Is It Ever Right to Oppose Legitimate Authority?
When is it OK to break the law? When can you disobey the authorities? Should you be punished for meaning well?
Before reflexively answering, let’s imagine some possibilities.
Say the government came looking for spies hiding in your house. Is it OK for you to have allowed the spies to hide there? Isn’t it even worse if you cover up by denying the spies are hiding? Should you compound your treason by helping the spies escape?
Next hypothetical: Should you disobey a law legitimately enacted and legally upheld by the highest court in the land?
Last hypothetical: Do you think a person should be put to death for disobedience that resulted in no physical harm, especially if he meant well? Isn’t the death penalty much too harsh for that?
Let’s take the spy scenario first. You may have imagined the possibility that you had innocently allowed, say, Islamic State agents, into your house and the FBI came knocking. Realizing what you had done, you probably would have second thoughts about continuing to purposely conceal them from authorities. Doubtless, you’d find some way to let the feds know the people they are looking for are in your closet, rather than help the spies escape. That’s because you’re a law-abiding, patriotic citizen and spies are, well, spies.
Then explain to me the story of Rahab, who the Bible recounts in the Book of Joshua lived in Jericho in the Promised Land and assisted Israelites in capturing the city. She hid Israelite spies, and denied to authorities she knew where they could be found. She even helped the spies escape Jericho’s legitimate authorities.
Regarding hypothetical number 2, you probably consider yourself law-abiding and honorable, so it may be difficult to imagine a situation in which a legitimate law, legally adopted and blessed by the land’s highest authorities would be something you’d purposely violate.
Then explain the apostles Peter and John’s refusal to obey the law, as depicted in the Book of Acts. Not only was the law properly established, it was validated and enforced by the highest authorities. Yet Peter and John refused to comply and were sentenced to jail as a consequence.
How about that third hypothetical scenario? You’re a reasonable person who understands that punishment should fit the crime, right? How could you possibly support the death penalty for a person who touched something he was told not to touch, but did no noticeable damage to it? Sure, he disobeyed, but Uzzah was only trying to prevent the arc of the covenant from crashing to the ground. Should God have killed him for such a thing?
Our hypotheticals have something in common. What appears on the face to be one thing in fact is quite another. What appeared to be disobedience by Rahab, Peter and John was in fact obedience and what appeared to be well-intentioned by Uzzah was in fact disobedient because God Himself had commanded that the arc not be touched.
Context matters. There has been much written recently critical of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, and her refusal to participate in or even lend her name to recognizing the abomination of same-sex marriage. The law is the law, we are told, and we all must obey it. Otherwise, we’re just lawless rogues picking and choosing which laws we will obey. That, we’re told, is a recipe for chaos.
If life, and law, were only so simple.
The Rev. Martin Luther King decades ago explained that unjust laws are not laws at all, meaning law-abiding people need not conform to them. Indeed, King maintained, and others with enough personal conviction and courage agree, we must not conform to unjust laws.
Certainly, as King and Davis exemplified, there can be unhappy consequences for disobeying unjust laws. But history tells us there are far more severe consequences for obeying unjust laws. In Germany in the 1930s, legitimately enacted, legally enforced laws resulted in rounding up gypsies, Jews and others considered by lawmakers to be less than fully human. We know what happened next, even to the ones who peacefully cooperated with the lawful roundups, rather than illegally resist.
It’s true that chaos will reign if everyone picks and chooses which laws to obey and disobey. But it’s every bit as true, if not more so, that evil will reign when obeying unjust laws.
How shall we determine which laws are just and unjust? I recently suggested to someone that for a law to be just, for a government to be just, for any authority to be just, it must conform to God’s law.
“You know the problem with that,” was the response. “Which god?”
I conceded the point. You get it all wrong if you start with the wrong God.
But that’s not an argument against basing our laws on God’s law. It’s an argument against recognizing the wrong god. And that, I suggested, is why at root, all issues – social, political, economic and otherwise – are theological issues. You must start with the right God. Otherwise, it’s easy to end up enforcing – and obeying – unjust laws. And we should know by now where that leads.
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