Civil Disobedience – A Christ-follower’s imperative
Surely Jesus wouldn’t break the law, would he?
He was a peaceful citizen, obedient to the authorities he lived under, wasn’t he?
Remember, Jesus lived under two earthly authorities simultaneously. Both held enormous sway over society; the religious authorities – whose theocratic rule had almost complete control over daily life, and the state (Roman Empire – civil authority). To argue that Jesus’ disobedience to theocratic rule was not civil disobedience is to misunderstand the nature of religious rule in Jesus’ time entirely.
It’s probably not a stretch to posit that Jesus practiced civil disobedience every single day of his short public life.
He organized a movement, in the loose sense of the word, and built a community primarily among poor people to non-violently resist the empire and the unjust religious system that backed it in the name of God.
While the climax of that civic disobedience was the overturning of the money-changer’s tables in the temple, his campaign of non-violent civil disobedience went far beyond that event.
Consider his track record:
- his proclaiming of the coming of God’s reign and his reading from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue: this was a subversive act of truth-telling that threatened the empire.
- touching and healing lepers, which others thought would threaten everyone’s health; a radically civilly disobedient act, because it went beyond the designated boundaries of society. Lepers were “outsiders”, and by touching them, Jesus became a marginalized outsider too. He broke health regulations, as well as social and religious laws of behavior.
- mingling, eating and associating with “public sinners,” tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, the dying, the hungry, widows, women, fishermen, and other outcasts and marginalized people; he declared his total union with the poor and oppressed. By eating with the marginalized, Jesus publicly embraced all who were excluded by societal laws.
- repeatedly breaking Sabbath laws by working and healing on the Sabbath: the picking of grain by the disciples (their first public action was illegal!), the healing of the person with a withered hand, the healing of the woman in Luke 14:1-6, and many other such unlawful acts. For Jesus, mercy and human needs preceded regulation and rule.
- violating the cleanliness laws and eating codes: Jesus challenged the religious leaders by breaking the legalized religious dietary codes used to manipulate and oppress. Not washing hands before eating could result in condemnation and ostracization. Essentially, Jesus called for the breaking of these laws, and a return to the basics of justice and mercy. This particular act of civil disobedience evoked some of his strongest recorded language (“Woe to you!”).
- visiting “enemy” territories and associating with the enemy (such as the Samaritans) and with violent revolutionaries (the Zealots): Jesus was constantly fraternizing with the enemy. Loving one’s enemy was dangerous, subversive activity and yet it is the hallmark of Jesus’ teaching and life.
- engaging in symbolic action and political street theater by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy about the coming of a king of peace who will end war forever.
- There are varying interpretations of what Jesus meant with regard to paying taxes, but there is certainly a valid argument to be made that he encouraged resistance to paying the onerous taxes of Caesar, with his revolutionary declaration in Mark 12 to “give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” Once we give to God what is God’s, there is not a lot left for Caesar.
- There are many ways of looking at the incarnation, however I posit that the resurrection was Jesus’ ultimate act of nonviolent civil disobedience, and also gave rise to the most radical life of civil disobedience in his followers.