The Objections of Conscience
Patrick Henry Reardon on Civil Disobedience
A recent editorial in Touchstone drew attention to the Pauline thesis that the authority of the state is a conscientious authority. That is to say, the Christian is obliged to submit to civil authority, “not only because civil authority has the power to exact that submission, but also ‘for the sake of conscience’ (Romans 13:5).”
If this is so, obedience to the authority of the state is not morally neutral, and the resolve to resist that authority is a most serious and potentially perilous decision. Caesar, after all, is called “God’s servant,” and whoever resists Caesar “resists what God has appointed.” Those who do so, moreover, “will incur judgment” (13:2,4). Civil obedience is a conscientious responsibility.
On the other hand, because it is conscience itself that obliges Christians to obey the directives of the state, such obedience is never defensible if it involves a violation of conscience. Joined to the principle of civil obedience is the truth that “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This means that because the state’s authority over me is a conscientious authority, I must not obey the state at the price of my conscience.
Indeed, I must be prepared to suffer any loss, including my own life, rather than permit the state to usurp such unwarranted authority. I must know the true limits of the civil authority, in order to respect and obey that authority within those limits.
The recognition of those limits is what permits what has come to be called “civil disobedience,” which we may describe as the refusal to obey the civil authority in those instances where to do so would be a violation of conscience. The clearest examples of such disobedience were given by the apostles and martyrs who chose to “obey God rather than men.”
Other examples, equally clear I think, may be found closer to our own times. I have in mind those German citizens who died rather than take part in the atrocities of the Nazis. Indeed, back in the days of the Selective Service I had occasion to give pastoral counseling to young men who applied for the status of conscientious objector. Those young men knew exactly what they were doing and would have suffered anything rather than violate their consciences.
Such civil disobedience, making so high an appeal to a virtuous conscience, is something very different from simply disobeying the civil authority with a view either to impairing that authority (anarchy) or to influencing the policies of that authority (political activism). These latter purposes have nothing to do with the sort of “civil disobedience” for which the Bible gives warrant. Indeed, to employ civil disobedience in these latter ways does violence to the principle of conscience with respect to civil authority.
A rather clear illustration of that violence was given in federal court in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 3 of this year, when Rosalie Riegle, a retired English professor and author, read into the record a statement explaining why she contravened a federal anti-trespassing law. Riegle was being fined $100 for trespassing at Offut Air Base in March of this year. She explicitly defended her illegal action as a form of “civil disobedience,” warranted by her conscientious disapproval of American foreign policy. She went on at some length, and with an eloquence worthy of an English professor, to explain her reasons for that disapproval.
I respectfully submit, however, that Riegle’s contravention of the civil law in this case is not of the sort defensible by biblical standards. She was not being required to take up arms in a cause she found morally reprehensible. She could have refused. She was not being fined for failing to pay taxes in support of the American wars. She could have declined. The government was not coming after her. She was not being coerced into anything at all. Moreover, in her statement before the court at the time of her sentencing Riegle made not the faintest claim that the state was forcing her to act against her conscience.
It is good that Riegle did not make such a claim, for it would have been risible. All the state was asking her to do was to refrain from making a long trip from her home in Evanston, Illinois, over to Nebraska purely for the purpose of violating a simple trespass law. How seriously did her conscience oblige her to make that trip? Would it have been sinful for her not to make that trip?
In order to qualify as an act of “civil disobedience” that would meet the standards of the Bible, Riegle would have had to show that her failure to make that trip and to commit that trespass would have been a moral failure on her part. She advanced no such argument. All she was doing was what she herself admitted doing —namely, breaking the law in order to make a political statement. Apparently it was worth $100 to her.
In order to put this case into perspective, let us ask ourselves if Riegle would have made that long trip over to Offut Air Base if the penalty for doing so had been beheading, burning at the stake, or some of the other things occasionally required of those who adopted a much higher, nobler view of civil disobedience. I do not think so.
That Rosalie Riegle’s action at the air base was subjectively “conscientious,” I have no doubt. That she meant what she said in court, I have no doubt. That she is a fine person and a serious Christian, I have no doubt. What is in doubt, at least to me, is whether Riegle would have believed herself guilty of violating her conscience (this is called “sin”) by not making that trip to Nebraska. Would she have felt obliged to go to Confession and say to her priest, “Bless me, Father, I have sinned. I failed to make a trip to Nebraska in order to show my disapproval of American foreign policy”?
It seems not to have occurred to Riegle that deliberate disobedience to a civil law, when it is not strenuously dictated by conscience, is an actual affront to conscience. She described her trespassing as “non-violent.”
Respectfully, it was violent.
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“The Objections of Conscience” first appeared in the September 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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