The Spirit of Disobedience

July 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

“…you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. … What we are trying to do, I assume, is really to get back to the principles and aims and spirit of the Declaration of Independence. This spirit is resistance to illegitimate authority and to forces that deprive people of their life and liberty and right to pursue happiness, and therefore under these conditions, it urges the right to alter or abolish their current form of government-and the stress had been on abolish. But to establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence, we are going to need to go outside the law, to stop obeying the laws that demand killing or that allocate wealth the way it has been done, or that put people in jail for petty technical offenses and keep other people out of jail for enormous crimes. My hope is that this kind of spirit will take place not just in this country but in other countries because they all need it. People in all countries need the spirit of disobedience to the state, which is not a metaphysical thing but a thing of force and wealth. And we need a kind of declaration of interdependence among people in all countries of the world who are striving for the same thing.”

This is Matt Damon reading from a 1970 speech by author and historian Howard Zinn(1) that has captured at least some sentiments of both liberals and conservatives. Zinn himself was leftist and historical revisionist, and Damon is also progressive in many ways. Yet conservative Americans can relate to the idea of “a spirit is resistance to illegitimate authority” under the current administration, and our need to “establish the principles of the Declaration of Independence,” (or re-establish them). But we’ll disagree over what those principles are and whether their meaning should be reinterpreted in light of contemporary culture.

Regardless of the reason we may have to disobey a governing authority, everyone who seeks to leave one authority is answering a perceived higher calling of another. Civil disobedience is an undertaking that Christians are not to take lightly in light of Romans 13, God’s call to respect the authorities he’s established, except when they contradict God’s law. And for Christians, God’s authority, established in His written word, is what we are to leave all other authorities for, and His word is also what defines illegitimate authority. Sometimes the authority we should abandon is our government, and sometimes it’s ourselves.

In any case, “the spirit of disobedience” is not an answer by itself (indeed it was the very first problem in Genesis 3). We first need to identify who our ultimate legitimate authority is. Frankly, if it isn’t God, it will always be one worth leaving.

1) Video with the full text of Zinn’s speech:

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