In recent years, Christian movements such as Christian Climate Action have been a conspicuous presence at protests calling on the government and big business to act now in terms of environmental issues and what is often called the climate crisis. Christian activism is something that can stir deep emotions on both sides of the argument about whether it is right for a Christian to protest or not, and about whether it is right for a Christian to be involved in civil disobedience and non-violent direct action (NVDA). In this article we are going to look briefly at the biblical case for both sides of that discussion.
Throughout the old Testament some of the themes that come up over and over again are justice, the treatment of the poor, and faithfulness to God. These themes appear within a repeating pattern of the times when people are close to God and living according to his laws alternating with the times when they move away from God and forget his faithfulness to them. Into this pattern the prophets speak as in this verse from the prophet Zechariah (7:10) “And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah, this is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’” This, like so many other old Testament prophecies called people to disobey the violent and unjust culture of their day and return to the ways of a loving and merciful God. The refusal of the prophets to stay quiet and cooperate with the evil they perceived in their rulers was an expression of non-violent direct action which often led to abuse and even death, but as the people heard what the prophets were saying, many more people joined them in civil disobedience as they turned back to the call of God.
Gandhi; that great advocate and practitioner of NVDA described Jesus as "the most active resistor known to history.”
Civil disobedience in the Bible can be so gentle that it is easily missed. As the mother of Moses raises her baby in secret and then places him in a basket in the river she defies what has been decreed by the ruler of her country as indeed do Mary and Joseph when they escape Herod’s slaughter of the baby boys by fleeing into Egypt with the infant Jesus. Sometimes it is much more obvious, such as when Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego refuse to bow before the statue of the King and are thrown into the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), or when Daniel refuses to stop praying to his God and is thrown to the lions (Daniel 6).
And so we come to Jesus. Gandhi; that great advocate and practitioner of NVDA described Jesus as "the most active resistor known to history.” When we become Christians we choose to follow Jesus, someone who was kind, compassionate, a healer, a teacher and God in human form. But Jesus was also radical, disruptive, provocative, someone who spoke truth to power, and who was ultimately executed because of it.
When Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem,” (Luke 19:51), he knew what he was doing. As he healed (Luke 8:40-56), spoke words of challenge (Luke 11:37-54), rode a donkey into Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-44), and turned over the tables of the money lenders in the temple (Luke 19:45-46) Jesus knew what he was doing. John Dear SJ in his book “The sacrament of Civil Disobedience” describes Jesus as “a walking force of non violence….his actions were the committed response of someone on fire with love and truth.”
However in Mark 12:13-17 Jesus reminds us that despite his own words and actions in speaking truth to power, there are still boundaries, and times when we owe obedience to our rulers. The Pharisees ask Jesus if they should pay taxes to Caesar, and drawing their attention to the likeness of Caesar on one side of a coin he tells them that they should indeed give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but that they should also give to God that which belongs to God, and then he leaves them to work out what exactly that statement means for them.
In the book of Acts, Peter and John also find themselves having to make a decision about obedience and boundaries. Having healed a crippled beggar and spoken to many people about Jesus the two disciples find themselves in jail overnight. When they are called before the teachers of the law the next day and are told they must talk no more about Jesus they reply "judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20). This acknowledges that there can be conflict between obedience to God and obedience to those who has human authority over us.
The apostle Paul in the book of Romans brings one of the greatest Biblical challenges to those who choose to speak truth to power through civil disobedience and NVDA as he writes, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
"judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
In this passage Paul uses the same language of authority and submission that he does in other places when he talks about children submitting to their parents and wives submitting to their husbands. It is easy to read all of these passages as being an instruction never to go against certain types of authority, and although we can very easily say that authority is not always good or kind or life giving, and Paul would have known that too, he does not suggest that there are any exceptions to this instruction. He wants us to see that our governing authorities have been put in place by God and that we should respect them as such.
Paul then goes on to talk about love (Romans 13:8-10) as he reminds us of the words of Jesus when he said "love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and then states that "love is the fulfilment of the law,” leaving us, like his original audience, to work out how love of neighbour and submission to an authority that we might believe to be misguided or even evil should be lived out in a Christian life.
Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly what words written 2000 years ago are saying to us today. Sometimes Christians use bible passages to validate their own actions as the Nazi regime did with this passage from the book of Romans. When we are unsure it is important that we read carefully - not just short passages in isolation but within the context of the bigger story of the Bible and the love of God. We must give ourselves time to pray and reflect honestly on what we believe the words are saying to us, discuss our thinking with trusted Christian friends who will help us discern our path, and allow space for God to guide our decisions as we work out where we personally might fit within the question of Christian protest and activism.