Justifying Civil Disobedience in the Modern Context

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This was an assignment. Feel free to be offended by my opinions; feel free to condemn me once you read the second-to-last paragraph; feel free to leave as uncivil of a comment as you like – but if you fail to give me legitimate counterarguments, I will take down your comment. In other words: hate me if you like, but at least be intelligent about it.
[Note: this was a rough draft; I will be updating it throughout this week.]

Submitted: April 21, 2013

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Submitted: April 21, 2013

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The fight against injustice has been going on since the dawn of man. Innately people hate unfair laws and restrictions; the question is how to fight them. Henry David Thoreau proposed 'civil disobedience,' disregarding and breaking those laws that are not right, as an appropriate response to injustice, in his essay "Civil Disobedience." His thinking inspired such men as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the twentieth century; they each used peaceful resistance to voice their objections to British imperialism and racial segregation, respectively. And they produced results. But is civil disobedience still necessary in today's world? Is it still an appropriate response to the injustice we see around us? Or are there alternative methods we can employ when faced with laws that we feel are not right? I believe that in some cases, civil disobedience is an appropriate course of action, but it is most often abused by people as they overreact to minor "injustices" that, really, are not that big of a deal – certainly not enough of one to warrant civil disobedience.

Americans, for the most part, do not need to use civil disobedience anymore; largely because there is little injustice significant enough to justify that method of protest. Take taxes. Thoreau was arrested and incarcerated for failing to pay a poll tax, but that tax was being used as an excuse to discriminate against African Americans and poor whites. Institutionalized discrimination that strips individuals of Constitutional rights on the basis of racial or economic standing is too great an injustice to ignore; and paying the poll tax was, in essence, approving of the discrimination. So Thoreau was right to disobey and refuse to pay his poll tax. But taxes today are not unjust like the poll tax was. The government collects taxes to pay for education, public services, the military, the police force, firemen, road work – a thousand things that we take for granted. What injustice is there to protest? None that warrant breaking the law that says everyone must pay taxes. Suppose you disagree with the military: is it more effective to not pay on April 15 and be sent to jail, or to find others that hold your opinions – disagree with the war in Iraq, for example – and then speak out on Twitter, on Facebook, with a peaceful picketing, in a letter to Congress or to the President; refusing to be silent until the war is ended or the protesting becomes futile? The first one will silence you; the second will get your voice out to those that, if they listen, could change the thing you are protesting – without hurting the other programs that taxes provide. Or say you do not want to pay taxes because you believe that politicians are corrupt and steal public funds, thereby rendering taxes useless. Is it better for one person to refuse to pay their taxes, or for that one person to start an investigation into a suspicious politician; to gather significant data indicting them; to take that information to the people; to have the corrupt official removed from office; and then to lobby for stricter laws that make it more difficult for politicians to siphon off more money than they are paid in their salaries? The first is a single isolated incident without staying power; but the second has the potential to change the situation, striking the issue at its root and leaving the laws of the country improved.

In the above cases, I argued that civil disobedience has better alternatives in response to injustice in America. But there is more: quite often, civil disobedience – or any sort of protest – is an overreaction. I am thinking primarily of gay rights. What civil rights are currently being abridged? What constitutionally given rights have been taken away from the homosexuals of America? They are allowed to vote; they are allowed to bear arms; they may practice freely any religion they wish; there is no institutionalized force, whether in the law or in the police, that is actively attacking and threatening their lives, their liberty, or their pursuits of happiness. They are not thrown in jail for being openly gay – or gay at all. What injustice is there to protest against? (Whether through civil disobedience or otherwise.) It is not like it was for African Americans in a Jim Crow South. It is not like it was for women before 1920. It is not even like it was for homosexuals in the 1970s and '80s, when gay men were actively attacked for being gay. There is no constitutionally given right that is being violated today. (Marriage is not a right. Neither is receiving tax breaks, the only appreciable benefit of legally sanctioned marriage.) I do not especially care about the gay rights debate; I just use it to show that, in America today, there are a lot of "injustices" that, really, are not as injust as we make them out to be, which means that when we consider the rightness of civil disobedience, we must frame the matter in the context of what injustice exactly would be protested by it, and whether that injustice is sufficiently unjust to warrant protest at all.

This is not to say that civil disobedience has no place in the modern world: it is a powerful technique when used against such legally created injustice as, like in Thoreau's time, deserves protest through disobedience; and it is not to say that there is no longer such injustice – we just have to go outside the U. S. to find it.

Let us take China. Under the leadership of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party of China gained control of that country in 1947. In the '50s, Mao split from the USSR model and developed a Chinese interpretation of communism; this led to the Great Leap Forward – an attempt to make China into a heavily industrialized society, by which many Chinese starved to death – and the Cultural Revolution, one of the worst domicides in human history. After Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping took over and shifted the ideals of China towards a more open, less rigidly totalitarian enactment of communism. It was under his rule that a new Chinese constitution was written, in 1982. Over the years it has been revised to allow individuals many civil rights like "free speech, press, worship, the right to trial, and the right to own private property" (Communism in China). In practice, however, these constitutional rights are widely ignored. On November 16, 2011, in northwest China, a nine-seat van crammed with sixty-two kindergartners slammed into a coal truck, killing twenty-one children and two adults (A Horrific Crash). In the days following, China’s social media sites shook with heartbreak and outrage, and were red-carded by government censors for unpatriotic emotion – a direct violation of the Chinese's right to free speech. Such an incident is one that not only justifies civil disobedience, but demands it: otherwise, nothing will change. Of course, disobedience in a totalitarian regime, even a slightly less repressive one like modern China, is risky. But the circumstances are sufficiently dire to demand some sort of outcry, some sort of change, and to motivate the oppressed people to produce that outcry.

I must now, in brief, speak directly to Christians. We are called, fundamentally, to be like Christ, to live in such a way as conspicuously models his life on earth. This produces some argument for civil disobedience – it is fighting injustice, and Christ fought injustice while he was on earth – but it also produces arguments against it. We are called to be different; everyone strikes back when they are struck first, but we are called to not resist the law, even when it deals with us unfairly, for by this we mark ourselves as different – as of Christ. So do we fight unjust laws, or do we submit to the laws of a country as a testimony to Christ? The question has no easy answer. I think that, ultimately, submitting to injustice when it is dealt to us brings honor to our Lord, as does fighting injustice when it is dealt to others – particularly those that no one else is defending. Whatever conclusion we come to, however, must always be informed by the context of the situation and by the life Christ and his earliest followers modeled for us.

Civil disobedience is effective – when used appropriately. Therefore let us consider the situation, the alternatives available to use, and, if we are Christians, what action will speak the best testimony for Christ.


© Copyright 2019 Iskah E Shirah. All rights reserved.

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