If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his 1846 essay, “on the Duty of Civil Disobedience.”
While spending a night in jail after refusing to pay a poll tax benefiting the Mexican War, Thoreau coined the term civil disobedience in his essay and encouraged others who intended to rail against injustice to follow in his footsteps. Essentially, civil disobedience means breaking a law believed to be immoral and unjust. Under such circumstances, like Thoreau, I believe civil disobedience is a necessary action against unjustifiable systems of oppression and dominance, and, thus, is our duty and moral obligation as human agents, and particularly as American citizens, to stand up for our God- given rights.
There are many events in history that has shaped the foundation of our nation and world particularly through the use of civil disobedience. The women’s suffrage movement lobbied for woman’s rights to vote through the twenty-first amendment of the United States Constitution, Negros in America challenged the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the constitution that guaranteed all of her citizens equal protection under the law, colonists fought taxation without representation in the Boston Tea Party. Harriet Tubman used the Underground Railroad as a mechanism to undermine the pernicious practices of slavery and to free black slaves. Nelson Mandela encouraged the citizens of South Africa to participate in the Purple Rain Protest and Cape Town Peace March to denounce apartheid. Cornell West protested at Yale University to denounce the apartheid in South Africa and to encourage the institution to relinquish their financial support.
Gandhi used nonviolence to free India from British dictatorship. Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement of the 1960s through peaceful protests and marches. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus. In 1956, two students at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida, Willimina Jakes- Street and Carrie Patterson, refused to give up their seat to white passengers on a city bus and managed to de-charter an entire bus-line company that serviced major cities throughout the South. In the 1960s, black and brown students held sit-ins protesting the Vietnam War and desegregated lunch counters throughout the Deep South.
Nevertheless, the list is exhaustive considering people’s interest regarding such matters on abortion, gay marriage, the prison industrial complex, and the Syria strikes. In my opinion, if a law serves to the detriment of some in our society, while serving to the benefit of others, then that law must be broken. Though civil disobedience is probably one of the greatest catalysts for change, it is often trapped in a moral gray area of what constitutes right and wrong.
In April 1963, Martin Luther King released his ‘Letters from Birmingham City Jail,’ which was first published by the American Friends Service Committee (a Quaker group) in pamphlet form. In that eloquent, moving, and angry letter, Dr. King challenged his fellow clergymen to agree to the necessity for direct, nonviolent action, if African-Americans were to be freed from the evils of segregation. Responding to those who urged him to be patient, King urges us to obey just laws and disobey unjust laws. But, he also wrote,
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’’
“Martin Luther King’s witness, and his powerful words, would draw some of us beyond sentiment, into the world of dogs and clubs, tear gas and jail cells.”
However, before engaging in such nonviolent action, King lists four steps one should take first before breaking the law: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. Once those four steps have been followed and nothing happens as a result of peaceful action, then breaking the law is not only necessary but a sufficient condition. In addition, King asserts, that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. He agrees with Augustine in that an “unjust law is no law at all." King further asserts, ”one has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.
Lastly, King says, “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust. And who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” On the one hand it appears that King is saying in particular, the motivations for engaging in civil disobedience must be “political” and “moral” in nature, which means agents engaged in civil disobedience must be appealing to a “common conception of justice” that establishes the conditions of fair and equal social cooperation, and that underlies the constitution. But on the other hand, he also seems to be saying that a just law must square and evenly align with the moral law of God.
Similarly, Daniel Berrigan, a civil rights activist and catholic priest, believed as King in that we should “obey just laws and disobey unjust laws,” but he even took it a step further and said, we should also break a law that is just but is morally reprehensible; and that "the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” It can be argued that both men lived a life of constant agitation, constant defiance, constant disobedience to systems of power, and a life of radical obedience to God.
However, Berrigan and King seem to add an extra variable into the equation of civil disobedience by indicting the government on the moral basis of Christianity, the basic tenets that America espouses. Therefore, if Christianity is the foundation on which America built its founding principles, then it would understand the actions of King and Berrigan; Hence, Jesus was nonviolent and practiced civil disobedience and was eventually arrested, jailed and executed. Thus as followers, and in this world of violence, injustice, poverty, war and nuclear weapons, it seems inevitable that they, too, as Christian men must engage in nonviolent civil disobedience until equitable and radical forms of justice is made a genuine reality.