I've been following the recent news about baby Asha with a mixture of horror and disbelief—firstly with some of the frankly repugnant statements that Peter Dutton has made, but also with the fact that the Opposition seems to lack any semblance of a spine.
More heartening has been the swell of grass roots support from the public, and their willingness to speak out against injustice.
This did lead me to thinking, though. How much obedience do Christians owe their governments? At what point do Christians have a responsibility to speak out against what they see as injustice? And in a pluralistic society, can Christians ever justify putting God's law above that of the nation in which they live?
Taking a Stand
When I was editing On Fire magazine, I had the opportunity to interview Captain Craig Farrell, a Salvation Army minister who had been arrested for protesting against the Government's refugee policy. He, along with a group of ministers from various denominations (as part of the 'Love Makes A Way' movement), had staged a sit in at the office of a government minister. They were warned that if they did not leave that they would be arrested, but stayed.
Captain Farrell had the full support of Salvation Army leadership, and I personally agreed with his willingness to defy the police and break the law as part of his protest. But, where do we draw the line between something like that, and someone blowing up an abortion clinic in the name of Christ? What is the difference between someone who stands up for the weak in the name of their religion, and someone who flies a plane into a building?
They may seem like extreme examples, but in both cases, the persons acting would say that they were obeying a higher morality than the law of the land.
To me, there are a number of factors to keep in mind.
Working the system
Especially here in the Western World, in the vast majority of cases our first port of call should be to change the system from within. That can take many forms, from actually researching the policies of politicians we vote for, to lending our name to petitions and giving up our time to raise awareness of things that we see as unjust.
And, we are fortunate enough that our laws permit peaceful protest, we can get out there and make our voice heard. Or, it might mean paying a bit extra to buy products from companies whose business practices reflect our moral values—you would be surprised how quickly companies will react to loss of market share!
The virtue of disobedience
However, there are times when changing the system via lawful means is just not possible. At the moment, it is actually illegal for medical professionals to comment on what is happening with refugees—a state of affairs more suited to a dictatorship than to a first world democracy. And what about countries where there is no right to protest, or where criticising the government is a crime in itself?
I believe that the next step after exhausting avenues to change the system from within is civil disobedience, the refusal to obey unjust laws. This is an action of omission, not commission, where through our resistance injustice is thwarted.
But, we can't have it both ways, we have to be willing to accept the consequences of our stand. If our job asks us to do something we disagree with then we need to face the fact we might lose it—we can't have our moral cake and eat it. That's why I had little sympathy for the county clerk in the United States who refused to issue marriage certificates for gay couples, if she felt that she was being asked to do something immoral she should have quit her job as a statement of protest.
A time to act
However, there comes a time when all else has failed and we need to actually do something. So, how do we decide what is a morally justifiable act of resistance? As Christians, it is a little simpler—we can run the litmus test of God's word. Is our action of resistance contrary to God's law? Then we are in the wrong—one of the chief lessons of the Bible is that the end does not justify the means. If the action we feel called to do violates God's law in itself—as in the example of the abortion clinic bomber—then that is a good sign we are on the wrong track.
Another key is to ask ourselves this question—is it is us suffering for our moral stand, or is it others? Martyrdom is when we pay the price for our beliefs, not passing it on to those around us. With the example of Captain Farrell, they were the ones who were arrested and faced potential criminal prosecution. If they had done something that had required others to pay the price that would have not been laudable at all.
We are called to martyrdom
To me it is simple. Martyrs are willing to die for their beliefs, while fanatics are willing to kill for theirs. Martyrs are willing to take on the price of their convictions, while fanatics push it onto others.
I know which one I believe we are called to be.
David Goodwin is the former Editor of The Salvation Army's magazine, On Fire. He is a freelance writer, and an unapologetic geek.
David Goodwin's archive of articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/david-goodwin.html