Leadership and civil disobedience

The other night I heard a short sermon.  Most of the sermon was on target and I admire the speaker for getting up there. However, most times nowadays when I sit through a sermon, I find myself disagreeing with some point. Or thinking of ways to say it better. I guess that's the writer in me.

The point that got me this time was in relation to God's authority. The speaker said that God gives authority to the leaders in power - even leaders like Adolph Hitler, Mussolini, Che Guevara, Saddam Hussein and the like. Really, I thought? Does God really do that? All of these leaders that I have mentioned have committed mass murder and have led their people with a brutal iron fist. Does God really give them their authority? 

Whenever I hear this, my first thought is that the person thinks that God approves of murder. Does he? Or, is God "love personified" like John describes in his biblical writings?

If God is indeed love personified, why would he give authority to someone like Adolph Hitler who butchered more than 10 million people in his death camps, including 6 million Jews who are supposed to be God's chosen people? Does this seem right to you?

Romans 13 says that God has put leaders in their place to govern and to punish wrongful acts. It also says that we should respect our leaders and submit to them by paying our taxes and to keep a clear conscience.

But what does this mean? There are examples in the New Testament in which believers disobeyed the government. Peter and John told the Sanhedrin that they would obey God rather than men when they were ordered to quit speaking about Jesus. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew midwives lied right to Pharaoh's face about how the slave women were so vigorous that they gave birth to their babies before the midwives arrived. Because of this they could not kill the Hebrew boy babies. In modern times, we have Martin Luther King, Jr. and other pastors, and citizens, disobeying authorities in order to secure equal rights for African Americans. Throughout our history we have had citizens demonstrating against wars in which our nation has become involved. If God has really placed  leaders in authority, and if we are supposed to obey those leaders, then why does civil disobedience seem to be acceptable in certain situations?

It all starts with what we believe about free will. Do humans have it or not? If humans do not have free will, then God can place someone like Hitler in a position of power, and we are to accept what that leader does as coming directly from God. If you want to see a good theater example of this, you should watch the scene in "Ironclad," when King John, wonderfully played by Paul Giamatti, screams insanely about how he is "... the right hand of God ...". (Reader advisory: the video link depicts a high level of graphic royal violence).

But, if humans have free will, then we realize that God, being love personified, would never put a stamp of approval on someone who is killing and maiming and otherwise brutalizing thousands of people. If we believe that people have free will, then it is easier to realize that the leader is stepping out of God's plan for good and that leader must be stopped.

And what about Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil disobedience to a seemingly "good" American government? To know the answer to this we need to look at the historical situation and assess what was going on. Ever since black people were brought to this country as slaves, they had been denied basic rights that are outlined in the Declaration of Independence (We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are endowed by their Creator certain and unalienable rights. Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness ...) and the Constitution.Yes, there were free black people, but as a whole that cultural group was largely oppressed until the civil rights movement during the 1960s.

Even here in my small western town, there were separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for "whites" and "colored people" at the local train station. These signs were indicative of a much larger problem. In the South, local governments brutalized and segregated black citizens. The Civil Rights Movement came about because black American citizens had no where else to go. They had to get the attention of the federal government because their own local governments refused to treat them on equal footing with whites, and the federal government was unresponsive to "reasoned discussion."

 In this case, I believe King's non-violent movement was clearly in line with scripture. As Christians don't we believe that everyone is equal in God's sight?

Leadership is a God-given authority. The speaker was right in that regard but his thinking was simplistic. A leader can fail miserably in following God's plan and there are times when civil disobedience is definitely in order. If we accept a "Christian world view", then we must believe that whatever God's plan may be, that plan includes treating all people with respect and love as human beings. When a leader or a government fails to do that, then we have a duty to rally against that leader or government. Our Declaration of Independence states this. And, Henri Nouwen, the great Catholic philosopher priest, wrote "You are a Christian only so long as you constantly pose critical questions to the society you live in ... so long as you stay unsatisfied with the status quo and keep saying that a new world is yet to come."

Does that mean that I can disobey the governing authorities just because I disagree with a policy?

In recent months there have been policy changes with which I disagree. For example, I am not fond of the health care bill. I am also firmly pro life and this is expressed mostly by voting for candidates who are also pro life and by donating to Crisis Pregnancy Centers. It angers me that our federal government provides funds for a private organization like Planned Parenthood because I don't want my taxes supporting them. With the passage of the health care law, our Catholic brothers and sisters are upset because the law could force their hospitals to provide abortions, and require their organizational health plans to include birth control prescriptions. Is this fair? Should Catholics or anyone else who is pro life disobey the law just because they disagree with it? They may have to. But since much of the law isn't in effect, they are for now able to deal with this through proper legal channels. 

In other words, civil disobedience should only be considered after all other lawful means of fighting against something ungodly are exhausted. This is how the civil rights movement, the resistance against Nazi Germany, the midwives lying to the the baby-boy-killing Pharaoh and the disciples Peter and John refusing to obey the Sanhedrin's commands become justifiable acts.

As Christians, we need to be careful with our words so that we don't make God sound like he is some tyrant just waiting to thump sinners. That's what it sounds like to me when I hear that God gives authority to people like Hitler, Stalin, Hussein and all the other tyrants that have ruled throughout history. I do believe that God has given government as a means of authority and that we are to respect our leaders, but sometimes leaders can stray from what is good. In this case we should prayerfully consider our options. If we then come to understand that we must act in some way against that leader or government, then that is what we must do.

In the meantime, we need to pray for our leaders. We also need to pray for the election processes and for our country. By doing so we invite God to act. If we are not doing these things, we need not blame the Lord if a chosen leader strays. We need only to look to ourselves, especially if we had freedom to elect that person in the first place.