Today we have a federal holiday to honor the life and service of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. He became known around the world for his defense of civil rights. He was a strong example of producing social change through non-violent means. Although he had flaws like all of us, there is much too learn from his life.
In this writing I would like to comment on another aspect of his life: civil disobedience. I believe that citizens generally should obey the laws of their country. Although most laws have been established for the common good of people, on some occasions, laws or commands by authorities are so morally wrong that they need to be disobeyed. Civil disobedience is not an easy decision. It requires courage and a willingness to be arrested and to accept the punishment.
In this regard, Martin Luther King had a specific word for Christians. He said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.” Christians look to Scripture for guidance whether it be the establishment of just laws or the occasional need to disobey unjust laws. It might come as a surprise to some readers, but civil disobedience appears frequently in the Bible. Three passages will suffice to illustrate the most important principles.
In the Book of Acts, the early Christians were turning the world upside down through their preaching and practice of the gospel. The religious authorities of the Sanhedrin did not like the changes that were occurring and prohibited the apostles from sharing the gospel. Nevertheless, the early followers of Jesus continued their evangelism. Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than human beings! (Acts 5:29). Here is the clear principle: When human rules violate God´s laws, believers need to obey God, the highest authority. Our allegiance to family, political party, or nation must always be limited and conditioned by our obedience to God.
A clear example of civil disobedience in the Old Testament took place when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. The Pharaoh was oppressing the Hebrews and feared their numerical growth. He then ordered the two Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the baby boys immediately after they were born. This command to murder the baby boys clearly was against God´s teaching. What would these two women do? Scripture tells us that ¨the midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live” (Exodus 1:17). The ethical principle is obvious: the taking of innocent life is wrong. Believers must obey God rather than dictatorial rulers. Shiphrah and Puah are my heroines.
Earlier this month, Christians celebrated the visit of the Magi to baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. In their search for the Messiah, the Magi came across King Herod in Jerusalem. Herod was alarmed at the news of a newborn King of the Jews, and told them, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” This was a lie. After they found and worshipped Jesus, the Magi were told by God to not return to Herod (Matthew 2:7-12). The lesson to be learned is that people need to exercise a healthy dose of suspicion and discernment to avoid becoming accomplices in the sins of unjust rulers.
Let us strive to contribute to the conscience of our world through our word and our actions!