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AFSC's Guide to Civil Disobedience

AFSC's Guide to Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience is a refusal to obey an order from a civil authority or public nonviolent violation of a legal prohibition. It can be an individual or corporate act. Those undertaking civil disobedience seek to understand and act on a higher law.

As understood by the American Friends Service Committee, civil disobedience is a conscience-based, heartfelt action which, while in violation of the law, reflects and draws on the religious convictions that are the base of AFSC's service and which witnesses to AFSC perspectives on major societal issues.

AFSC believes in a society of laws and respects the painful struggle by people everywhere to build a body of domestic and international law to enable the human family to live in justice and peace. Improperly motivated or carried out, civil disobedience will undermine this process, and encourage lawlessness, as happened in the 1920's, when many Americans defied prohibition laws for purely selfish reasons. But the history of the use of civil disobedience in Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence, in the U.S. civil rights movement, and in the cause of freedom and justice by the Society of Friends over 300 years—to name three examples—makes clear that when rightly used, civil disobedience strengthens the rule of law by making law more worthy of respect.

When contemplating civil disobedience, therefore, an individual should be aware of its potential for good or ill, and before undertaking it, carefully examine his or her options, motivations, and attitudes. It should not be undertaken lightly, but only when there appears to be no other practical option within the law. There should be no element of selfish advantage in the violation, a discipline of non violence should be observed, and one should be willing to suffer without complaint the punishment that society may exact. Civil disobedience so undertaken does not subvert the rule of law.

In undertaking civil disobedience, or indeed any dramatic public action, the challenge is one of perspective and humility. Daring actions growing out of the frustrations of desperate times can lead to a distorted sense of our power and place in the scheme of the universe. Civil disobedience can become purely a technique, over-used and detached from its spiritual roots. Actions undertaken routinely can run counter to the practice of civil disobedience as a disciplined act of the individual conscience and an expression of faith, concerned with results in that context.

Types of Civil Disobedience

The following are suggestive categories of disobedience to civil authority, drawn from the experience of Friends, the AFSC, and kindred groups or movements. The categories are titled by some immediate motivating factors, though all proceed from conscience and reflect the religious base from which AFSC service flows. Most real-life situations are probably a combination of these types of action.

Holy obedience

This is a clear-cut case of a direct conflict between obedience to God and obedience to government. Here AFSC has no choice; we must choose with Peter: "We must obey God rather than man". (Acts 5:29) For many Friends this was the situation with military service, prior to the option of alternative service. For some individuals this is now the situation with taxes for the military. Committee and staff persons working with refugees could feel themselves in this situation if they were asked to shelter an undocumented immigrant who would be in danger if deported.

Limited options

Several options have been tried and failed. The issue is one that is felt very deeply by the individual or community and alternative approaches have not been identified. For example, farmworkers on strike seek to communicate with their brothers and sisters at work in the fields on behalf of their common cause. They are barred from doing so by police. They enter the fields and face arrest.

Moral statement

The evil which is being perpetuated by government is felt to be of such magnitude that civil disobedience is the best moral response. These actions tend to be symbolic in nature. The AFSC decision to send supplies to Vietnam despite the government prohibition would be one example; others might be the person who refuses to send in $1 of the federal income tax due, or a group blocking the entrance to a munitions factory.

Community solidarity

The community with which the staff member is working feels that civil disobedience is necessary; the staff person feels in unity with the action and called to stand with the community. This might mean joining in an illegal picket line, for example.

Lifting the issue to public view

It is perceived that the only way to focus public attention on the wrong being perpetuated is to become involved in civil disobedience. This sense led to many of the non violent actions of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. A major sustained campaign emerged, involving civil disobedience at points. It incorporated in its course, Holy obedience, last alternative, moral statement and community solidarity as its immediate motivating factors. Overall, it had a moral authority which sustained the creative participation of people with varying levels of experience with non violence and civil disobedience.

Situational response

The civil disobedience in this case is unpremeditated, but a situation arises in which it seems the correct response. A group of parents could be visiting the Justice Department with a grievance on enforcement of civil rights law. The official becomes angry and calls in the police to clear the room. The group spontaneously sits down. Rosa Park's decision to remain seated in the "white section" of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, is another example.

Adapted from the Manual of the AFSC Board of Directors