR will eventually result in violence. I am sure that there were many Christians caught up in the melee.

This is the time for each of us to check our own moral compass. There is no hard and fast rule as to when and where to engage in demonstrations. Each of us has to decide for him/herself. But for me, I choose to err on the side of caution. I choose carefully when and where I go to join a group protesting. What is the cause? Will it matter for eternity? What will it look like on the front page of a newspaper or on TV? How will opponents use my presence against the gospel message? The church? My Lord Jesus Christ?

We are living in difficult times. We see forces beyond our control moving in directions that concern us and affect our daily lives. What should be our response? Only a strong moral compass will direct us through these troubled waters. We need to be aware of the issues. Be aware of our surroundings. Who else is involved? What is their moral compass? Is this something we as Christians should be doing? This is an individual decision. Do not be misled by anyone, even those whom we have come to respect. Ultimately we are responsible for our own words and actions.

We still have the greatest power in the universe on our side, prayer, both personal and corporate. God is in control. God’s will will prevail regardless of the anger of man.

This you know, my beloved brethren. But let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (Jas 1:19-20)