This weekend I will not be at Bersih 4. I want very much to be there but I have a prior engagement in Vietnam and, after praying about it, I felt the Lord wanting me to honour that commitment. Many of my friends will be at Bersih 4, many of whom are my brothers and sisters in Christ. The arguments as to whether the rally is legal continues. What is clear is that the police have not given permission for the rally. Therefore, participating in the rally is a form of civil disobedience.
The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology defines civil disobedience as:
. . . a form of political protest, distinguished by the fact that it openly breaks the law . . . for conscientious reasons. (D. J. E. Attwood, “Civil Disobedience,” New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology [Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995], 234.)
Should Christians be participating in acts of civil disobedience? For one, we are not even sure that the rally is illegal and that the police have the right to ban it. But I think we live in desperate times when civil disobedience is called for.
Christians believe that governments have been put in place by God to run countries on His behalf (Romans 13:1–7) but the mandate is for governments to reward good and punish evil. Their authority is not absolute. In Matthew 22:21, Jesus says that we are to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (NIV). That means Caesar is NOT God. And while we respect the legitimate authority of governments, especially when they do what they are supposed to do, we are not to accord them absolute authority. That belongs to God alone. So there may be times when followers of Jesus may have to participate in acts of civil disobedience, for example when we need to make a clear statement that the government of the day has seriously and blatantly violated basic tenets of justice and morality. Many of us believe we have reached such a moment in Malaysian history.
The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology gives some helpful guidelines as we think about civil disobedience:
1. All constitutional and democratic means must be genuinely exhausted.
2. Civil disobedience should be open and public.
3. It should strongly prefer non-violent methods.
4. Actions of civil disobedience should display a good knowledge of the law, and a full respect for it.
5. Actions should be appropriate to the cause.
6. Civil disobedience should have a specific and realistic end in view.
(D. J. E. Attwood, “Civil Disobedience”, 234.)
This column doesn’t have the space to go into a detailed discussion about the above guidelines. I think Bersih 4 passes all the guidelines though some would argue about guideline 1, saying that perhaps we should wait for the next general election to voice our concerns. I am among those who think that that will be a bit too late for the welfare of the country — the economy continues to tank day by day — and that more time will only give wrong doers more time to hide their evil deeds.
Stephen Charles Mott also gives a sobering warning for those who choose to participate in civil disobedience. If we participate in civil disobedience we must be willing to accept the penalty (Biblical Ethics and Social Change, 2nd ed. [New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011], 141). So while we will be in Vietnam this weekend, we will be praying for all who have chosen to march. Will some be arrested? Will there be those who will be injured by tear gas or other acts of violence? We pray not. All who march must march with eyes wide open. But we must make our decisions based on conviction and not on fear.
Followers of Jesus who participate in civil disobedience are not heroes. Indeed many do not want to do it. But they do it because they feel that they must. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And Christians who march believe it is an expression of their love for God and for neighbour. There are times when loving God and neighbour means we obey God rather than human beings (Acts 5:29). Many of us believe Bersih 4 is such a time.
*Image credit: Jonathan Kendrick / freeimages.com