The mid-twentieth century was a tumultuous time of civil unrest. Schools desegregated. The Civil Rights Movement launched extreme legislative action for legal equality. “Peace” and “love” permeated college campuses and high schools across America, spurring protests against the Vietnam War. The Sexual Revolution promulgated individual freedom and reproductive rights for millions of women. But are these anti-government sentiments warranted? In other words, is it biblical for the people to “defend” themselves against the government?
It depends upon the legislation and/or action by the federal government against a particular group of people. If the government is protecting the civil liberties of a certain racial minority from “tyranny of the majority” then it would be acceptable. Furthermore if such rallies and demonstrations protesting the government’s actions regarding, for example, war becomes increasingly, and paradoxically, violent—threatening the civil and peaceful discord of other protesters and demonstrators, impeding their first amendment right to free speech—it would behoove the government to quell the rising unrest. However what if the federal, state, and/or local governments become authoritarian, despotic, tyrannical, totalitarian? Is it right for the people to quell such actions harming others’ civil liberties?
To begin, government is necessary because humankind is organized, hierarchical, and inevitably rambunctious. Unfortunately humanity is inherently evil, sinful (Rom. 3:23). The Apostle Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom. 13:1-2). Furthermore, in Federalist Paper 51, James Madison wrote,
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
In the Old Testament, Moses was instructed to formulate a form of government to fully represent the people. This form of representative polity enabled judicial equality. In a short blog entitled “The Purpose and Role of Government” the writer notes “God Instituted Government for the Good of All People” (Rom. 8:28, 13:4) and “God Instituted Government for His Glory” (Ps. 115:1-2; Prov. 16:4; Isa. 42:8). And, pertaining to the latter thesis, properly stewarding God’s creation for his glory by defending oneself is permissible.
Throughout Scripture self-defense is permissible under certain circumstances. Though God commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 19:19, 22:39; Mk. 12:31; Lk. 10:27; Rom. 13:9; Gal. 5:14; Ja. 2:8), emphasizing and praising the unparalleled love of dying for another (Jn. 10:11, 15:13; Rom. 5:7-8; 1 Jn. 3:16), Scripture states forty-four instances where self-defense—the act of survival and defense of the image of God—is instructed. “It is right, therefore, for Christians to seek to influence governments to protect society’s weakest members, including the poor (Ex. 23:6), foreigners (Ex. 22:21; Deut. 27:19; Zech. 7:10), and the helpless (Ps. 82:3–4).”
Furthermore the writer states it would behoove Christians to “…be in subjection [to the authorities], not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” (Rom. 13:5) noting the “Government provides earthly justice and protection.” However what if the government does not “provide earthly justice and protection”? What if they try to assuage persons to violate their conscience? 1 Corinthians 8:12 states, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.” Though God has prescribed earthly authorities to reign over “…the just and…the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), being mere mortals like the citizens s/he is commanded to protect and defend, “Those in power hold their power because of God (John 19:10–11) and can be removed by God (Ps. 75:7; Dan. 2:21).”
“Clear examples include Daniel’s disobeying the law forbidding prayer to any god or man other than King Darius (Daniel 6); the wise men disobeying Herod’s instructions to tell him of the Christ’s birthplace (Matt. 2:7–12); and Peter’s conviction that ‘we must obey God rather than men’ (Acts 5:29) when commanded not to preach the gospel.”
The late civil rights activist Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote of civil disobedience in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
“Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.”
However could God use the people to be the arbiter of justice, thus removing an unjust leader according to his will?
Now, concerning our obligation to obey the law, the Declaration of Independence states,
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
However, according to U.S. Code, Title 18, Part 1, Chapter 115—“Treason, Sedition, and Subversive Activities”—, § 2383,
“Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
On the contrary this nation was formed by the rebellious—by revolutionaries. Signing the Declaration of Independence was an act of treason against the British crown, thus signing their own death warrant. Therefore it would be beneficial to explicate the manner of revolution defined in the Declaration.
This will be discussed in a following post.