Thoughts on
Obedience and Disobedience

The Editors


Bonhoeffer on Obedience

Government demands obedience "for conscience's sake" (Romans 13:5), which may also be interpreted as "for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13). . . . In the exercise of the mission of government, the demand for obedience is unconditional and qualitatively total; it extends both to conscience and to bodily life. . . . [The Christian's] duty of obedience is binding on him until government directly compels him to offend against the divine commandment, that is to say, until government openly denies its divine commission and thereby forfeits its claim. In cases of doubt obedience is required. . . . If government violates or exceeds its commission at any point, for example by making itself master over the belief of the congregation, then at this point, indeed, obedience is to be refused, for conscience's sake, for the Lord's sake. It is not, however, permissible to generalize from this offense and to conclude that this government now possesses no claim to obedience in some of its other demands, or even in all its demands. Disobedience can never be anything but a concrete decision in a single particular case. Generalizations lead to an apocalyptic diabolization of government. Even an anti-Christian government is still in a certain sense government. . . . An apocalyptic view of a particular concrete government would necessarily have total disobedience as its consequence; for in that case every single act of obedience obviously involves a denial of Christ (Revelation 3:7). . . . Even in cases where the guilt of the government is extremely obvious, due consideration must still be given to the guilt which has given rise to this guilt. The refusal of obedience must . . . be a venture undertaken on one's own responsibility.

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (1949)

King on Disobedience

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law. . . . This would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly . . . and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

-Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" (1963)

Garrison on Proclaiming Moral Truths

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen-but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest-I will not equivocate-I will not excuse-I will not retreat a single inch-AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

-William Lloyd Garrison, The Liberator (1831)