In defiance of orders from their respective governors, a significant number of houses of worship threatened to open for services recently.
Most of them did so while maintaining social distancing measures that are at least as thorough as those at Walmart. They nonetheless engaged in civil disobedience.
Is civil disobedience ever justified? What about when government declares that liquor stores and abortion clinics are “essential services” that can stay open while it deems your spiritual health nonessential and orders your church, synagogue or mosque shut?
If you categorically oppose any nonviolent civil disobedience — for any purpose, against any stupidity or oppression — I have a few more questions for you:
This is a country born in civil defiance of a monarchy 3,000 miles away. If you could go back in time and walk the streets of Boston in the early 1770s, could you have urged the citizens, “Pay that Stamp Tax, let those troops quarter in your home, stop criticizing the King!”?
Harriet Tubman and tens of thousands of others defied the law to escape slavery. Could you have looked any one of them in the eyes and exhorted, “Go back, you’re breaking the law!”? If an escaped slave showed up on your front porch, would you have turned him in or helped him out?
Franklin Roosevelt ordered the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans without due process. No court ever convicted any of them of anything. They simply had names like Toshio instead of Bob. Could you have said to them, “You haven’t harmed anybody but just in case you might, we have to put you away for a few years.”? If one of them escaped, would you have reported him?
“Progressive” governors ordered virus patients into nursing homes in March and April, resulting in thousands of deaths among the elderly. If crowds had gathered in front of those places to prevent the orders from being carried out, would you have arrested and jailed the protesters and stuffed those patients into the home?
History is full of people who practiced peaceful resistance in defense of sound principles in the face of official stupidity, discrimination or oppression. Sometimes it has been the best way, if not the only one, to get bad policies changed. That’s why I can’t bring myself to declare that it’s never justified.
One hundred and seventy years ago, a famous American figure wrote,
Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
That figure was Henry David Thoreau, the eminent philosopher, poet and essayist. His best-known works are his book Walden: Life in the Woods and his essay, Civil Disobedience. The latter proved influential far beyond his time and place, shaping the thoughts and actions of famous dissidents from Ghandi to Martin Luther King Jr. Now is a perfect time to give Thoreau’s essay another look.
The man who wrote, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right,” made a strong case we can’t ignore.
(Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education. His most recent book is “Was Jesus a Socialist?” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)