When should Christians engage in civil disobedience? Should they ever revolt against a government?

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When should Christians engage in civil disobedience? Should they ever revolt against a government?

Civil Disobedience refers to acts or omissions disobeying particular laws on the grounds of a legal injustice, within a framework of submission to legitimate political authority. Revolution, in contrast, is the systematic refusal to obey an existing political authority, either on the grounds of its pervasive injustice, or basic illegitimacy.1 Is their grounds for Christians to engage in either of these activities? Much of the literature concerning Civil Disobedience and Revolution can be summed up as dry, unoriginal, and casuistic.2 In seeking to answer this question then, I propose to follow a slightly circuitous route, in the hope that it will lead to a deeper appreciation of the Christian position vis a vis Civil Disobedience and Revolution. We begin then, with O’Donovan's account of justice-in-war, then move to a consideration of the legitimacy of political authority, the contribution of Romans 13, the social ethic of Yoder, and finally to the question of Civil Disobedience and Revolution.
In The Just War Revisited, O’Donovan makes a strong and persuasive case for justice-in-war. The relevance of this case to our argument is the close connection between just-war and just-revolution.3 He begins with the assertion that "[t]he will of God for humankind is peace"4, and the first proposition he derives from this is that "God's peace is the original ontological truth of creation".5 He therefore rightly condemns unmediated antagonism, and calls for a counter-praxis, "The praxis which corresponds to the ontology of peace is not a praxis of peace simply and as such, but a praxis of winning peace out of opposition".6
He then articulates two "theatres", that of the "community of belief and worship" in which the counter-praxis of winning-peace is mutual forgiveness, and the missiological theatre "against a backdrop of unbelief and disobedience", in which he characterises justice-in-war as judgment-extended-to-the-other.
It is at this point O’Donovan goes wrong. He characterises pacifism, as "a passive counter-praxis of endurance and martyrdom"7 in this second theatre. He further writes that all pacifisms are practically the same in that "it holds that an evangelical counter-praxis of judgment is not to be looked for".
The refutation of O’Donovan consists in the claim that not all pacifisms are equal. There is, indeed should be, a specific kind of pacifism that refutes his position. This is a counter-praxis that does not begin with martyrdom, but ends with it. The refusal of violence does not preclude action, but opens up the field of action in a creative and imaginative way that the 'last-resort' of just-war tends never to do (the last-resort of violence seems to be reached far sooner than the last-resort of martyrdom). He is wrong to characterise "Non-violence, non-resistance"8 p10 et al, as purely a 'via negativa', they represent a real counter-praxis engaged in creative, and ontologically true witness and action, not merely the end of action, which in effect is the outcome of judgment.
Behind O’Donovan's just-war thinking is his readiness to consider authority as legitimised. This is the second point at which his argument seems to go astray. The ethic of pacifism is an ethic for the polis of belief in the theatre of "unbelief and disobedience".9 O’Donovan's shadowy polis is undefined, but assumes to itself more of Christendom than one suspects it has the right to.
While O’Donovan10 (WoJ 15), Hauerwas11, and Yoder all agree, in principle at least, that the church forms its own polis, of a kind, their characterisation of secular po,leij is the ground of difference.
In The Ways of Judgment, chapters 8 through 11, O’Donovan gives an account of the nature of political authority in terms of representation and the actuality-of-judgment. This comes to its fruition in the following: "These two aspects of the common good, 'right' and 'tradition,' represent the essential grounds of political authority. Authority belongs to those who, embodying the identity of the community, enact right on its behalf”.12 He further adds that power, though it adds nothing to the constituency of authority, is the necessary condition of the actualisation of political authority. He says again, "Political authority arises where power, the execution of right, and the perpetuation of tradition are assured together in one coordinated agency".13
O’Donovan begins to lay, at least edges towards, a case that should give the grounds for revolution. "But consider the hardest case of all: when a section of society...is systematically exploited... Allowing them no right, it can lay on them no obligations" and further "Justified revolution' ...is, when properly conceived, an exercise of political authority governed by constitutional law".14
Against this articulation of political authority I wish to propose the radical thesis that authority exists esse per esse15. For this purpose we turn to Romans 13. I concur broadly with the points of Yoder in The Politics of Jesus, ch 10, but focus in on his third point (p198-203), "The subordination that is called for recognizes whatever power exists, accepts whatever structure of sovereignty happens to prevail. The text does not affirm, as the tradition has it, a divine act of institution or ordination of a particular government".16
Rom 13 provides three salient points. Firstly, all authorities are ordered by God. They are ordered, not ordained. Their existence is already a 'given' of the situation. Nothing is said about their nature, only that (a) they are, and (b) they are ordered, i.e. they are formed into place and purpose by God's ordering of the world. The consequent of this is that there is no basis for to assume (c) the goodness of existing authorities, or, and most tellingly, (d) the legitimacy of existing authorities. Legitimacy is not the question on the agenda. Indeed, the impact of this proposition is that Christians are free from asking the question, "Is this authority legitimate and do I therefore need to obey/submit to it?" Furthermore, (e) the ordering of the existing authorities protects us from legitimating fictions. By this I mean the 'accounts' that authorities use to narrate their own authority. At no point do Christians need to buy-in to these accounts, since the givenness and ordering of the authorities makes it irrelevant.
Secondly, the appropriate response to authority is submission. Submission, it must be noted, does not equate to obedience. Indeed, it cannot simply equate to obedience. The context of Paul's writing makes this evident, in that Paul outlines a role for authority, to reward good and punish evil, a role which he clearly knows that neither the Roman nor Jewish authorities are doing (since they are, in fact, persecuting Christians). If, under those circumstances Paul enjoins submission to authorities which are falling short of their role, submission cannot entail obedience.
It should be apparent, by this stage, why Revolution is an option closed to Christians. The account of the NT, in Romans, 1 Peter, and throughout the gospels, is one of Christian submission to ruling authorities, by virtue of their existence, and nothing besides. There is no question that their authority might be illegitimate, or that in such a case, that it may rightly be overthrown.
Bonhoeffer provides an important complexity to our understanding of political authority at this point. He reminds us that it is insufficient to base an understanding of the state in either the nature of man or the fall occasioned by sin.17 Colossians 1: 16-20 forces the recognition that political authority was created through Jesus, for Jesus, holds together in Jesus, and has its eschatological fulfilment in Jesus.
And yet, confronted with the reality of unjust regimes, of fallen authorities and all sorts of disordered states, whether the ideal types of tyrannies, or the disturbing realities of our own world, the question then becomes, what is the proper Christian response?
Earlier I hinted that a specific kind of pacifism formed the appropriate counter-praxis to violence in the world. The kind of pacifism I am articulating differs enormously from the ready caricature of passivism so often depicted by its opponents. It is a counter-praxis that is truly action, not inaction. To this we now turn.
The reason for this insistence on a particular pacifism is because only one 'pacifism' will do. It is not my intention to defend here the body of Yoder's work, indeed I doubt that it needs much defending, but rather to articulate that the kind of ethic he is drawing out proceeds directly from a biblically faithful and doctrinally orthodox position, as a necessary consequence. The importance of this is that, post-Yoder, a certain kind of pacifism must be considered, and this pacifism is grounded in the normativity of a political Jesus.
Yet, and precisely because of its particular nature, this pacifism is relevant, and powerfully so. Against the appeals to 'effectiveness', which seem so readily to lapse into a theology of the real, or a theology of the natural, it is driven by revelation, in the incarnate Christ. Against 'effectiveness' it holds up 'faithfulness' to the ethic, or rather the person, of Jesus as the deciding point of a socio-ethical discipleship.18
Which is why attempts to criticise a non-violent resistance stance as 'beginning with martyrdom' fail to hit home. It is martyrdom as faithful witness that marks the beginning of this ethic, not martyrdom as a suicide ethic. And it is faithful witness that characterises engagement, rather than withdrawal, with the secular polis.
Although Yoder19, and Hauerwas too20, have been criticised for a failure to fully develop the implication of the resurrection for their ethic, the resurrection plays a key role at just this point. While Yoder rightly concludes that imitation language holds together only in the "concrete social meaning of the cross"21, it does so because of the resurrection.
In the resurrection the Father vindicates the Son, and the ethical import of that action is a vindication of Jesus' own ethic. Furthermore, it severs the necessity of 'effectiveness' as the criterion of socio-political engagement.22 God enacts justice, in the resurrection, in history (Acts 12:19-23), and eschatologically. It is only this that can permit the Christian to live out Romans 12:19-21, to live an ethic of obedience as faithful witnessing, not effective outcome. This severance of action to effectiveness confirms moral life as a continual act of faith, since its ground is faithful to God, the God who has already vindicated his True and Faithful Witness, the crucified outcast. (Rev 1:5, 3:14, Acts 2, 4, 5)
If this seems a circuitous route to approach the issue of Civil Disobedience and Revolution, it is because only by understanding the radical grounding of a Yoder-type pacifism, in a Jesus-normative social ethic, can we properly address the question in terms that are faithful to the scriptures, not on the terms of other, less-faithful, descriptions of the moral terrain.
This scoping of the terrain must take one final turn. It should be clear, for both sides (and there is much ground that Yoder and O’Donovan hold in common), the Christian exists both in the community of belief, and in the secular polis. The question of how that interface is configured is the central one. O’Donovan rightly refuses to separate off the realm of human judgment.23 There are two 'theatres' in play here. Neither will the Lutheran dichotomy do: one cannot have Christian ethics at home and natural ethics in officio. Yoder's position, and his logic compels me to follow, is that Christians rightly leave human judgment in secular hands, entrusting judgment (ultimately) to God.24
The outcome of these two positions is decisive for the sharp end of Civil Disobedience and Revolution. For O’Donovan, his account of political authority, the need for some account of legitimacy, and the evangelical concern for judgment compels the Christian onto 'the political stage'.
Which grants, though O’Donovan does not seem to develop it beyond the edge25 (145-146), an extreme case for revolution where political authority has ceased. Since Christians are obliged to submit to, and support the existence of, continued authority, when political authority fails (through the failure of power, execution of right, or perpetuation of tradition26), revolution must arise to reinstitute political authority, contra chaos. His arguments elsewhere give the ground for justice-in-war, since that is a form of judgment extended beyond one's constitutive community.
For O’Donovan, though, Civil Disobedience preserves the tradition of relations27, since Civil Disobedience is in effect an action of counter-testimony within submission-to-judgment. Civil Disobedience is, definitionally, the rejection of 'wrong law' in submission to God, with the acceptance of 'just punishment' by virtue of duly-constituted authority.
Yoder's position leaves us in a far more radical ethical place. The socio-ethical example of Jesus is anything but disengaged with the politics of his time. To faithfully imitate Jesus in this way must involve the disciple in constant and continual counter-testimony: creative words and deeds of faithful judgment-proclamation (but not judgment-execution) in communication with the secular world. Civil Disobedience then becomes not so much the government-oriented action of so much political liberalism (the attempt to protest by non-violent action unjust laws with a view to reasonable efficacy), but the secular label for a consistent counter-lifestyle that upholds submission to authority while at the same time refusing legitimating fictions, that lives out the normativity of Jesus, whatever that may mean, and leaves judgment in the hands of God (not as an act of fatalistic quietism, but as an act of faith, in the God who sovereignly orders the civil authorities and eschatologically acts to judge us all). The label Civil Disobedience begins to apply only as an outsider label, since the Civil Disobedience of this social ethic is only so because it describes what looks like Disobedience in regards to the Civitas, but this ethic is not configuring itself around the locus of the Civitas and the paradigm of disobedience, but around the locus of Christ and the paradigm of obedience, and accepting the reality of "the cross" as the outcome of such a consistent counter-testimony to the world.
The nonviolence of Yoderan pacifism already circumscribes the 'limit' of this Civil Disobedience. But what does this say for the Christian who actually lives under extreme injustice? It is to the reality (or at least the hypotheticality) of praxis that our final consideration must turn. A consistent Christian social ethic of a Yoder-type has firmly shut the door to the possibility of revolution. The question then remains of whether Civil Disobedience is to be understood minimally, that Christians may only disobey in matters of direct conflict with obedience to God, or maximalist, that Christians may disobey unjust laws even when they would not sin by not disobeying.
If the shape of the social ethic I have outlined is correct, this is the wrong question to ask. The solution remains to live out a Christian ethic first, and the civil status of those actions second. In this configuration Christians under tyrannous regimes may find themselves consistently submissive yet subversive, and suffering unto death, or (and paradoxically) that the strength and breadth of their witness actually topples regimes (without the intent to do so).
The shape of this ethic is deliberately vague, even ad hoc. It requires a certain ‘figuring out as one goes’. Neither violence nor martyrdom, which two opposing ethics name as a ‘last resort’, but all too readily reach for as a tool, will do. Martyrdom is the very last act of the faithful witness, but creativity is the first response. And yet, there are a few ‘suggestions’ for practice that can be made. Historically, one may consider the almost bizarre position of Denmark during WWII, a nation-wide policy of political submission accompanied by pervasive and strategic non-cooperation. The practices of Anabaptist church-groups across the years provides many examples of what it might look like (and might not look like) to be distinct yet engaged. The neglected ‘praxis’ of ‘cunning’ in the Old Testament warrants closer moral scrutiny (not least the madness of David in 1 Samuel 21:11-15). We may also ask probing questions about the practices of the Christian community – what does it mean to form people whose mindset is both disciplined in rejecting violence as an option, vigilant in a counter-cultural lifestyle, and creative in engaging a church-world interface? Most of all, we must consider the disingenuousness of Jesus in confrontation with his opponents, the continual responses to questions and challenges that overturn the whole framework of the issue, which consistently leaves Jesus as the definer of discourse and his opponents defeated yet unable to make a come back.


Attwood, D.J.E.

Beckwith, Francis J. and Feinberg, John S.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

Carter, Craig

Clark, D.K and Rakestraw, R.V. (Editors)

Davidson, Bruce

Escobar, J.S.
Fuliga, Jose B.

Hauerwas, Stanley

O’Donovan, Oliver

Yoder, John Howard

Civil Disobedience” in Atkinson, David J et al. (Editors) New dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology Leicester, England : Inter-Varsity Press, 1995. p233-4.

Operation Rescue: Debating the Ethics of Civil Disobedience” Christian Research Journal, 17 Spring 1995. p 32-41.

Ethics New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995.
The Politics of the Cross: the theology and social ethics of John Howard Yoder Grand Rapids, Michigan : Brazos Press, 2001.
Readings in Christian Ethics vol 2. Grand Rapids, Michigan : Baker Books, 1994-1996.
Is Civil Disobedience Bibilical?” [sic] Searching Together, 19 Winter 1991. p 12-16.
Rebellion” in Atkinson, David J et al. (Editors) New dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology Leicester, England : Inter-Varsity Press, 1995. p723-4.
Church-State Relations and Civil Disobedience” Asia Journal of Theology, 1 O 1987, p 472-476.
In good company: the Church as polis Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 1995.
Resurrection and the Moral Order 2nd ed. Leicester, England : Apollos ; Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1994.
The Just War Revisited Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003.
The Ways of Judgment Grand Rapids, Michigan : Eerdmans, 2005
The Politics of Jesus Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans ; Carlisle, UK : Paternoster Press, 1994.

1 Such definitions as offered arise from Attwood, D.J.E. “Civil Disobedience” and Escobar, J.S. “Rebellion” in Atkinson, David J (ed) New dictionary of Christian ethics and pastoral theology Leicester, England : Inter-Varsity Press, 1995. p233-4 and 723-4; as well as Clark, D.K and Rakestraw, R.V. (eds) Readings in Christian Ethics vol 2. Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Books, 1994-1996. p423-4.

2 See, for instance, the essays in Clark and Rakestraw, ch11., as well as Beckwith, Francis J. and Feinberg, John S. “Operation Rescue: Debating the Ethics of Civil Disobedience” Christian Research Journal, 17 Spring 1995. p 32-41; Davidson, Bruce “Is Civil Disobedience Bibilical?” [sic] Searching Together, 19 Winter 1991. p 12-16; and Fuliga, Jose B. “Church-State Relations and Civil Disobedience” Asia Journal of Theology, 1 O 1987, p 472-476.

3 I leave aside the issue of a non-violent revolution for the moment, though it is not unimportant.

4 O’Donovan, Oliver The Just War Revisited Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2003. p1.

5 O’Donovan, op cit., p2.

6 O’Donovan, op cit., p5.

7 O’Donovan, op cit., p7.

8 O’Donovan, op cit., p10.

9 O’Donovan, op cit., p xx

10 O’Donovan, O. The Ways of Judgment Grand Rapids, Mich. : Eerdmans, 2005. ch 15.

11 Hauerwas, Stanley, In good company: the Church as polis Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. (Among others)

12 O’Donovan, op cit., p140

13 O’Donovan, op cit., p142.

14 O’Donovan, op cit., p145.

15 Political authority exists by the very fact of its existence, and in turn the fact of its existence is the basis for its existence, and moreso, the basis for its existence as authority.

16 Yoder, John Howard The Politics of Jesus Grand Rapids, Mich. : Eerdmans ; Carlisle, UK : Paternoster Press, 1994. p198-9.

17 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Ethics New York : Simon & Schuster, 1995. p328-334.

18 I do not mean that outcomes are unimportant for moral discourse and decisions, only that the requirement to be effective is not the driving criterion of a Christian social ethic.

19 Carter, Craig The Politics of the Cross: the theology and social ethics of John Howard Yoder Grand Rapids, Mich. : Brazos Press, 2001. p105.

20 O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order 2nd ed. Leicester, England : Apollos ; Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1994. p. xv-xvi.

21 Yoder, op cit., p130.

22 While not, it must be noted, removing an element of intended and likely outcome from the moral consideration of action.

23 O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, p99-100.

24 The heart of this disagreement turns on the redemption of ‘authorities’. One way or another they have their fulfilment in Christ’s eschatological coming. Yoder, rightly, restricts the redemptive work of God the Spirit in the world to the church ‘militant’ (the consistent militant imagery of the NT is surprising in its apocalyptic dichotomy coupled with continual non-violent subversion of its own theme). O’Donovan’s ‘rehabilitating christendom’ historico-theological project construes political authority as an arena for God’s redemption to play itself out. I find the Scriptures frightfully silent on the redemption of ‘authorities’.

25 O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, p145-146

26 O’Donovan, op cit., p142.

27 O’Donovan, op cit., p146

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