3 Questions Christians Should Ask About Civil Disobedience

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, the location seized by Ammon Bundy. Photo by Matthew Foster, “Untitled” on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

As a Christian in America, it’s easy to feel like an outsider. The entertainment and cultural elite long ago abandoned orthodoxy for trendy secularism. To adhere to outmoded beliefs is to risk being labeled a rube or a bigot. Religion is being exiled from public life slowly but surely, forced into consecrated ghettoes where its followers may adhere to their consciences without bothering about the real world.

Real-life anecdotes abound. Last summer, the evangelical world was swept up in the drama of Kim Davis — a lone civil servant who defied the gay lobby by refusing to issue marriage licenses. Before her, Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich lost his job for his convictions, and Memories Pizza faced a social media barrage when it refused to cater gay weddings. All this against a background of lawlessness in high places, as high-ranking officials rule by fiat, disregarding the time-honored process of law to radically reshape the culture.

In this environment, it’s not hard to see why Christians gravitate to tales of defiance and civil disobedience, imagining wish-fulfillment victories over our cultural opponents. Films like Braveheart, The Patriot, and God’s Not Dead resonate for a reason.

And along come the Bundys, heroic frontiersmen facing off with the faceless feds. Automatically, Christians were inclined to sympathize with old-fashioned revolutionaries, standing, they claimed, for God and the American way. Or is it that simple?

The Bundy standoff had been brewing for a long time and plays as a sequel to the 2014 protest staged by the Bundy patriarch, Cliven — in which he took issue with the government’s policy on grazing rights. Earlier this month, a group of armed men, led by Cliven’s son Ammon, seized a federal building to stage a protest against the government’s mistreatment of the Hammond ranching family. The Hammond case was, admittedly, handled in a somewhat draconian fashion, but there was nothing unlawful about it. Not so the occupation.

Ammon Bundy, like his father, claims divine endorsement for his actions after praying: “I clearly understood that the Lord was not pleased with what was happening to the Hammonds” and “I did exactly what the Lord asked me to do.”

Christian history is not without its examples of civil disobedience. Daniel defied the king’s edict, praying in public when it would have been just as easy to continue his devotions privately. Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego refused to worship idols. In Acts 4, Peter and John ignored the Sanhedrin’s order to cease preaching. Christian WWII Resistance fighters like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sophie Scholl, Irena Sendler, and Corrie Ten Boom worked against the tyrannous Nazi government in a variety of ways. Today, Christians smuggle Bibles illegally into China and North Korea.

But for Christians, civil disobedience should be undertaken only with extreme caution and solemnity, after due consideration. In Romans 13, Paul says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” He goes further: We are not merely to respect authorities, but pray for and honor them (1 Tim. 2:1-4, 1 Pet. 2:17). Coming from a man who lived in a brutal and unjust society, the words carry weight.

In an environment of intense anti-government feeling, clashes between individual and federal bodies are more and more common — and the temptation to disregard the rulings of an unfair government is great. From the Bundy Militia to Kim Davis, how can Christians navigate these uncertain waters? Here are three questions to ask ourselves:

For what are we standing?

One guiding principle is to recall Jesus’ words: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Tim Keller points out that many times, in our anger, we fight merely to defend our own egos. When we make a stand, is it for our will, or God’s? The Bundys, being Mormons, may disagree, but the Constitution is not divinely inspired. Despite our best efforts to baptize our nation’s origins, the Founding Fathers were not the Apostles, and America is not the church — neither should they be defended as if they were. God’s law deserves our defense — and none other.

Why are we standing?

We must examine our motives for striking out. In the play A Man for All Seasons, the protagonist, Thomas More, is accused of self-importance when he risks his life and reputation for a principle. “If we lived in a state where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us saintly. But since we see that abhorrence, anger, pride, and stupidity commonly profit far beyond charity, modesty, justice, and thought, perhaps we must stand fast a little — even at the risk of being heroes.” Let us act not for our own glory, but because we must live lives of charity, modesty, justice, and thought.

How do we stand?

It is not insignificant that the Bundy protest is staged with weapons that have the ability to kill. To kill a man is a frightful responsibility, a fact we may have forgotten in an age in which violence is glamorized and applauded (remember the fascination with Braveheart?). And any man that brings a gun to a discussion brings an implicit threat not just of violence, but deadly violence. Guns betoken a readiness to kill. That is not to be taken lightly.

The Way Forward

Are these hard and fast rules? Of course not. But as Christians, we are not called to blithely defend lawlessness, self-important rebellion, and mindless violence. Our actions are rather to be defined by conscientiousness, humility, and a willingness to turn the other cheek. Sometimes those things intersect — to be conscientious we must break the law, to be humble we must make a scene, for our love of justice we must overthrow the established system of justice, “even at risk of being heroes.” But let us never do it lightly, brothers and sisters.

“Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Pet. 2:18-20).