The Varieties of Civil Disobedience

The 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government”, better known as “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, by Henry David Thoreau is one of the most influential writings of the 19th century. Written to expound Thoreau’s ideas on resistance to a U.S. government that at the time permitted slavery and was waging an unpopular war against Mexico, the essay inspired other famous activists, most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to espouse the notion of changing unjust laws and government policies through active but non-violent resistance.

In this media-driven age civil disobedience seems to have taken on yet another meaning. Today it most often refers to instances in which activists for a particular cause engage in public lawbreaking (usually trespassing or blocking access to public facilities) designed primarily to attract attention and/or provoke authorities into arresting them.

As a result we have actions such as PETA’s public displays of nudity and their attacks upon fur wearers; Greenpeace’s placement of banners in unauthorized locations; anti-war protesters trespassing upon, vandalizing or defacing military installations or missile sites; abortion clinic blockades; gay activists disrupting Catholic Masses; and pro-life activist Randall Terry’s entering the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last fall and tearing up a copy of the 2,000-page healthcare bill, all being characterized as “civil disobedience” in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King.

But do these actions truly represent what civil disobedience is all about? Before we can answer that question, I believe we need to distinguish between three types of actions that are or can be classified as civil disobedience:

1. breaking an unjust law to protect others from injustice, to avoid committing or cooperating in an action one believes to be wrong, or to demonstrate the inherent injustice of the law;
2. breaking a just law in order to prevent an imminent, greater evil; and
3. breaking a just law purely to call attention to one’s cause.

Examples of the first kind of action (disobeying an unjust law) include the refusal of the early Christian martyrs to worship the emperor or other pagan gods; helping fugitive slaves escape via the Underground Railroad; helping Jews hide or escape from the Nazis; sheltering priests and nuns from the authorities in Elizabethan England, revolutionary France, and other regimes that persecuted the Church; Gandhi’s campaign against the “salt laws” of colonial India; and the lunch counter sit-ins and Freedom Rides of the 1960s.

In each of these cases, the law being broken was inherently unjust because it prohibited people from doing something they had a natural right to do (earn their own living, practice their religion, sit at a lunch counter or in a seat of their choice on a bus), or compelled them to do something they believed to be wrong (worship false gods).

In the second category (breaking a just law to prevent or put an end to a greater evil) would fall — in my opinion — abortion clinic “rescue” operations whose primary goal is to at least temporarily shut the clinic down. The law being broken (against trespassing) is just and reasonable in itself, but is being breached in order to prevent the greater evil of unborn children being killed on the premises. Instances in which pro-life protesters are arrested merely for violating “bubble zones” around abortuaries may fall into the first category if the zone in question is unreasonably large or the ordinance or court order creating the zone forbids even non-threatening actions such as prayer. In that case the law itself can be classified as unjust.

Other examples of the second type of civil disobedience might include refusal to pay taxes as a means of withholding support for abortion, war, or other immoral actions of the government; refusal to be drafted into military service to fight in an unjust war; a parent’s refusal to obey custody laws that would cause his or her child to be placed in the hands of an abusive or dangerous ex-spouse; or a reporter refusing to obey a court order to reveal confidential sources, if there is serious reason to do so (for example, the source’s employment or personal safety may be endangered).

In each case, the law being broken exists for good reason and in most circumstances may promote the public good, but in the particular situation at hand, may result in or facilitate a grave injustice.

Finally, we have instances in which activists go out of their way to break just and reasonable laws against trespassing, harassment, vandalism, and other actions primarily for the purpose of being arrested and thereby raising awareness of their cause. Although the goal of raising awareness may be laudable (depending on the cause), I believe there are a number of significant disadvantages to this kind of action:

– it does little or nothing to rectify the injustice being protested. Randall Terry did not save a single unborn child by his actions at Pelosi’s office. PETA members do not save any animals from abuse or slaughter by running around naked in public. Hanging a banner on a cathedral spire does nothing to stop global warming.
– in most cases it is not required to prevent or to halt an imminent evil. (If it were, it would fall under category #2.)
– the participants have not been compelled by the law to do anything contrary to their beliefs; rather, they voluntarily go out of their way to place themselves in violation of the law.
– it may, intentionally or not, unjustly violate the rights of others or even endanger their safety (for example, large crowds of protesters blocking public highways or entrances to public buildings may prevent someone from responding to a medical emergency).
– the purpose of the demonstration is to call attention to the activists themselves. As a result participants in this type of civil disobedience may come off as mere publicity seekers, and alienate people who otherwise would be sympathetic to the cause in question.

Also, from a Christian point of view, to break the law when it is not morally necessary to do so does not seem to comport with Christ’s command to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s,” nor with St. Paul’s directive to Roman Christians to obey and pray for their emperor and pay their taxes. There is certainly a time and place for resisting Caesar when he clearly goes to far, but to invite unnecessary persecution or martyrdom has rarely if ever been seen as a virtue in Catholic thinking.

So to summarize, I believe the most genuine and fruitful forms of civil disobedience fall into the first two categories. These kinds of actions may in some cases be morally obligatory and in most cases, I believe, would at least be morally justified. The third kind of action, however, may not always be morally justified, particularly if it causes disproportionate hardship to innocent parties.

What are your thoughts on this topic?

9 Responses to The Varieties of Civil Disobedience

  • Seems to me that category 3 is part and parcel with another facet of (apparently) the same malaise: doing a walk-a-thon, raising money from friends and neighbors for each mile you walk, for MS, or cancer, or spina bifida, or green rose dust syndrome. There is nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, that walking another mile has to do with the rightness or wrongness or worthiness of the cause. All it says is that I, personally believe in this enough to walk another mile. It calls attention to my personal attitude about the cause, not the inherent rightness of the cause.

    I am not quite sure that a public march along a set route has the same defects. The whole point of the march is, normally, to make people aware that many, many people take the cause seriously. But it doesn’t pay any attention to any individual thereof – it is only in collection that it matters at all.

  • I agree 100% with the thoughts expressed in the article – and would add this: that the proliferation of the third kind of protest and lawbreaking has made many of us calloused and skeptical of all forms of protest – seeing most as just another attention seeking group and not worthy of interest – and if there is no violence or some other “gimmick” at play the media could hardly care less -

  • Henry David Thoreau has always struck me as one of the most buffoonish and over-rated characters in American history. His aunt paying his taxes for him so his great tax protest lasted one night, his accidental setting of a fire that consumed 300 acres of Walden woodlands, Thoreau contracting the tuberculosis that would kill him as a result of a middle of the night excursion to count tree rings and the pacifist Thoreau writing a pamphlet in which he claimed that John Brown, a murderer, embezzler, cattle thief and congenital liar, was humane are only a few of the many episodes in his life that are worthy of a great satirical novel.

    I am usually adverse to breaking any law unless the consequences of obeying the law are dire. If one is content to live in society, one must observe the rules or anarchy results. When one must disobey the law one must also be willing to pay the price of disobedience. Of course this depends to a certain extent on the government. A freely elected government where basic human rights are protected, has I think a greater claim to observance of its laws than a tyranny that rules by force. However, even in a tyranny most laws: against stealing, murder, traffic laws, etc are a force for order and should be respected. A long train of abuses can bring into play the right of rebellion set forth in the Declaration of Independence, but such a right should never be invoked for light and transitory reasons. Even bad law should normally be put up with until adherence to the law is a greater offense from the standpoint of morality than adhering to it. Saint Thomas More is a good guide in this area:

    http://the-american-catholic.com/2010/03/29/give-the-devil-benefit-of-law/

  • Originally I was going to expound more on Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience, but upon actually reading his essay I found it to be rather confusing and of little help in defining what appropriate civil disobedience would be. It’s basically a lengthy rant on the evils of government and why Thoreau felt it necessary to demonstrate his lack of allegiance to it. So I just ran with my own thoughts on the topic.

    I note also that the third type of civil disobedience (deliberately trying to get arrested) seems to be more often associated with left-leaning causes like animal rights, pacifism, G8 summit protests, etc. Despite what the MSM says, I don’t believe we have seen much of this kind of action from the Tea Partiers. Pro-lifers like Randall Terry do it some of the time but I believe the majority of regular pro-life protesters who pray at abortion clinics, etc. don’t set out to get arrested.

  • It seems to me that a major purpose of Civil Disobedience, when it iis not simply refusing personal participation in a perceived or real injustice (#1), is to coerce someone in a position of authority to do something they would not do otherwise. Often the target is quite sincere in his belief (perhaps mistaken) that his actions are morally acceptable or even required to fulfill the trust that came with the authority.

    Coercing someone to do something that they believe is wrong is a violation of human dignity. It is sometimes necessary – as in coercing a thief not to practice his trade with the threat and actuality of jail. The Catechism in the sections on the 4th and 5th commandments as detailed discussions which are worth while reading.

    Yes, there are times when Civil Disobedience is necessary to stop an injustice. It is certainly preferable to armed rebellion which is permissible under extreme circumstances. It would seem to me that the test to use civil disobedience is the Classic Just War Doctrine, perhaps with a lower standard of evidence because of the less serious nature of Civil Disobedience. .

  • I wonder if we may not all be called upon to perform our little piece of active, civil disobedience by withholding our participation in systems in which nobody usually accomplishes all of an evil alone. To recall the examples of hiding slaves or perhaps priests in Elizabethan England, our society leans on technology and what I take to be the nearly infinite parcelling out of duties. Many offices, many participants are sometimes required to accomplish some evil. If the authorities are to arrest a priest for preaching the Church’s teaching on marriage or sexuality, there will be a judge somewhere in the mix, the judge will have a clerk, the clerk will work with a sheriff, the sheriff may well delegate the arrest to an under-sheriff, there is a garage where the squad cars are maintainted, there is a clerk in the sheriff’s office, and so on. Nobody will likely be called upon to accomplish such an arrest alone, but many will have their part in just following orders, just doing their job. It is in such work that we may be called upon to render civil disobedience: in dismissing the arrest warrant request, in misplacing the arrest warrant, in failing to fill the squad car with gas, in allowing the arrested priest to be bailed out. These are the sorts of things I can foresee being the arena of civil disobedience in the future. Somebody told me once, “God can change paperwork.” We may have to help Him change it.

  • refusal to be drafted into military service to fight in an unjust war; a parent’s refusal to obey custody laws that would cause his or her child to be placed in the hands of an abusive or dangerous ex-spouse; or a reporter refusing to obey a court order to reveal confidential sources, if there is serious reason to do so (for example, the source’s employment or personal safety may be endangered).

    Those all seem like examples of #1.

  • I classify them as #2 because the laws being broken are not inherently unjust or harmful in ALL cases, they just happen to be so in a particular case. Even a well-written child custody law, for example, can be misinterpreted or abused by a bad judge. The laws that allows contempt of court citations against jailed reporters also exist for good reason but SOMETIMES cause more harm than good. A military draft, I believe, can be justified in certain cases but there may be instances in which it is not.

    I think it is important to distinguish between laws that are inherently evil (like those allowing slavery or commanding worship of false gods) and those that are morally good or neutral most of the time but sometimes have a bad effect. The first kind of law deserves to be defied or disobeyed ALL the time, the second kind does not.

  • Rather late to the party — I’ve been behind in my reading lately — but I think this is a very good analysis and gets at the core of why so many have become jaded with “protest” as a means of political agitation.

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