Does Civil Disobedience Work?

Recently a prominent member of my denomination was arrested, along with a dozen leaders from other denominations and religious groups, in an act of civil disobedience and protest over the debt ceiling debate. I always feel humbled when I read about such actions. I’m an ardent door-knocker, letter-writer, boycotter, Congress-caller, and money-giver, with an occasional march thrown in—but those marches have always had a permit and ended in time for me to feed my kids dinner. I am always wondering if what I do is enough—if it is faithful, courageous, authentic—and if it is effective.

The day of the arrest, my Facebook feed lit up with messages from clergy friends, buzzing about the arrest: “So proud to be Presbyterian.” “Awesome!” “We should all be getting arrested over this one.”

Later that day I was talking about the arrest to a friend of mine, someone sympathetic to the perspective of the protesters. The person thought a moment and said, “I agree with them, but that feels like a stunt to me. I can’t imagine that action affecting the outcome on this issue at all.”

Since then, I have been stuck pondering these two responses. I deeply respect the courage and conviction of people, some of them friends, who will put their bodies on the line as a public witness for what they believe. Civil disobedience has a long, vital history in our country and around the world. The Arab Spring is a recent shining example of people coming together in non-violent protest and setting powerful things in motion. And as I write this, protests are underway at the White House over the Keystone XL Pipeline project, with almost 400 people arrested so far as part of the so-called “Tar Sands Action.”

And yet I cannot dismiss my friend’s comment, because there’s a part of me that wonders if he’s right. Is it a stunt? Will it matter? Sure, tens of thousands of people in Tahrir Square are pretty hard to ignore. Such a mass demonstration cuts through the media noise and makes a powerful statement. But I’m not sure isolated pockets of civil disobedience do all that much. This past week, actress Margot Kidder was arrested as part of the Tar Sands Action. I admire her stance, but is the arrest of Lois Lane really going to move the ball forward?

In keeping with the Two Friars and a Fool “conversation over a couple of beers” ethos, let me play the role of the person who says, “Hey, I’m just playing devil’s advocate here. I don’t know.” Because I really don’t know. But I do know that it’s helpful to give the sacred cows a good once-over every now and then, and civil disobedience unto jail is a staple in some of the liberal circles I run in. My goal is not to impugn the motives of those who do it, nor to question their sincere desire to make a difference, but simply to ask: Is civil disobedience/protest/arrest still effective? Does it still have an impact?

I am a pragmatist at heart, and I want us to invest in tactics that work. And if these activities do have an impact, maybe we need to be training up a new generation of folks willing to engage in robust, large-scale civil disobedience. Let’s not do this in isolated pockets. Let’s not high-five folks on Facebook for doing something we’re not doing ourselves. Let’s get in the game and blow this thing open.

Here’s what I wonder as I consider civil disobedience in a 21st century cultural context:

The media landscape has changed. My Facebook feed was all abuzz with news of the protest, but I wondered how far the story traveled beyond the scope of folks already tuned in. A quick Google News search that day found a smattering of articles. This is a huge shift from the civil rights era, when pretty much everyone tuned in to the big three broadcast networks. Images of African Americans sitting at a lunch counter, or folks enduring the hateful blast of firehoses, were broadcast on those networks for all to see. The protests of the civil rights movement were a public witness writ large. Media outlets are more diversified now, with some news organizations wearing their own agendas on their sleeves. And these agendas may not coincide with our own. How do we get the word out? How do we manage the message? These are vital questions to consider in the age of Twitter and cable news.

Appeal to the “independents.” Take any given issue and you will have people in favor, people opposed, and folks in the middle who either haven’t considered it or aren’t sure what they think. These are the folks you need to persuade, especially if you’re trying to convince politicians to vote a certain way. They need to know that they have a broad base of support among their constituents if they’re going to stick their neck out. Does civil disobedience win you the additional support you need? How do independents view an arrest? As a principled stand that invites others to join the movement, or an isolated action by a few fringe players?

Symbols, substance, and celebrity culture. I’m a big fan of social media, but have to remind myself that ranting about an issue on Facebook is not the same as actually doing something about it. We now have myriad options for keeping ourselves busy and getting very little actually done, advocacy-wise. A friend of mine who has a long history of community organizing, and who has also been arrested a time or two, admits that he’s met a handful of folks who focus so much energy on the protests and the arrests that they do little else. Combine this with the narcissistic, look-at-me culture that’s often fertilized by reality TV and YouTube shenanigans, and it’s easy to see how the cynicism of our age can work against sincere expressions of protest. How do we show people we’re serious about what we’re advocating and not just seeking our own 15 minutes of notoriety?

A couple of caveats as I consider these questions and critiques:

First, while at the Wild Goose Festival in June my daughters and I heard David LaMotte tell the story of his arrest during a protest at the North Carolina legislature. David was humble about the experience, admitting that he had no illusions that what he did made a big difference—and yet it had a profound impact on his own faith journey and sense of commitment. I don’t discount the importance of that outcome—sometimes we act, not because our actions have efficacy, but because we simply can’t not act. And his testimony opened up a great conversation with my daughters afterward and standing up for what one believes.

And second, after my Presbyterian colleague’s arrest I did see something that gave me hope, and it wasn’t something I’d expected. A news story I read had a number of reader comments that were variations of the following: I never knew that Christians actually cared about the poor… I thought they were all about hating gay people… Kudos to these folks for putting their faith in action. That’s a public witness worth celebrating.

  • Rachel Medema

    Good questions! I think many of us concerned with these issues – the debt ceiling, the keystone xl and others are at a loss of what else we can do and I agree that the civil disobediences may not be the best way anymore. I’ve been encouraged by a few of the political/social protests that used the flashmob concept – one as part of a campaign for fair wages for hotel workers – – but that is not going to get the attention of Washington D.C. leaders. Do you have ideas for something that would work better than civil disobedience?

    • Anonymous

      Fascinating I hadn’t heard of this, but it makes a lot of sense. Watching the video I get mixed feelings. I’m entertained and amused, but would it convict me enough to change my reservation if I’d already made one? Is it perhaps, just a little too congenial still? hmm..

      • MaryAnn

        Aric, I was curious what you thought about my (and Nick’s) point about appealing to independents, that is, folks who can be influenced to your side. Is that important? And does confrontation do that?

        I believe that the gospel is not about being nice. But I do know people who’ve experienced a shift in thinking on an issue because I came at it sideways with them.

        Part of what’s at play here is that civil disobedience, by and large, takes place absent relationship. And relationship is where the transformation occurs.

        • Anonymous

          I think it may be the wrong tool for the job. You’re right that personal transformation happens in relationship and that is where the majority of our time and energy for change needs to be focused. It would be hard to imagine how civil disobedience could apply at the relational level. Perhaps sitting in the bathroom and refusing to allow men to lift the toilet seat to disrupt their urinary hegemony?

          Actually now that I think about it I have a perfect example of relational civil disobedience – Lysistrata. (Did you hear about this going on in the Philippines?) But that still works mainly because it is a mass movement, not an individual. I doubt one general’s wife could get it done by herself.

          My point is that I think Civil Disobedience is principally a tool for systemic problems not relational ones and as such I don’t think it is really about changing hearts and minds, but about forcing a conflict over an issue which raises awareness and tries to create so much pressure in the system that independents sort of have to make a choice – the hope being that they are already in relationships which have prepared them to make the RIGHT choice.

          Hence, where Civil Disobedience works I would say it was because it succeeded in creating enough pressure to force that choice AND equally importantly people were prepared to make the right choice because of relationships in their lives.

          Where Civil Disobedience fails is when it either fails to create enough pressure to force a choice, OR it creates enough pressure, but people are not prepared to make the right choice – in that instance I would expect it to end in violence, such as Tianamen Square, Libya, Bahrain, etc…

          • MaryAnn

            Say more about what you mean about the difference between systemic problems and relational ones.

            I wasn’t so much making a distinction between two kinds of problems, rather saying that a relational approach changes minds, regardless of the kind of problem it is.

          • Anonymous

            Influencing legislation. Getting the right to vote. Ending segregation. Opposing a war. These sorts of problems invite public political action in a way that say – marital disharmony, doesn’t. We can’t all have personal relationships with our congress person or with lobbyists or pentagon officials. We can however, show up on the street and make our voice heard as part of a crowd, by those same people.

            There’s no question that these larger systemic issues contain a relational component – oppression of lgbtq persons is slowly ending in large part due to more and more lgbtq persons coming out to their friends and family. But DADT is officially over because of political actions, not relational ones. Would a relational approach eventually have doomed DADT? Sure, but it would have taken much longer. There is no reason for justice to have to wait for every person to individually change their mind.

          • MaryAnn

            DADT is over because enough people got to know gay people and realized that they are not scary. That IS relational work.

            It’s not over because we marched.

            And it’s not over because of gay pride parades, if the people I know who are iffy about LGBT issues are any indication. Many of them are totally turned off by those events. (I understand that that’s not entirely the point of gay pride, and I don’t share these people’s view, but there it is.)

            I’m not talking about relational work with Congress. I’m talking about hard and risky conversations with neighbors. “I live right down the street, you know me and our kids have played together, and no, Barack Obama is not a secret Muslim.” Other folks who are in the closet on whatever issue speak up. Minds are changed. Votes are changed.

            When I work on political campaigns they are very careful (and savvy) to have us knock on doors in their own neighborhood. When we make phone calls we say “I’m a neighbor.” It makes a difference to know the person on the other end of the phone is someone you might meet on the street, not a college student trucked in to do an internship.

            That’s the kind of relational work I’m talking about.

            Yes, it takes a long time.

          • Rachel Medema

            I think you are right MaryAnn – I really am enjoying this conversation because I am on the fence on the issue. Since you did use the Keystone XL protests, I just want to add one more point – that type of issue is decided by President Obama. We can’t even convince our neighbors to call our dysfunctional congress because its Obama’s role to approve or deny. I’m not sure how we can create change on issues like this if we can’t get media and President Obama’s attention. I’m not sure the civil resistance/disobedience at the White House did it, but I am at a loss for what else will get the kind of attention this requires.

          • Douglas Hagler

            This could be aimed at me right now. I overheard a conversation today in town and got really steamed. But what am I doing about it? I’m mostly “in the closet” in terms of locals where I have my call, and I struggle back and forth with, on the one hand, being more of a ‘public witness’, and on the other hand, introducing conflict into my church community that they didn’t call me to introduce.

    • MaryAnn

      Hi Rachel,

      Ooh, interesting thought about the flash mobs. It makes me wonder if there’s a sweet spot to be found in terms of humor and advocacy. Maybe that has a chance to cut through the noise. We advocates can be awfully earnest sometimes… and with good reason of course. We take this stuff seriously, but maybe we need not take ourselves so seriously.

      In terms of other ideas… I just wonder if it’s really unsexy stuff we need to be focusing on now. Talking to neighbors, with whom you have a relationship, about your ideas. Organizing together and going up to the Hill, or the mayor’s office. Running for political office.

      The friend I mentioned above whom I talked to as I wrote this article said he met with his senator about an issue and told her that they had 1200 people from her state at an event. She perked up and said that 1200 people in her state was way more compelling than half a million in Washington. (I hope my friend will come by and correct/elaborate on this.)

      So there’s a local/national dynamic too. I live outside DC so those two things get conflated for me. But maybe part of the answer is to get real local, rather than charter a bunch of buses to come to DC. Frankly, Lafayette Park (across from the White House) is like a revolving door for protest groups. I don’t see how that makes a difference.

      • Rachel Medema

        Thanks for your response. I was thinking of the flashmobs as an of-the-time sort of way of getting attention – since I’m not sure civil disobedience has the same effect on the public anymore. Flashmobs go with social media and dance/music and humor in a way that does work for facebook etc. I don’t think its “the answer” just one way people are trying to get attention for social/political issues. Yesterday I saw a group from Courage Campaign doing a dance to “Like a Prayer” by Madonna – just as a way of getting attention – there were people around the edges with signs that said “You can’t pray the gay away, Michelle Bachman” and they did this flashmob outside of her speaking event with Courage Campaign tshirts and rainbow colored hand held fabrics.

        You make very good points about relational change and I think it is key to talk to neighbors and organizing a visit to the hill or the mayors office. The problem with relational change is that it is slow. Very slow. For example, the Keystone XL pipeline is going to get approved or denied in the next two months. If we only approach this with relational conversations, we won’t have an effect on this issue – hence the need to find some way to gain attention for something that could be ignored by 99% of Americans because approval of a pipeline through the midwest isn’t on everyone’s busy agenda. The oil industry has millions to spend to make more billions. They have huge lobbying power. And they are throwing it behind this pipeline. So for issues of national importance, major ecological impact that will get passed because of industry pressure without most Americans learning about the details, we have to find other ways to gain attention and make our voices heard – and sooner than it would take me to have relational conversations with hundreds of powerful Americans.

        • MaryAnn

          Good point about the time-critical aspect.

          I would push back somewhat by saying that a protest (even a large-scale protest) such as the Tar Sands Action suffers unless people know specifically what they are being asked to do. That’s hard to communicate in today’s busy world.

          I could be glorifying the past here, but I suspect that previous generations had a clearer sense of civic engagement and education in their role as citizens. When they saw people being blasted with firehoses on the news, they knew what to do: call their congressperson and the president. Write a letter to the editor of their newspaper. And so forth.

          Today that sense of civic responsibility is much murkier, and there is a general distrust floating around. Will this e-petition really make a difference, or are they just after my e-mail address?

          Enter Margot Kidder. I don’t know what she wants me to do. (Well, I do, but I’m more politically astute than many.) So yes, civil disobedience can be deployed rather quickly. That gives it a leg up on the water-cooler-and-back-fence work that’s slow and hard. But without a strategy for harnessing people’s interest and parlaying that into action, it becomes, in the words of my friend, an empty stunt.

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  • Douglas Hagler

    I’ve just been thinking about the difference between civil disobedience on the one hand and nonviolence as someone like Gandhi described it. Civil disobedience is just one tool in the toolbox of nonviolence, but it seems to get most of the attention. Nonviolence is much more than that, though – engagement on a personal level, working in relationships, building relationships with enemies/opponents, self-sacrifice and so on. I wonder whether the conversation should become about nonviolence more broadly.

    • Rickuffordchase

      Doug – an affirmation and a critique. First of all, I think you’ve got the question exactly right here. A conversation about whether nonviolence works is actually far more interesting to me than one about whether civil disobedience – one specific strategy – works.

      The critique? I think the question you raise about other ways we might have spent the money is the wrong question. I’m not worried about what we could have done with all the money that roughly 4,000 of us spent filling the National Cathedral and doing a candlelight vigil with about 200 arrests to protest the war on its fourth anniversary. I want to know what we could have accomplished if we had spent all the money we’ve dumped into militarism in the last decade on development and encouraging democratic institutions and social networking and who knows what else.

      At the end of the day, aren’t we really trying to have a conversation about what will make us more secure? Doesn’t Jesus have an answer for that?

      • Douglas Hagler

        Love the critique, it’s one I’ve given many times and I’m happy to receive it.

        Absolutely, no question, yes. What could we do if we diverted the money spend on militarism to something humane? We could end malaria. We could eradicate tons of other debilitating diseases. We could send every American child to college. We could pay off every foreclosed mortgage. We could provide clean water to every human being on Earth. We could change our economy to one rooted in sustainable energy sources and technologies. We could change the world, permanently, for the better. No question whatsoever.

      • Anonymous

        Doug and I are both ardent pacifists and we’re working on Nick – so we would LOVE to have the conversation about nonviolence generally and whether it works – maybe handle some of the cliche’s like the home invasion scenario and Hitler.

  • Andrew FosterConnors


    Thanks for starting the conversation. I look forward to hearing Rick’s response as he’s the person who issued the invitation that led to my first arrest for civil disobedience several years ago.

    I’m a pragmatist on these things, so it’s important for me to declare that because one’s starting place on civil disobedience is really important. There are some who embrace civil disobedience, or some say, civil resistance, from more of a philosophical/spiritual commitment so that the question of effectiveness is at least secondary, if not irrelevant. I think of the remark someone made to me at my high school reunion recently – “You’re a pastor?! We thought you were going to do something important with your life!” Clearly effectiveness is not always the most important question to one who feels called to live in a particular way.

    Or maybe it’s better to talk about it this way – what are the goals of civil disobedience? To effect change in policy? Or to transform a particular people? Something else? I think of liturgy here – the primary goal is to give glory to God. The secondary goal is to form a people. The third goal is to change the world. (This is just one view of liturgy, of course). This is one way of viewing liturgy that places the question of effectiveness in a context of faithfulness where “world change” is actually lower on the priority list.

    There is actually a great tradition of debating civil disobedience and I think your piece is a nice step in resurrecting it. Some have argued that civil disbobedience should only be used to disobey a law that is inherently unjust. (Think of Jim Crow here). Others say, no, civil disobedience is about withdrawing consent, about reinforcing your convictions with your body, enacting the kind of violence-free world that you say we all need to create. Here I think the language of civil resistance might be more apropos that disobedience.

    I don’t know where I come down on these philosophical positions – maybe somebody I’ll have better clarity. I can only speak from experience. When I participated in my first act of civil disobedience in 2006 (or 2005?), I had been preaching over the agony of war (specifically in Iraq) since before it began. To me, the war was clearly a violation of God’s expectations for us and I felt convicted that I hadn’t done more than preach. The deaths of thousands of people felt personal to me because I felt the Church had largely failed in our obligation to stand against it. It was reading Paul’s call to present our bodies as a living sacrifice alongside Rick’s invitation that convinced me that it was important for me to participate in that action. It was a way of sharing with my congregation just how strongly I felt about this. I hope that isn’t narcissism as much as a struggle with the integrity of trying to live what we say we believe.

    That action led to the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq which brought thousands of Christians to DC to “take back” the National Cathedral – to preaching peace in that place, to hear the true costs of war, to grieve in the presence of God and each other. We had more than 200 people arrested that night in front of the White House, one of the largest civil disobedience actions there in a long time. What did that change? It’s impossible to know for sure. Growing dissatisfaction in the country surely gave us greater participation. But I know the collectively feeling was one of a game changer. People felt strengthened in their faith. They felt the euphoria that you feel whenever you realize, “I’m not alone in how I feel about this! I’m not the only one who believes in peace!” How do you quantify that collective sense of power? I’m not sure. But I will say that after both of my arrests I had this weird new revelation – I’m not afraid of civil power! Which is a really freeing feeling so that in actions that I participate in now, I don’t worry about police intimidation (which happens often – just ask the ACLU) because I’m not really afraid of going to jail. I’m more likely to say, “I don’t need a permit to be here.” Or negotiate with police from a standpoint of power rather than fear.

    As, as we’ve seen in the Middle East, when people lose their fear is when real change happens. (There’s a sermon there!!!)

    On the other hand (here I out myself), I’m the guy in your piece who also discovered that there are people who spend much of their lives getting arrested in all kinds of actions, some pretty bold – like the group of people who trespassed on Donald Rumsfeld’s front lawn. I have a great deal of respect for these folks, but I feel like I have more to contribute to the world than spending weeks in trials from actions that get little publicity and that change little, as far as I can tell. There’s no doubt a judgment on my part in that assessment, but it’s probably no different from the judgments we have to make all the time about where we spend our energy and time.

    I’m also the guy who met with Senator Mikulski (the conversation you mention in the piece) after we carried out a large action on immigration reform a number of years ago. She felt that people come to Washington and do stuff all the time and no one really notices. Even mass actions where you have half a million people seem less effective that actions back home in districts. This particular action we had 1/3 African-Americans, 1/3 Latinos, 1/3 whites (more diversity than that, but that’s the sense people get) in a Roman Catholic church with an African-American pastor promising to get arrested before anyone tells him not to feed the hungry or clothe the poor if they happen to be illegal immigrants. Mikulski felt this action had more impact than a national march because you have local leaders making headlines in local press, and having to engage their members who might be those “independents” you’re talking about. I think she’s got a good point.

    The final thing I’ll say (I heard this is one of the video comments) – the authorities really know how to handle civil disobedience in this country (for the most part). The Capitol Police know that it’s not a good idea to beat somebody with a club, or hit somebody with a high pressure hose. The dogs are not let out on people. They have a whole facility for processing people like me. It’s a well oiled machine. Some of the police actually seemed to enjoy it. So that to do anything “novel” takes quite a bit of effort in Washington. Local police have less training and experience in these matters so you’re more likely to get an unreasonable reaction which, while I have to say is not the goal I’ve ever heard expressed by participants, certainly adds to publicity.

    Great work, MaryAnn, and thanks to the editors for inviting the conversation.

  • Roy Howard

    After living in the DC area for 10 years I am no longer surprised that civil disobedience along with other protests rarely get any significant attention. But 10 years ago it did surprise me because I thought all those many times when I was coming to DC to engage in protests that people were actually paying attention. I don’t believe that any longer; unless the numbers are large enough to garner mass media coverage and that means hundreds of thousands of people. Nearly every day someone or some group is demonstrating somewhere in this city. Policy makers and key decision makers know this.

    I’ve come to believe that meeting with policy makers and key decision makers has more promise for actually getting things done. Letter writing can also be effective if the letter gets to the right person, who may not be obvious. I know have a relationship with my congressman because I have been to his office several times, and his staff people know me. They appear to respect my opinion and listen to me. I actually got them to take decisive action on visas for Haitians under duress. They know my congregation now too.

    I’m not opposed to personal actions of civil disobedience or protest because, as MaryAnn points out, sometimes nothing else will do. It’s a matter of personal moral witness. That matters, of course, but I don’t confuse it with “making a difference.”

  • Michael

    Civil disobedience is based on such Biblical passages as “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile” and “give your inner garment also”. What each of these passages has in common is that the first part was seen as socially acceptable, but the second part was not. Both the first half and second half of every scenario is unjust, but society only recognized that in the second instance. Pressing the issue to the second half would shame or embarrass the person committing the injustice. This is to say that civil disobedience only works if we can press against that social consciousness that does not see the injustice in one instance but does in the next. So in this instance, if people largely have no problem with someone being arrested for their protest, then there is no effect.

    • Anonymous

      This is useful. MLK Jr. spoke often of afflicting the conscience of society as a key part of what nonviolent resistance is supposed to accomplish. And it pushes me back to the point in my video that civil disobedience as currently being practiced in this country is too civil – it is not conscience afflicting, nor is it a sufficient thorn in the side of the powerful.

    • MaryAnn

      Two things come to mind. One is the experience of seeing Hotel Rwanda, when Paul Rusesabagina is trying to expose what’s going on–he says, “We need to shame the West into helping us.” I sighed inwardly: “Ah, your flaw is in assuming we have any shame to tap into.”

      The other is thinking about the woman recently who broke the law (fraud?) in order that her kids would go to a better school than the one she was zoned to. She became something of a hero in certain quarters. I found myself wondering whether it would be possible to organize large-scale actions such as hers. It seems logistically complicated and it comes at a huge cost. But talk about shining a light on an injustice! “I have to lie in order for my kid to have a decent education.”

      • Douglas Hagler

        I’m reminded of Marcy Kaptur, a Congresswoman from OH, encouraging people to become squatters in their own homes when they are foreclosed upon, or others encouraging people whose mortgages are underwater to walk away from them entirely. The kind of thing that, if it happened en masse, would shut down the system.

        And, of course, we’d bail it out again.

  • Doug Hagler

    Should we clarify terms? I’ve noticed something – a few of us in this conversation, including Aric and Nick actually, are actually talking about protest some of the time, not civil disobedience. If I march down the street, with a permit, and bang drums and shout slogans (or stand outside a Planned Parenthood in Nick’s example), that is not civil disobedience. That’s protest. Civil disobedience, as I take it, is breaking an unjust law, or at the very least, breaking an unjust social more. Am I wrong? Should be just talk about civil disobedience, or is protest/demonstration also on the table?

    • Anonymous

      There’s been some sloppiness in terminology, yeah.

      I think Civil Disobedience is often breaking an unrelated law for the purpose of causing an inconvenience to draw attention to your cause. For example sitting on the street to block traffic as a way of getting attention to another issue. I take “civil disobedience” to mean nonviolently breaking a law in order to provoke social change.

    • MaryAnn

      Yes, that’s helpful. Maybe we could lump all that stuff under a broad category called… what? Public witness, perhaps.

      The thing that got me started thinking about efficacy is the specific issue of arrest–which can happen when someone seeks to break a law, or when people start out protesting/demonstrating legally but then things take a different turn for whatever reason.

      • Douglas Hagler

        I definitely got that – and even then, those are still distinct (seeking arrest versus being arrested). I like “public witness” a lot, since it is so preferable to “witnessing”, as in accosting people in the mall and turning them off to Jesus one unwanted conversation at a time.

  • Rickuffordchase

    Nick – I’m intrigued by the question you ask about whether cd will change an “independent’s” mind, mostly because it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask the question. I’m sometimes in the minority in circles I run because I tend to worry less about media. I figure it’s our job to be faithful to what God is calling us to be. God will figure out how and when to touch others – which I can’t really second guess.

    • MaryAnn

      Good to see you here Rick!

      (This comment is also in response to your comment to Doug below about where we put our resources.)

      I think there are competing theological impulses at work; both need to be taken seriously. Yes, we are called to love Jesus with our lives, and to do so extravagantly and courageously. And in some sense our job is to be faithful and to let go of the outcome.

      At the same time (I won’t say “on the other hand”), I think it is faithful to be concerned with matters of stewardship. What is the most faithful use of our time, energy, money? Who has the potential to be impacted? Where is transformation likely to occur? Or to put the question more theologically, where is God palpably at work and how do we follow?

      I may be more pragmatically minded than some, but I think it’s helpful to consider those questions. There are so many ways to be involved, to engage in proclamation. Where is the soil ripe for the seeds that I will sow? God the sower may have abundant seeds to cast about on thorny and rocky ground. And I seek to trust in that posture of abundance, even as I live in the very real scarcity of my one little life.

      Even Paul, who obviously wasn’t afraid to go to jail for the gospel, considered audience and how his proclamation might be heard by his audience (I’m thinking Areopagus but there are other examples).


  • Scott Fairbanks

    Hi, I’m a little late to join the conversation. Quite a bit of material has accumulated and I hope I don’t say something that has already been added.

    My brother used to play volleyball at a pretty high level. Once I was asking advice on the game and I asked him how he knew where to stand. His response was not what I expected. He said, “I know I’m in the right place if I’m scared.” Of course. If one is positioned in the likely path of a very highly accelerated ball of hard leather, the proper response is fear. I think his advice illustrates the problem with civil disobedience in 2011 America. Civil disobedience, obstructing and annoying while singing some mindless chant, is not scary. It is as passe as a Che t-shirt. Other citizens are content to step around and let the participants go through their rite. The police are obliged to round up the participant, hand cuff and book them, just as they will go to career day at the elementary school and let the kids wear their handcuffs.

    Civil disobedience as suggested here is a luxury. It a quixotic tipping at windmills. There are no high pressure waterhoses, no one is bludgeoned. No one mistakes the acts of the disobedient as acts of courage. Typically the avenues of discourse have not been cut-off.

    Far from winning independents, I think civil disobedience usually eliminates one from the discourse, much like responding with an ad hominem or retreating into silence. It is not an engagement but a retreat. It is not a way to be heard but dismissed. It attempts to exchange zeal for reason without recognizing that the opposing party might have an equal amount of zeal and, at least in the disobedient’s minds, righteousness. In short, it often robs the dignity of the opposing party because the protester is arrogantly confident in their justness.

    What is missing from this exchange is the criteria by which civil disobedience is necessary. When a protestor’s has proponents in position of power and when there are free and unfettered channels of discourse, civil disobedience, as the name suggests, is un-civil and should be ignored by the populace and policed by the police. So I ask, what cause are we talking about where we should entertain the idea of getting yet more un-civil?

    Thanks for hosting this conversation,
    Scott Fairbanks

    • Douglas Hagler

      I’m not sure that calling something a luxury is an argument against. I support a number of organizations through donations – that’s a luxury too, since I have the spare money, and I realize most human beings do not have spare money. I went to college and seminary, both luxuries, but also necessary to be in the position I’m in now, hopefully helping people and doing my small bit of good. Both of us have access to computers and free time to use them to discuss this – also a luxury.

      I’m curious what you mean by “No one mistakes the acts of the disobedient as acts of courage.” I am definitely someone who “confuses” civil disobedience with courage – I think primarily because those acts do require courage. To say otherwise seems like nonsense, to be honest. You can say “misguided” or even “pointless” – that’s what we’re debating. But I don’t understand a position that claims civil disobedience requires no courage unless one is being bludgeoned unconscious. Certainly, to face being bludgeoned or fire-hosed probably requires more courage than simply being arrested.

      Maybe civil disobedience does remove one temporarily from discourse – there are plenty of situations where discourse isn’t working, particularly in our current political climate. When discourse has completely broken down, what do we do? Sit on our hands until people decide to listen? Or do we put pressure on them however we can? Do you have another venue in which people could exhibit courage, if not civil disobedience?

      To say that civil disobedience “robs the dignity of the opposing party because the protester is arrogantly confident in their justness” – that is actually the opposite of what civil disobedience does. What CD does is to honor the dignity of the opposing party by accepting the punishment for breaking the unjust law. It is a way to honor dignity without also surrendering one’s own dignity. Rather than robbing a person of dignity, CD robs *the system of injustice* of it’s dignity, revealing it for the farce that it can become. As for being ‘arrogantly confident’ of one’s justness – it seems to me that accepting punishment for violating an unjust law actually requires a lot of humility. Arrogant would be breaking the law and then fleeing the consequences, or arrogant might be talking about how the law is awful, but doing nothing to oppose it because one has the luxury of avoiding doing so.

      I agree that we should talk about the criteria for civil disobedience (though again I’m confused because it sounds like you are saying the criteria is “never”…). My thoughts on criteria include:

      1. A law is unjust and breaking it would provide a public witness
      2. One’s conscience will not allow them to obey the unjust law, regardless of whether it is a public witness to defy it
      3. One is a public figure, and through civil disobedience, one can bring greater attention to a political issue
      4. One is part of the majority culture, and in civil disobedience one acts in solidarity with those outside the majority culture who are unjustly affected by the law in question
      5. One is engaging in civil disobedience as an act of contrition – i.e., one participated in supporting of enforcing the unjust law, and has a change of heart

      I don’t know if I can say that civil disobedience is ever ‘necessary’ – though if I thought about it more, I imagine I could come up with situations where an unjust law constrains someone’s life so much that if they try to flourish, they will violate that law, making it essentially necessary.

      • Scott Fairbanks

        Do I think there is a time and place for civil disobedience? Of course I do.I admire the courage and witness of the civil right protesters and men like Gandhi. But I responded to this conversation in light of the essay submitted by MaryAnn. She referred to the debt ceiling debate, the tar sand issue, and the Iraq war as examples of admirable civil disobedience.

        I think Civil Disobedience is justified in instances, like with the civil rights issue and Gandhi, where there is no recourse to address the issue through civil and obedient channels. Let’s acknowledge that disobedience is not a virtue, it is not a higher form of discourse. There is nothing inherently noble about it.

        Does the debt ceiling debate warrant civil disobedience? I think that the debt ceiling debate protesters to which she referred had the most powerful man in the world on their side. The senate and house had members forcefully arguing each of the major positions. We have established means to civilly (as best as possible) address this type of issue. Each citizen has the power to vote to have their views represented by a like minded representative. It is a coarse and clunky system but it is arguably the best system yet devised for the large scale peaceful transfer of power as dictated by the governed. But it is a delicate system. It is a social compact. In the large, it requires charity, restraint, and obedience.

        I have to believe, that whatever one’s position on each of the issues MaryAnn raised, that we all know someone who holds the opposing view whom we also respect. We might not be able to fathom how they can hold the opinion that they do, but most of us have enough sense and charity to acknowledge that their position doesn’t have sinister motives. So we write letters, we petition our representatives, we flex our economic muscle, we persuade. I have great conviction in many of my positions, but it strikes me as the height of arrogance and self-righteousness to disrupt the lives of those who disagree with me.

        As far as courage… I’m at a loss to understand the courage of the typical actor of civil disobedience in today’s america. I haven’t seen any water cannons or bludgeoning. Perhaps I’m naive. MaryAnn cited people who chose to spend their Saturday afternoons differently, nothing more.

        Thanks for your thoughtful reply Doug. But I have to ask, each of the points you itemized as possible times for civil disobedience, can’t they each be more much more effectively served: obediently? or winsomely? Again “there is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious that we must make it stop…” but if that time is each time one of the issues MaryAnn cites occurs, then our delicate and barely civil system will cease to function.

    • Anonymous

      Hey Scott – thanks for joining in! You’re not too late at all.

      You bring up a lot of the kinds of points I was thinking about as I was saying that Civil disobedience needs to be less civil in this culture. Basically I was saying we need to stand where we are scared to stand, a place that takes courage to stand, because that is where the ball is headed. I disagree with you that standard Civil Disobedience is entirely fruitless or takes no courage for the reasons Doug outlined well, but I think you ask the kinds of questions I would want to ask of myself as a participant in CD – am I doing this out of self-righteousness but without much personal risk? Am I intentionally standing someplace safe, rather than in the line of fire? etc…

  • Patricia

    I consider myself an independent. I’m not on board in totality with any one “side.” For myself, people protesting and getting arrested doesn’t impress me at all.

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