An ethic must avoid either an absolutizing of
law as the final good or an elevation of the individual Shat breeds contempt for law. No
perfect set of criteria exists that will determine when disobedience is justifiable.
However we can suggest three examples in which there may be a right or even a duty to
(1) Our processes of constitutional government
provide methods for the testing of laws in courts. Sometimes the only way to put the law
to legal trial is to disobey it. To challenge a law openly and honestly may be a sign of
respect for the fundamental legal processes. Many constitutional freedoms have been made
secure because men risked disobedience of law in order to get a judicial judgment on the
(2) Disobedience of law may be a moral right and
obligation when political methods of changing the law are not available. Normally the
person who dislikes a law has a responsibility to try to change it rather than disobey it.
But if a tyranny or a corrupt bureaucracy makes orderly change impossible, other forms of
protest become necessary Thus our forefathers issued the cry, ''No taxation without
representation. " More recently Negroes, denied political representation, have
disobeyed laws they had no hand in making. Sometimes the only way for a person or group to
maintain moral integrity and impress those in power is to disobey the power bloc openly
and accept the consequences of the act.
In both these types of disobedience the act is
open and above board.
There is no plotting to harm other people, no
violence, no trickery or cheating. The effort is not to evade a legal claim but to
challenge the law in the public arena. Government sees and invokes the penalty.
Government also has to decide whether the law
should be changed.
(3) A more rare situation may call for still
more radical disobedience.
The case of a morally intolerahle wrong may
drive people of integrity to conspiracies of disobedience. Thus in Ameri an history the
evil of Negro slavery led men of conscience to help slaves to escape via the
"underground railroad. " Thus also the Nazi persecution of Jews led the best and
bravest of men to disobey laws in order to save lives. Here the effort was not to make an
open witness that might persuade the society to change; it was a simple direct act to save
persons from vicious laws.
Roger L. Shinn
Union Theological Seminary New York
Reprinted from: Christianity and Crisis
COME TO THE RALLY AT 12 NOON AT SPROUL HALL
F S M