Rey Reynoso on Civil Disobedience

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Rey Reynoso wrote a post a few months ago on Christians and civil disobedience that I'd wanted to respond to in a post of my own, but I never did. I wanted to put a link up to it before it gets too far distant in time, even if I can't respond in depth.

The one thought that I will say is that I think Rey has an interesting proposal, but I don't think it gets around the Rosa Parks problem. The gospel wasn't at stake for her, so I think on Rey's account she still comes out as immorally violating the law. That's the biggest problem case for the Christian view of submission to authorities, since so many people think what she did was not just good but heroic. But I do think the biblical view is that it was wrong, despite being well-intentioned. (The second-biggest case I can think of for contemporary Americans is the American Revolution, which I also think was immoral on biblical grounds but is certainly supported by most Christians in the U.S.)

8 Comments

It's interesting you mention the American Revolution, because I had that epiphany in seminary ethics class when we were discussing Just War. I looked at the criteria most often used by Christians for war, and the American Revolution didn't seem to fit it. It's perhaps even more egregious when you consider brothers in Christ were killing each other (I'm assuming that happened somewhere along the line) for reasons that couldn't justify the act.

Still, no taxation without representation. Amen. =)

You can work around some of the just war criteria. For instance, legitimate authority has sometimes been thought of as the highest authority willing to act on the basis of the just cause. If George Washington, as a leader in the British army, was the highest authority willing to act then it's ok, presuming the cause is just and the other conditions are met. I'm not sure the cause is unjust, either. But it doesn't seem to satisfy proportionality. The cause is just, but it's not important enough to justify the harm caused in war.

I came to this site via a bike blog which is curious but now that I am here, I have to ask this. By your logic, SS troops in German concentration camps would be good christians for following the authorities orders in killing millions of Jews, gypsies, and the mentally retarded. I am interpreting your views correctly right?

Not remotely. A law requiring me to do something that isn't morally wrong (even if it's discriminatory to have such a law) is nothing like a law requiring me to do something immoral, e.g. what the SS troops had to do. My view is that it's wrong to violate laws, even unjust laws, in cases where there's nothing immoral about the thing the law requires you to do. It's not immoral to ride in the back of a bus. It's not even immoral to live in a concentration camp if the government tells you to do so. It is immoral to exterminate innocent people or to make others live in concentration camps merely because of their ethnicity, disability, or whatever.

I read your previous post on Rosa Parks (and the comments), and wondered whether some reflection on the "thickness" of action types might not help out those who think that Rosa Parks was morally justified (even heroic) in her actions. Your worry about Parks rests on the distinction between laws which require doing something immoral, and situations in which "there's nothing immoral about the thing the law requires you to do." Repeatedly you indicated that "the thing the law required Rosa Parks to do" was something like "sit in the back of the bus," and that this, in itself, is nothing immoral.

But clearly, an action A can have multiple (true) descriptions; and in many cases, one does (action) B by doing A. For instance, A might be I raise my hand. Depending on further facts, however, it might be that by raising my hand, I give the command to start the race, or I vote for a certain proposal, or I signal approval for a murder. You commented before that by "saying nothing," one might thereby indicate that one is hiding Jews, thereby leading Nazis to find them, etc.

In the case of Rosa Parks, then, might one not (plausibly) argue that her act of "sitting in the back of the bus" would not have been the full story about her action? Why not say that her bodily movements would also fall under other descriptions - that her act is "thicker" than just "sitting here rather than there"? For instance, one could argue that by sitting in the back of the bus, Parks would thereby have been signaling (conveying, suggesting, endorsing, encouraging) the inferiority of blacks. Her action would have been an instance of the act-type "solidifying the perception of blacks as inferior," of the act-type "perpetuating the belief among whites that they deserve better treatment under the law," and so on. But clearly, these act-types (and others that would be easy to generate along the same lines) are immoral. It is wrong to act in such a way as to signal the inferiority of blacks. And yet conforming one's behavior to the law would in this case necessarily be to satisfy these other immoral act-descriptions. So, it's not the case that "there's nothing immoral about the thing the law requires you to do."

This on its own wouldn't suffice to show that Parks' action was justified (much less heroic). Nor would it tell us how to understand the NT commands concerning turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, etc. (And I'm myself not clear on how much we want to pack into the description of an act versus the consequences of that act.) But do you think this would be one way of responding to the claim that discriminatory laws don't require people to do anything immoral? Surely we can't tell whether a law requires immoral behavior by restricting our attention only to bodily movements; we have to see what other act-types those bodily movements, given the relevant context, fall under, no? But then is there good reason to think that "sitting here rather than there" is the (only) morally relevant way to describe Rosa Parks' action?

You're right that conceiving of the action differently might affect which moral principles you apply to it, but I don't think you're going to come up with a particular way to do it that has it come out that Jesus' commands in the Sermon on the Mount are true and what Rosa Parks did was morally allowable. I'm open to suggestions of how that would go, but the suggestions that have occurred to me or come up in the discussion don't seem to do it for me.

You might be right (that my suggestion won't have Jesus' commands in the Sermon on the Mount turn out correctly). But wouldn't conceiving of Rosa Parks' action under different descriptions have the consequence that your objection to her civil disobedience no longer turns on the distinction between "laws that require what is immoral" and "laws that do not require what is immoral"? It looks like the entire force of your objection would hang on one's understanding of the commands to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, etc., and yet one's understanding of those commands could no longer appeal (only or primarily) to the distinction between laws that do or do not command what is immoral. One couldn't object to her action on the basis that she violated a law that did not command something immoral; your objection could only appeal to an apparent inconsistency with what Jesus commands. But again, spelling out this inconsistency will have to appeal to more than the distinction between laws that do and don't command what's immoral.

As others mentioned, it's not easy to see exactly how to apply Jesus' commands in his Sermon in practice, and one can imagine that a number of contingent features of a political and cultural environment might make a big difference to individual cases. Might Jesus have spoken differently to people who were part of a democracy? To those in a nation culturally committed, in at least a vague sense, to a broadly Christian ethic? To those who were not at the beginning of a new and controversial religious movement?

(Of course, those who think Parks was justified in her behavior will want to show that Parks' action does not violate whatever it is Jesus means to teach us in Sermon, and that won't be much easier than your task of showing that Parks clearly violated that teaching. But if I'm right, then don't you think your task is made harder - and your objection subsequently weaker - by not being able to appeal to what at first looked like an easily applicable distinction?)

I don't think my distinction is removed. You're just trying to take the Parks example out of one side of the distinction and into the other. For your move to work, you need to show that it's immoral to sit in the back of the bus. Otherwise it still counts as the kind of action that's not wrong and therefore not, by my distinction, the kind of civil disobedience that's ok to participate in.

But I think showing that it's immoral to sit in the back of the bus is going to take an awful lot of work. There are all sorts of examples of things that happen to further a bad result that aren't immoral, so you can't do it based on merely bad consequences. They have to be so bad that it overcomes the strong moral resistance to breaking the law. Perhaps consequences don't have to be as significant to break a law like this as they do to justify killing someone, but I do think there's a threshold to overcome for when the consequences are serious enough, and the consequences of sitting in the back of the bus that one time aren't that serious. The consequences of one person sitting in the back of the bus for a lifetime aren't even that serious given how many people were actually involved and the bad consequences that you really should expect (that Rosa Parks happened not to face) if the scheme backfires.

So I think it takes quite a lot of argument to show that it's immoral to sit in the back of a bus, and I'm not sure my argument is significantly affected because of this.

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