A monthly column by Michael Cassidy, evangelist, author, Christian leader and founder of African Enterprise whose ministry in Africa and the world has spanned more than 50 years.
At this time, South Africans, especially Christian South Africans, are again asking, as they did in the apartheid era, about whether or not there are times when the state should be challenged, or even disobeyed. This raises the age-old question of civil disobedience. Many Christians have understood Paul’s word in Romans 13:1 on being “subject” to the powers to mean uncritical, unquestioning and total obedience.
But Paul is not in fact asking that. He is asking for subjection and submission to the authority of the state, even if or when one may have to disobey it as the early Christians did when they refused to worship Caesar. In other words, if you disobey something on the grounds of conscience, you must be ready to submit to the consequences. So, for example, a black friend who once took me into the New Brighton township in Port Elizabeth during the days of apartheid, disobeyed the letter of the law which said everyone needed a permit to enter, but he and I submitted to the consequences when we were both arrested. And when I and some colleagues were forbidden to preach in that township that night, we disobeyed, even with two Casspir loads of soldiers intimidating us.
In fact, the words used in the Greek of this and other similar passages are best translated as “submit”. The Greek word for implicit obedience is not used of government and is used of Christ. The distinction between “submit” and “obey” can be seen in Christ’s encounter with Pilate. Christ submitted to Pilate’s judgment, recognising that His authority came from God; but in refusing to answer, he did not obey and was thus guilty of contempt of court (John 9:9-11).
In my own struggles with this, I see a staircase of ascendingly forceful steps which many Christians in conscience might take, each one more serious than the previous one, with each successive step to be taken only if the previous one fails. Before a Christian can consider civil disobedience or a revolutionary route as a Christian response, all other options have to be exhausted. This has been registered by the many people in South Africa at this time who are coming against the proposed so-called Hate Speech bills, which, if passed, might necessitate civil disobedience from many in the Church.
Steps of Christian challenge to the state
1. Private challenge: If a Christian feels in conscience that something is wrong with the way Caesar is functioning, the first step should be either to write privately or better still go privately to present to the authorities a word of concern or challenge.
2. Private protest: If this has no effect, the concerned Christian should then take another step. This intensifies the vigour of the private challenge, which now becomes a private protest.
3. Public challenge and protest: If both private challenge and private protest prove fruitless, the next step surely has to be public challenge and protest. The Church must seek to challenge the conscience of both state and nation so that it might hear the voice and word of God speaking to their soul and addressing their actions.
4. Questioning of governmental legitimacy: If all this is in vain, an inevitable set of perilous questionings is set in motion – triggered not by irresponsible citizens but by an intransigent state – whereby the legitimacy of a particular regime begins to be seriously and widely questioned. In South Africa many feel we are teetering into this territory. Many people are beginning to question first of all the moral legitimacy of the South African government (because it is perceived to be corrupt and behaving in ways on principles contrary to God’s laws and “common good”) and secondly its political legitimacy (because of endemic and widespread corruption).
5. Withdrawal of popular support and cooperation: A state’s real power, not just its nominal authority, is dependent on the consent of the governed. And a nation is not governed which has constantly to be conquered. Clearly the more a government has to use force the more evidently has it lost both the capacity and, sometimes, the right to govern.
The American political scientist Gene Sharp once noted that: “…a closer examination of the sources of the ruler’s power will indicate that they depend intimately upon the obedience and co-operation of the subjects… Authority is necessary for the existence and operation of any regime.” While no one in their right mind wants to see any country enter into casual let alone run-away campaigns of civil disobedience, nevertheless such things can happen and even Christians have become part of them at certain points in Church history.
When civil disobedience is considered legitimate
John Knox, the celebrated Scottish reformer wrote: “Kings have not an absolute power in their regiment to do what pleases them; but their power is limited by God’s word.” In A Christian Manifesto Francis Schaeffer quotes Charles Finney, one of the greatest evangelists and revivalists in the history of the Christian Church, who said, especially concerning slavery: “If a law is wrong, you must disobey it.” Furthermore, Schaeffer’s own posture is totally straightforward: “The bottom line is that at a certain point there is not only the right, but the duty to disobey the State.” He adds: “If there is no final place for civil disobedience, then the government has been made autonomous, and as such, it has been put in the place of the Living God, because then you are to obey it even when it tells you, in its own way and time, to worship Caesar. And that point is exactly when the early Christians performed their acts of civil disobedience, even when it cost them their lives.”
None of this ought to make anyone jump lightly into the enterprise of civil disobedience. It is a most serious matter, and God, who is the author of order and of the phenomenon of government, will quickly judge the light-hearted, casual-thinking revolutionary who embarks on such an enterprise lightly, selfishly or irresponsibly. We also have to stress the importance, for a Christian at least, of his or her conscience being captive to Christian truth and principle. After all, our conscience is to some degree socially determined. So the Christian labours for a conscience bound to biblical truth and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, rather than to the norms of the surrounding society.
In the present convulsive and confusing situation in South Africa where the foundations of integrity, morality and righteous behaviour are being destroyed, we need to ask as the psalmist did: “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?“ (Psalm 11:3) And like Paul on the Damascus Road each of us must also ask the Lord:“What do you want me to do?” (Acts 22:10)