Civil disobedience and the Bible
In March of this year a British Columbia Superior Court judge sentenced 102 persons to three months suspended sentences for refusing to obey a court order to stay away from an abortuary. He said that their actions constituted “a classic example of organized lawlessness.” No doubt “lawlessness” was the wrong term, since the accused were not opposed to all law but rather to the absence of a law forbidding killing of the unborn. Indeed, the judge himself said that the accused were “decent, law-abiding people.” The truth is that Canada has given women the legal right to kill their children before they are born, and this is opposed to the law of God. The judge said that it was not up to him to rule on the morality of Canadian law but simply to apply it. He was unwilling to do what the accused were doing: stand up for the law of God in the face of Canada’s defiance of it.
If we look at the Bible we can see many cases of heroic people who stand up against the civil power in the name of justice. And one case (Ex., 1) has to do with the murder of young children: the Hebrew midwives Shiphrah and Puah disobeyed Pharoah’s command to kill the Hebrews’ newborn sons. In another case, a Jewish mother watched her seven sons being whipped, dismembered, and roasted to death, one after the other, while she exhorted them to die rather than offend God by eating swine’s flesh, which would have been a denial of their faith; and finally she herself underwent the same kind of death (II Macc., 7).
One might argue that in these two instances people had to pay a penalty for not doing what civil power commanded them, while in the British Columbia case the law was not requiring the defendants to do anything but simply punishing them for what they did. But in the Acts of the Apostles, 5, we find an almost exact parallel with the British Columbia case. We are told that the Jewish Sanhedrin, “calling in the apostles, and having them scourged, charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” But the apostles said, “We must obey God rather than men.” And they departed from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the name of Jesus. And they did not for a single day cease teaching and preaching in the temple and from house to house the good news of Jesus as the Christ.” We know that some of the British Columbia defendants were not deterred by the judge’s warning that their suspended sentences would be reinstated if the defendants continued to demonstrate at the abortuary.
Doing, and not doing
There is not much difference between given civil penalties for not doing something and being given them for doing something. If we think that God is calling us to do something, such as try to prevent the death of unborn children, we should do it. Morally, this is in the same category as refusing to perform some sinful act commanded by the civil power. We find an example of it I the case of Constable David Packer, dismissed from the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force for asking to be released from an assignment to protect the Morgentaler abortuary.
It is clear that we must obey God rather than the civil power when there is a conflict between these. And all of us have an obligation to do what we can to change unjust laws. And, when a law as seriously unjust as in the case of abortion, with a hundred thousand children being killed in our country each year, our obligation is very serious. It is at least as serious as it would have been to have done something against the Hitler regime if we had lived under it. We know that some Germans risked their freedom and even their lives by sheltering Jews. There is no doubt that we must do something for the unborn. The question is: What are we obliged to do?
We are obliged to do (a) what we can, and (b) what will be efficacious. Both of these considerations are important. Not everyone is in the same position to take certain actions. Besides, there are many different ways in which we can engage in pro-life work. We can give money to help those most actively involved, we can influence others by writing or in conversation, we can demonstrate, we can do sidewalk counseling, we can work in organizations which counsel pregnant women and girls, we can work and vote for pro-life candidates, and so on.
Not everyone is called to civil disobedience. But some people are. The reason that some are called to do so is that, as many pro-life leaders tell us, lesser measures are not succeeding in changing the law, or at least are not succeeding quickly enough. If Martin Luther King had not practiced and advocated civil disobedience, he would not have succeeded in getting the United Stated government to change its legislation concerning blacks.
How to break the law
We come then to the second consideration concerning civil disobedience: What is the best way in which to break the law? This is a matter for the leaders of the pro-life movement, it seems to me. They are best able to assess the value of legal means and to recommend the choice of illegal means. Obviously the best illegal means are those which maximize good results and minimize bad ones. No doubt trial and error will play their part in coming to decisions on these matters.
And who are called to take part in civil disobedience? All of us have to decide for ourselves. Certainly those who helped the cause of the American blacks by engaging in civil disobedience are proud of what they did. And those who help the cause of the unborn will always be glad that they did so, and particularly on the Day of Judgment, when God will ask each of us what we did.
We should be grateful to those who are willing to disobey the law in order to end abortion. May God raise up many more of them to be His witnesses. If all Canadians who say they are pro-life were to really do something, abortion in our country would end. Thank God for Joe Borowski and Joan Andrews for all those who, like the Vancouver group, are doing our work.
Father Leonard Kennedy is a former College President and emeritus professor of philosophy. At present he is Chaplain at Brescia College, University of Western Ontario.