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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Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
Atheists in the Evangelical Mind
Meet The Wife
  • L.Long

    Clark is 100% right, NO GAY MARRIAGE!!!! Period.
    In fact lets get the gov’mint completely out of the ‘marriage ‘ game. If they want it purely religious like it was in the bad old days then let them. Stop all tax breaks for couple and kids and better still tax religion as you would any business.
    But since we all know that religions LOVE to phuck people over really big time, then any couple (any number or sex of adults) can be legally protected by entering and signing a ‘civil contract’ which states how the ‘business’ will be run (wealth/spitting up/kids/etc).
    This will never happen and would never happen because of the way religions work.
    I.E. a under age kids back talks the dad and punches him out. According to the religion the kid is at the least thrown out of the house…Now what? Who takes care of the kid?
    Marriage has become a legal affair for very good reasons. The religidiots need to get over it. NO one is asking them to ‘marry or preform marriage’ on any that violate their precious immoral codes.
    So there is no real reason other then pure hateful bigotry for doing any kind of civil protest. What King did for civil rights is not even closely related to this issue.

  • Bill

    I have a hard time understanding what civil disobedience against gay marriage or a birth control mandate would even look like.

    Generally civil disobedience involves acting in violation of an unjust law in order to bring attention to the injustice. How would conservative Christians act in opposition to these laws? I suppose some business owners could refuse to offer health benefits to gay couples or birth control to women, but business owners are a very small subset of Christians. And that approach would quickly get very expensive. I tend to think they love profit more than disobedience.

    For most run of the mill “I hate gays and sluts” Christians, I just don’t see what effective forms of disobedience are available.

    • JohnMWhite

      What troubles me is “I hate gays and sluts” seems to be all they ever want to say. Where’s are the churches ‘planning civil disobedience’ or making any noise over sending kids to jail for ten years over a joint; or executing the mentally ill, mentally deficient or those who committed crimes while minors; or the rich and the old plundering social security and pulling up the drawbridge on the next generation; or the idea that the US president can order the death of any human being on earth by remote control with zero oversight or right to due process? Where are the Christian churches protesting austerity and the punishment of the poor for the crimes of the wealthy? Why were the churches sitting on their hands while the drums of war were beaten for Iraq and Afghanistan, and why are they seemingly doing so again as Iran enters the picture?

      I do not expect Christian churches en masse to line up with my beliefs politically, but I find it sad that they never seem to make any waves regarding real peace and justice. They don’t even seem to have any other social issues they particularly care about. They are seemingly entirely devoted to causing material harm in the lives of gay people and women. Drones don’t grab their attention, but they’ll fight tooth and nail to prevent anti-bullying rules protecting gay students in schools.

  • Steve Ahlquist

    It is sometimes instructive to refelect on the fact that enlightenment humanism has accomplished more in 200 years than Christianity has in 2000. Religion in general has had all of human history to discover enlightenment values, and has almost always failed. It was King’s Humanism, not his Christianity, that allowed him to adopt effective policies such as civil disobedience and nonviolence, and these strategies could only be effective in a world made more tolerant by the ideals of democracy and human rights.

    Those on the Christian Right who talk of replicating civil disobedience do so from within a framework that doesn’t allow them to truly understand the concept.

    • Elemenope

      I’d like to agree that King was motivated by humanism, but his philosophical predilections ran towards Boston Personalism and Tillichian Christian Existentialism, which are both anti-humanistic in the sense we’re talking about here (and a firmly theological perspectives, to boot). He was very clear about his deriving the principles of civil disobedience and non-violence from strands of the Christian tradition, and there isn’t much reason to believe he was being disingenuous about his inspiration. I do agree that he was effective because the society was prepared to accept such tactics through the prevailing influence of ideas that can be claimed by humanism.

  • smrnda

    The idea that Christians are being ‘silenced’ is pretty laughable, given that there exist all sorts of Christian media that reach a broad audience, and where in this media liberals, homosexuals, feminists atheists and secular humanists get panned day in and day out for being the cause of the downfall of civilization. It’s entitled whining from privileged people who resent that competing ideas are becoming more popular.

    On the contraception mandate, I’d say they should put their money where their mouth is and pay the fines, and I’m thinking eventually their $$$ will turn out to be more important.

  • Nox

    Seeing the type of thing that makes modern christians feel persecuted does make you wonder about the lions.