Last week, John MacArthur announced that his megachurch would hold in-person, indoor services, despite California’s recent COVID-19 restrictions banning in-person meetings. In a statement explaining the rationale for the church’s actions in the midst of a pandemic, the pastor wrote:
Christ is Lord of all. He is the one true head of the church He is also King of kings—sovereign over every earthly authority. Grace Community Church has always stood immovably on those biblical principles. As His people, we are subject to His will and commands as revealed in Scripture. Therefore we cannot and will not acquiesce to a government-imposed moratorium on our weekly congregational worship or other regular corporate gatherings. Compliance would be disobedience to our Lord’s clear commands.
What exactly should Christians make of MacArthur’s decision? One way to evaluate it is understanding whether it constitutes conscientious objection, civil disobedience, or something else, says Daniel K. Williams, professor of history at the University of West Georgia.
From a historical perspective, “true civil disobedience, at least in its classic form, has been public. It's been an active protest. It has been accompanied by the willingness to accept the consequences,” said Williams. “And that last part is one that I'm not sure if that's always consistently followed.”
Williams joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss what separates civil disobedience from merely breaking the law, how evangelicals have changed their mind on the issue in the past 50 years, and the role of empathy in shifting people’s attitudes and beliefs.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #223
Based on your studies, throughout history, how have Christians talked about making decisions about what laws they should and should not obey? And what differentiates civil disobedience from simply breaking the law?
Daniel K. Williams: I'll start by saying that most Christians, and certainly most biblically literate Christians, have recognized that there are some laws that a Christian absolutely has to break.
There’s the classic passage from the book of Acts where Peter stands before the Sanhedrin and says, “We must obey God rather than people.” And so throughout Christian history, there have always been martyrs, and there are martyrs, of course, in the 21st century. And the church has celebrated those actions. I think all Christian traditions—whether we're talking about Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant—all Christian traditions recognize the value of having martyrs. And of course, every time you have a martyr, you're looking at someone who is standing against a human authority in the name of God.
But civil disobedience is a little bit different. And I guess to get into this subject, I'll differentiate between two things I think we often confuse, and that is conscientious objection and civil disobedience.
Conscientious objection is when someone says that to obey a law would be intrinsically wrong. That is, for the Christian, it would directly conflict with God's law and would require participation in an action that is evil.
One example of that would be the case of the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in 2015. In 2015, the Supreme Court had just ruled in the case over Cavell vs. Hodges that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right, and therefore every state was going to have to issue marriage licenses for same-sex unions, just as a for heterosexual unions. And Kim Davis was a Christian and a Kentucky clerk who refused to issue those licenses. And she went to jail for a few days as a result. So that was a case of conscientious objection.
Now we might say, why is that not civil disobedience? Well, I think in this case, Kim Davis was saying that in her view it would be wrong to issue those licenses. That as a Christian, following the laws of God, she could not in good conscience issue an official document with her signature on it to say that something was a marriage that God had, in her view, said was not a marriage.
She was not melting a systematic political protest. And the fact that she was willing to come out of jail and agree to a negotiated settlement implies that what she was primarily concerned about was making sure that she did not violate her conscience, did not violate the laws of God. And whether a Christian would agree or disagree with Kim Davis has action, I think every Christian would agree with the principle behind it. That a Christian should not engage in an action—whether state-mandated or not—that would be intrinsically sinful.
Now civil disobedience is a little bit different. The phrase goes back to Henry David Thoreau, who in 1848, decided that he was not going to pay a particular tax because the money would go to support the Mexican War, which he opposed, and would support a government that sanctioned slavery, which he also opposed.
Now when he outlined his justification for that, he framed it in terms of a revolution. He made an analogy to the revolutionaries of the 1770s. And with the American Revolutionaries, they didn't believe that they had a moral duty to dump tea in the harbor in the same way that Kim Davis felt that she had a moral duty to do what she did in Kentucky. It was rather that they believed that the government under which they were serving had become unjust, was sanctioning injustice, and that, therefore, they were declaring that the government had lost its legitimacy. And Henry David Thoreau was saying something very similar in his actions. And he was doing so publicly, and he went to jail as a result.
An even more clear example of civil disobedience is with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which was inspired in part by this essay. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a large number of others embraced the idea of civil disobedience as a political protest tactic. And so they said that, if they opposed an unjust law by protesting against it, they would accept the consequences for it. And by doing so, they would appeal to the conscience of the nation and ultimately put pressure on the government to change that unjust law.
So not every Christian has embraced the tactic of civil disobedience. If the first principle of conscientious objection—that it is the duty of a Christian to follow his or her conscience—is fairly universally accepted, the second principle—the idea that a law should be opposed in the name of political protest in order to change that law—has not been universally accepted.
It was highly controversial among at least white Christians in the 1960s. And even Christianity Today among other Christian periodicals actually opposed it at the time. It was a fairly new idea for the church. Over the course of the late 20th century, it was accepted by more and more Christians. And today I think, at least in the abstract, a large number of evangelicals—not simply African American evangelicals but white evangelicals as well— have accepted the idea that civil disobedience was probably justified or was definitely justified in the case of opposing racial segregation and racial injustice.
The question though of when to apply it today, and even of whether the people who sometimes say that they're engaged in civil disobedience are really engaged in civil disobedience, is a question. True civil disobedience, at least in its classic form, has been public. It's been an active protest. It has been accompanied by the willingness to accept the consequences. And that last part is one that I'm not sure if that's always consistently followed.
Thoreau’s vision of civil disobedience, and even that of the Civil rights movement, was primarily nonviolent. Was there a turning point of people thinking that protest was dominantly nonviolent? Or was there a time when protest was just seen as inevitably becoming more violent?
Daniel K. Williams: The whole idea of political protest is something that I'm not sure was conceivable to people in the early church in the way that it is today. I think in the New Testament, the way that these stories were told was part of a package of proclaiming Jesus as the sovereign Lord over all of the earth. And Caesar, as well as every other king, of course, was far below that.
That was the framework. It wasn't the idea that the government of Rome needed to be challenged or changed. It was rather that the government of Rome had no legitimate authority over Christians, except for that authority that God had given to that power. And so that's the framework in which I think Christian martyrdom occurred for the first few centuries.
Thoreau had a very different framework. His was the framework of the new American Republic and the idea that this is a government that has been created contractually. It's a Lockean framework. Well, if that's your framework, at what point did nonviolent protest take hold instead of violence?
And I guess I would say that with the American Revolution, it started nonviolently. The early demonstrations in the 1760s and even very early 1770s against British power were not directly violent. They involved a lot of petitions, pamphlets, street theater, and that sort of thing. And violence only developed.
And I guess I would say the same thing with Thoreau. He was an advocate of nonviolence and he believed that this could be done nonviolently. Within a decade, others like John Brown thought differently over the same issue and most of the rest of the country was beginning to think differently.
There, of course, are those who've drawn a firm line between nonviolence and violence. And there's, of course, a strong Christian tradition on that side. One could look at the Quakers and find many examples of creative ways to nonviolently challenge slavery or other injustices.
For others, it's been a less firm line. And many people started out as advocates of nonviolence—Frederick Douglas would be one example—who then became willing to accept at least one form of violence. Sometimes people would differentiate and say they might accept state violence through war, but not necessarily private violence around the lines of John Brown.
Is there been a distinction there between civil disobedience or conscientious objections that are sought out versus actions where someone is simply just ignoring the law?
Daniel K. Williams: Well, there's a long tradition of people not wanting to obey the law for various reasons when an activity is prohibited. We don't always look at those people though as principled people engaged in civil disobedience.
If we go back to the example given in the intro, I think it's a difficult categorization there because, in the case of the churches that have mounted this protest, it's not simply the case that they said it's more convenient for us to do this or this is our preference. It's rather that they actually believe they were taking a principled stand. And yet it's not quite a conscientious objection, particularly with the example in Nevada is concerned, because there were ways that they clearly could have a fully obeyed and complied with the order. For example, they could have had multiple services, they could have an online service, they could have done any number of things that several churches around the country have chosen to do.
But they chose not to do those things because they wanted to call attention to something that they were seeing in a larger context, which is the state is not only failing to protect religious freedom, but it's issuing orders and injunctions that would privilege activities that are simply, frivolous entertainment, and in the view of some Christians, might be even involved inherent sin.
So they're privileging those activities and restricting what, in the Christian's view, should be the most important, and even from a constitutional standpoint, we could say are extremely important with the first amendment. And so I'm not sure exactly how to classify that because it's clearly not simply conscientious objection. But it could become civil disobedience if a church then publicly announced that they were doing this and welcomed the opportunity to actually face the consequences for it.
Can you talk a little bit about what those consequences might be and what it would mean for them to accept responsibility for those consequences?
Daniel K. Williams: Well, I guess the beginning of those consequences would be a fine. Now traditionally, people engaged in civil disobedience often are not willing to pay fines, in which case they often end up going to jail. And so the question is, are they willing to do that?
This is sort of a unique situation in the sense that I think the state would say that their rationale was public health, although I know the church believes that there was some discrimination against religious organizations. But if the issue is public health and if a church's action actually contributed to a public health crisis, would they then shoulder the costs of that? Would they reimburse a local hospital? Would they take responsibility for this action? I think those questions would need to be considered.
If there's disobedience of a law, if there's a violation of a law, and no willingness to really accept the potential consequences, then the question is, is that really civil disobedience in the spirit of Thoreau?
What would it look like for a church to try to not take responsibility?
Daniel K. Williams: It would involve fighting legal action in the courts. So, if there is a fine, continuing to appeal that. Trying to take a stance of defiance against the state. And if there's a COVID outbreak, refusing to acknowledge any responsibility for that, refusing to aid in health costs.
There are many potential consequences, many potential costs for the community, if there's a COVID outbreak. And the question is, is that is a church actually going to engage in actions that acknowledged their responsibility?
So in the civil rights movement, with the people who engaged in civil disobedience, like John Lewis, whose story has rightly been retold over the last few days, there was a willingness to accept police brutality without fighting back. There was a willingness to go to jail. There was a recognition that the types of actions that they would engage in would be actions that would be personally costly. And that's why Dr. King said famously, “unearned suffering is redemptive.” He recognized that there was a cost to this.
It was the same way with Thoreau. He believed that he was going to have to live in opposition to the state until the state changed its policies. And that that opposition was not going to be comfortable. He said that in this unjust situation, the only place for a just person was in jail.
And so the question is, is that the sort of stance that the churches are taking? Are they actually saying that the state has become illegitimate or the state is directly opposed to the laws of God, therefore we're going to become martyrs for the cause? Or is it more of the case that they're analogous to the people who violated the Prohibition law in the 1920s? They weren't necessarily planning to engage in some sort of principled stance, but they didn't really want to follow the law either.
In your book, you write about Christian activists who have admired the civil rights activists and wanted to engage in protest around Christian issues like abortion. Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, is a prime example. But you also note that this movement does not last as long as the civil rights movement of the sixties. Why do you think that is?
Daniel K. Williams: There were 40,000 people arrested between 1988 and 1992 for Operation Rescue protests. So it was certainly a large movement. But I think there were several differences between Operation Rescue and the civil rights movement that resulted in a different outcome.
The civil rights movement had the support, at least for a while, of white northern liberals. And the places that were targeted were targeted specifically because they would result in a particular reaction on the part of a racist white police force. So there were many places where an arrest could have taken place, and in some cases did take place, but by concentrating the lenses of the television cameras on Birmingham or Selma, for example, galvanized a nation. A lot of whites who thought that this was really not their struggle, that it wasn't that urgent, changed their minds. And therefore, President Kennedy introduced a civil rights bill that would later be signed into law by President Johnson. So in that sense, the civil disobedience was very successful.
The problem with the protests against abortion in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that they did not move the needle on abortion. In fact, to the extent that we can see the needle moving, the public actually became less sympathetic toward the pro-life cause as they saw it engaged in what they viewed as more extreme tactics. So their protests did not achieve the results that they wanted. Furthermore, what broke it was the passage of federal legislation and court decisions that allowed Operation Rescue to be sued for damages. So in some ways, it was counterproductive.
In doing some research about John Lewis and the civil rights movement, we were struck by the fact that they were very strategic in trying to create empathy. Can speak a little bit about what civil disobedience looks like when empathy is involved? How does that change things?
Dan Williams: If disobeying the law is seen as self-interested, then I think that the potential for garnering any sort of sympathetic support from the public who might be ambivalent is greatly reduced.
I also think in order to create empathy, it needs to be strictly nonviolent. People who are engaged in this need to be consistent with their principles. They need to be willing to suffer for the cause, what they've espoused.
I think beyond that though, and this is where it really gets tricky, a campaign of civil disobedience is not going to move the needle of public opinion unless there's already been some degree of a latent willingness to support the cause—in theory, at least. And that was the case with the civil rights movement and northern white liberals.
There are so many groups that have engaged in some form of civil disobedience or some form of defiance that really have not changed public opinion at all. In general, when those campaigns are somewhat isolated, when the numbers are low, when they don't involve the sort of major confrontations that one would see with the civil rights movement, they have limited value.
And so I would go so far as to say that, in general, civil disobedience is not an effective tactic. That one can think of only a few exceptions to that. And really only one major exception. The one major exception would be the civil rights movement. But there've been numerous cases of people trying to engage in civil disobedience and it never really materializes. It never really results in something.
I think some unique factors were going on—some regional divisions, the phenomenon of television, and quite many other things—that enabled civil disobedience to become a particularly effective tactic with the civil rights movement.
But if we then extrapolate from that and say, “because it worked for the civil rights movement, therefore it can work for my cause,” in most cases I would argue that there's good reason to believe that simply as a strategy, regardless of what you think about the morality of it one way or the other, it is rarely a particularly effective political strategy.
A lot of the things that we've been talking about have kind of a church aspect to them, and churches have historically had kind of this good Goodwill aspect to them. Can churches still help to mobilize these protest movements or are they in a neutral mode for helping to catalyze that public sentiment toward the protest?
Daniel K. Williams: I guess one of the clearest test cases for that would be Black Lives Matter because of course, that's directly analogous in some ways to the civil rights movement. And their observers have noted that in general churches have played a less central role in Black Lives Matter than they did in the civil rights movement.
Many churches have supported the Black Lives Matter movement and then, of course, a few have even taken the opposite stance. But in general, there are a lot of churches that have supported it, but for whatever reason, it did not originate in the church in the same way that the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s did.
I think people have certainly noted the decline in church attendance, the decline in the importance of the church for some years. On the other hand, it seems like a lot of churches, especially among white evangelicals, a lot of churches that had once been very cautious about engaging in social activism are much more willing to speak out to both confess their own complicity and in injustices of the past, and also to take a public stand for justice in ways that maybe just a few years ago they would not have.
So I do see the potential for churches to say something meaningful on these issues of justice and actually to be leaders. But I think as our society becomes more polarized, politically and religiously and ideologically, and also it continues to be more pluralistic and more fragmented the potential for any organization or any institution to mobilize people in the way that might've occurred in the past is perhaps going to be muted. There's not going to be the same level of influence. And even the media has become very fragmented. And so there's a real question as to what, if anything, can speak to Americans across the political spectrum.
Are we simply going to have a lot of different pockets of people who listen to one authority versus those who listen to a different authority? I don't know. We're living through this and it's impossible to fully predict how all of this will play out, but we can definitely see the trend lines. And the trend line suggests that there's a deinstitutionalization and fragmentation in American society that goes well beyond simply the loss of influences of churches.
There's just an increased individualism and a fragmenting of what used to be a political consensus that may affect the way any social justice movement emerges in the future.
Let’s wrap our conversation by talking about blind spots. How do you suggest that we respond when we're seeing Christians engage in civil disobedience that personally makes us feel uncomfortable?
Daniel K. Williams: I think we should respond in the same way that we would respond to any form of political action, whether it's a statement on Facebook or other social media, or whether it's participation in a political demonstration, or even running for office or being involved in a political campaign.
Christians are going to disagree politically, and we want to treat other Christians, of course, with charity. Recognizing that they serve the same master and to their own Lord they'll stand or fall. But in addition to that, I think it's legitimate to raise real questions. That if we disagree with an action, I think we have the right, with charity and, and grace, to raise legitimate questions.
I would say that one principle that I'd like Christians to remember is that the New Testament, and for that matter the entire Bible, is really a call to relinquish rights, to sacrifice oneself, to recognize Jesus is Lord and not to protest for our own rights. And so if there's a place for legitimate civil disobedience, it would probably involve that sort of self-sacrificial thinking, that sort of love for one's neighbor, that sort of Jesus-focused ethic, rather than simply standing on what we might perceive as our constitutional rights.
Now how to apply that is something on which Christians might disagree. And I think those disagreements are areas where we could have grace-filled productive dialogue—not being afraid to express our own opinions, but at the same time, recognizing that we may easily be colored by our thinking or our own background. None of us read the Bible or act strictly in a vacuum controlled only by the Holy Spirit. We are always subject to our own biases, our own influences, and preconceptions.
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