Civil Disobedience

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Civil Disobedience is a dramatic, intentional, and nonviolent confrontation of legally sanctioned violence and injustice. Although civil disobedience invests little energy in party politics, the ramifications of its actions are acutely political. It is never an end in itself, seeking always to improve government policy and promote moral and social change. Civil disobedience grows out of cultural resistance-the attempt to serve the poor and to model a counterculture based on peace and justice rather than militarism and greed.

Civil disobedience honors the variegated legal styles of peacemaking, but challenges prevailing overconfidence in participatory government (voting, lobbying, advocacy) in which democratic and other governments claim to be serving their subjects and to be governed by them. Heightened awareness of poverty, political repression, racism, and global overkill perfidy convinces both secular and religious proponents of civil disobedience, especially in the United States, that legal channels of social change have become illusory. The US National Security Council since World War II has become a "second government -- a bureaucratic apparatus which makes legally protected, secret, far-reaching decisions about war, international policy, and the economy (the latter through collusion with the military-industrial complex). Court decisions on behalf of this huge complex repeatedly defy constitutional and international law, as well as the higher moral sense of the citizenry. The legal system protects the arms race and in effect perpetuates the underlying nationalistic worship of military might. To confront these immoral laws is therefore also to confront public propriety and irresponsibility -- the same philosophy that ratified the judicious verdict to crucify Jesus.

The term civil disobedience is not biblical, but its concept clearly is. For brevity's sake we omit a textual survey to support this claim, and note simply that resistance to a ruler's temptation to be God begins in the Exodus, then continues impellingly throughout the subsequent biblical narrative. Jesus deliberately confronted virtually every level of law and custom of the socio-religious-political power structure of his day-to underscore the absolute authority of the incipient reign of God. as entire servanthood-leadership life embodied a "nonviolent campaign" in collision with prevailing systems: colonial, national, and religious. The cross, a Roman punishment reserved for political dissidents, was the inevitable outcome of his life. Similarly, the apostles are frequently arrested for preaching another authority. Several New Testament letters are written either from prison or political exile, and in some instances (e.g., Romans 13:17; 1 Peter 2:11-17; 1 Timothy 6:11-16) there is instruction against "antinomian" and gratuitous excesses of a faith discordant with the state. Paul's call to declare God's wisdom to the powers (Ephesians 3:10) is a seminal admonition, much like 20th-century acts of civil disobedience, in response to the state's disobedience to God's sovereignty.

Mennonite conversation with contemporary faith-based civil disobedience denotes significant theological overlap -- particularly in their shared disavowal of the state's ultimate authority. Historically, Mennonites have shown this disavowal in typically defensive civil disobedience, as in reactive noncompliance with war tax and military participation -- and indirectly -- in their refusal to purchase war bonds and work in war industries. Contemporary civil disobedience makes use of all these measures, and adds the offensive, more aggressive civil disobedience style -- trespass, sit-ins, blockades, ploughshare (attacks on weapons manufacturing plants), and even sanctuary actions (illegal protection of political refugees) -- to express the same basic disavowal. This initiatory lack in traditional Mennonite civil disobedience rests on a formerly static ethical dualism in which Christian values are viewed as being in stark contrast to those of the world. While it denies any division between the sacred and secular, this Mennonite church/world dichotomy nevertheless tends toward a fairly pessimistic expectation of the state's moral performance. Contemporary civil disobedience thought approximates this dichotomy also, but does not share as distinct an ethical dualism. A universal ethic of love is regarded as a potential here and now and applicable even to statecraft. Romans 13, for instance, is viewed as an instruction in political moral discrimination, but not as an ontological sanction for the existence of government as such. The fact of frequently barbaric human regimes is no reason not to push fully in love's direction.

The moral urgency surrounding today's war-torn and nuclear-hair-trigger world has exhumed a strident this-worldly eschatology in contemporary civil disobedience. The danger of existential impatience is therefore constant, and here is where Mennonite thought can deepen the civil disobedience movement. Yet here is also where this movement makes a distinct contribution to Mennonites. It assumes the potential to prevent global catastrophe is in God-inspired, human hands -- not in reformism and compromise, nor in the futuristic and supra-earthly bent that easily tempts Mennonite eschatology in times of crisis. The theology of civil disobedience claims that God must not be "counted on," separate from human nonviolent struggle, to save the earth. Jesus has entrusted to us the fate of the new order he lived and died for.

See also Church-State Relations; Juridical Procedures; Law, Attitudes toward Civil and Criminal; Law, Theology of; Persecution


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Burkholder, J. Lawrence. " Nonresistance, Nonviolent Resistance, and Power," in Kingdom, Cross, and Community.  Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976: 131-37.

Campagna, Bob, Deb Wiley, Tom Cordaro. Faith and Resistance. Mount Vernon: Abbe Creek Press, 1985: 8-66.

Durland, William. The Illegality of War. Colorado Springs: CLP Press, 1983: 1-55.

Gneuhs, Geoffrey. "Anarchism and the Church: Are They Compatible?" Catholic Worker 50 (March-April 1980: 3.

Hanks, Tom. "Oppressors on the Run." The Other Side 17 (February 1981): 23-35.

King, Martin L. Jr. Why We Can't Wait. New York: Signet Books Press, 1963: 76-109.

Myers, Ched. "By What Authority? The Bible and Civil Disobedience." Sojourners 12 (May 1983): 11-14.

Myers, Ched. "Jesus and the Practice of Civil Disobedience," Year One 12 (October 1986): 2-4.

Sanders, Thomas G. Protestant Concepts of Church and State. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1964: 25-178.

Wink, Walter. "We Have Met the Enemy." Sojourners 15 (November 1986): 15-18.

Yoder, John H. The Priestly Kingdom. Notre Dame; U. of Notre Dame Press, 1984: 80-195.

Author(s) Peter Sprunger-Froese
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Sprunger-Froese, Peter. "Civil Disobedience." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 10 Jun 2023.

APA style

Sprunger-Froese, Peter. (1989). Civil Disobedience. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 10 June 2023, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 162-163. All rights reserved.

©1996-2023 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.