Guidelines for Direct Action

For some time now, Fred Clark has been following the talk of “civil disobedience” from the Religious Right in response to the growing acceptance of gay marriage. He has noted that they aren’t really clear on what “civil disobedience” actually amounts to and how it is useful.

The cry for civil disobedience has now been taken up by Richard Land, president of an ethics group that is part of the Southern Baptist Convention. From CBN:

Southern Baptist leader Richard Land and NRB board member Janet Parshall cited same-sex marriage and President Obama’s birth control mandate as the reason why.

Land said those issues are non-negotiable, even at the cost of paying fines and going to jail.

Parshall said today’s Christians may have to decide whether to “bow our knee” to government or to God.

There have been a great number of people who have thought and written about civil disobedience and direct action over the past couple centuries. Not surprisingly, one of the thinkers with the most credibility was Dr. Martin Luther King jr. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail he describes what he thought the process of non-violent direct action involved. The journalist and historian Gary Wills teased out and formalized seven principles from this letter in his work on resistance to government A Necessary Evil.

I thought it might be useful to lay these out:

  1. Collect facts to establish there has been a serious injustice not corrected by the law.

    Obvious, but it’s amazing how often this step is ignored. Become clear on the problem, the laws involved and the injustice being done. If nothing else, it should provide some specific suggestions for what needs to be done to correct the problem.
  2. Negotiate with officials over the injustice.

    A good faith effort needs to be made through established channels. This may mean making the authorities aware of the injustice, which may be invisible to them at the moment.

  3. Investigate one’s motives, purging any purely selfish or destructive aim.

    Are you doing this to right an injustice, or to advance your own status? Are you just attempting to get back at the authorities?

  4. Take “direct” action, as opposed to indirect actions like voting or pamphleteering, in order to target a specific wrong.

    Kind of like seeing “perform the experiment” in the scientific method, it’s much easier to say than to do, or to know what to do.

  5. Act openly.

    Part of the point of civil disobedience is to draw attention to injustice in order to correct it. Civil disobedience in private misses the point. King not only acting openly, but usually alerted the appropriate authorities to what he was going to do. He also, obviously, made his principles of civil disobedience public, so that everybody knew the process.

  6. Act lovingly.

    … do I need to say the name “Fred Phelps” here? Yeah, a good example of the exact opposite of this step.

  7. Show willingness to accept the penalty for one’s act.

    This one is controversial, but essential to King’s vision. King believed that while a certain law might be unjust and in need of correction, the rule of law itself was important and needed to be preserved. While he believed that there is a higher law above and beyond our government law, that did not make the government invalid or useless. He accepted the legitimate authority even as he worked to change it.

Like Clark, Garry Wills contrasts King’s understanding of civil disobedience with Henry David Thoreau’s, and Thoreau comes up wanting. It seems that Thoreau was more interested in striking a pose for the sake of his colleagues than in actually bringing about change.

But Thoreau is still better off than Land and his fellow travelers. For example, the CBN article cites one of Land’s allies saying that the first amendment rights of Christian broadcasters is at risk. Since there’s no evidence that this is true, the very first step of this process is going to be a hurdle.

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