Debating the Ethics of Civil Disobedience
(Two Opposing Views)
by Francis J. Beckwith and Paul Feinberg
(An article from the Christian Research Journal,
Spring, 1995, Page 32. Elliot Miller, Editor-in-Chief.)
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AND ABORTION:
A MODERN DEFENSE
by Francis J. Beckwith
Morally reflective people have wrestled with the question of whether
civil disobedience is ever morally justified, and if so, under what
circumstances?  Throughout history there have
been cases of civil disobedience that seem morally justified, including: the
early Christian church's refusal to obey the government's command not to
preach the gospel (Acts 4); Martin Luther King, Jr.'s refusal to obey
racially discriminating laws;  and Christians'
violation of religiously oppressive laws when smuggling Bibles and doing
Many pro-lifers who peacefully block abortion clinics defend civil
disobedience from a theological/biblical perspective, and some of their
critics thoughtfully argue against them from that perspective as well. I
maintain that pro-lifers have a right to violate antitrespassing laws
in order to rescue unborn children. I do not contend, however, that
pro-lifers have a moral obligation to do so, since it would be
physically impossible as well as entail significant personal risk to save
every oppressed person -- born or unborn -- by breaking the law. 
Moreover, I believe that prudential considerations -- those having to do
with whether rescuing as a strategy will do greater harm than good in
changing minds and laws -- may well lead pro-lifers to avoid civil
disobedience altogether during this stage of the abortion controversy in
My position differs from that of Randall Terry, the founder of Operation
Rescue (OR), the pro-life group that has given high visibility to pro-life
civil disobedience. Terry argues that Christians are obligated to violate
the law.  My position also differs from
certain pro-life critics of Terry, such as Norman Geisler and John and Paul
Feinberg, who argue that as the current law exists people have no right
to engage in pro-life civil disobedience. 
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) published a lecture entitled
"Resistance to Civil Government" in 1849. He argued that there
is a higher law than the civil law, and that the higher law must be obeyed
even if a penalty ensues. Thoreau's "resistance" pertained to
the government's endorsement of slavery and its "imperialist
war" against Mexico.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) developed the practice of nonviolent
civil disobedience which ultimately forced Great Britain to grant
independence to India in 1947.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was America's most visible
civil rights leader from 1955 until his assassination in April, 1968 in
Memphis, Tennessee. He advocated Ghandian nonviolent civil disobedience as
a means of bringing about social change. He was awarded the Nobel Prize
for Peace in 1964.
Randall Terry is the founder and director of Operation Rescue, a
nationally organized coalition of pro-life pastors and laypeople that
stages sit-ins around abortion clinics in an attempt to save the lives of
unborn children. Terry and his supporters believe Christians are obligated
to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience as a means of putting an end to
DEFENDING PRO-LIFE CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
There are many biblical instances of divinely approved civil
disobedience.  In Exodus 1:15-22 Pharaoh
commanded the midwives to slay every male Hebrew baby. But Hebrew midwives
Shiprah and Puah "feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had
told them to do; they let the boys live" (v. 17, NIV). As a result
"God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even
more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of
their own" (vv. 20-21).
In 1 Kings 18:4 wicked queen Jezebel "was killing off the LORD's
prophets." In defiance of her orders the prophet Obadiah "had
taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves...and had supplied
them with food and water" (v. 4). Although Scripture does not
explicitly approve of Obadiah's act, the context and manner of the Bible's
presentation implies that God condoned it (see vv. 13-15).
In Joshua 2:1-14 Rahab saved the lives of two Hebrew spies by hiding them
from soldiers who were searching for them. Randy Alcorn points out that
"the spies had no legal right to be in Jericho, while the soldiers had
every legal right to apprehend them." 
Other instances of divinely approved civil disobedience can be found in
Exodus 5, Daniel 3 and 6, Acts 4, and Revelation 12-13.
These and other biblical cases of justified civil disobedience seem to
have the following factors in common: (1) the state commands the believer to
do something contrary to the Word of God; (2) the command is disobeyed; and
(3) there is explicit or implicit divine approval of the refusal to obey the
Since the Bible permits or commands Christians to disobey the law only
when the state commands them to do evil or not to do good (Acts
5:28-29), some opponents argue that pro-life civil disobedience is wrong
because the state does not compel pro-life Christians to abort their
unborn children or to participate in abortions. This argument does not
succeed for at least two reasons.
First, by forbidding the rescuers to exercise Christ's command to
"love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 22:39), the government is
in fact compelling pro-life Christians to do evil (or at least not to do
good). Pro-life Christians believe the unborn child is their neighbor
and to rescue that child from certain death is a good thing.
Second, this objection fails if one believes that those who broke the law
when hiding Jews from the Holocaust did a good thing. Based on the reasoning
of those who oppose pro-life civil disobedience, those who rescued Jews from
the Holocaust were wrong since the state was not compelling most of them to
kill a Jew or to work in a concentration camp.
To better understand my view, consider a few objections to pro-life civil
disobedience. Since it is impossible in the allotted space to address every
objection in the abortion literature,  I have
chosen three that are the most forceful and popular.
Objection 1: The tactics of certain groups involved in civil
disobedience will lead to violence against clinics and doctors, since
anything can be justified to "save lives."
There are at least three problems with this argument. First, this
objection commits the "slippery-slope" fallacy. It occurs when a
person believes that if a certain thing is allowed, it will eventually
lead to something bad or far worse. For example, if I were to argue that
elementary schools should not ban fifth-graders from reading hard-core
pornography because it would eventually lead to banning good literature, I
would be committing the slippery-slope fallacy. I would be making the
mistake of assuming that there are no distinctions between forms of
literature and that we cannot make rational judgments about such matters.
When arguing against the rescuer, the person who commits this fallacy
mistakenly assumes that because something might lead to something
bad or far worse, it must lead to something bad or far worse. If
this reasoning were correct, however, then no action would ever be
justified, since it is possible that any action might (in a broad
logical sense) lead to something that is undesirable.
This objection incorrectly assumes that the pro-lifer cannot make
distinctions between degrees of law-breaking, and that once one allows for
peaceful civil disobedience, revolution must follow. The opponent to
pro-life civil disobedience has not proven that the civilly disobedient
pro-lifer is incapable of providing compelling reasons not to employ
Second, this objection apparently assumes that some rescuers may
believe that the end (saving unborn children) justifies the means
(including violence), but this assumption seems unwarranted. The rescuers'
view is simply that the command to save lives is greater than the command
not to trespass. Therefore, it is not necessarily true that the rescuers
believe they have the option of using violence whenever they think it may
achieve their end.
For example, AIDS activists may believe it is their duty to stop the
spread of AIDS. But it would not follow that they would be required to
kill every person who is currently diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, even though
that would achieve their ends. AIDS activists and pro-life activists do
not hold their positions in a moral vacuum; both groups hold to certain
other values (i.e., respect for life, the social order, laws, and so
forth) that also play a part in their moral decision-making.
Third, even if the rescuers' position were consistent with the use of
violence, this would not mean a rescuer would be morally required
to engage in such activity. That is to say, rescuers could grant to their
objector that they are morally justified in blowing up a clinic (if they
are certain beyond a reasonable doubt that no innocent persons would be
harmed) as well as attacking a physician who is about to, or is in the
process of, killing an unborn child. Rescuers, however, could argue that
out of prudential judgment there is no reason to resort to such tactics.
Simply because something is morally permissible does not mean it is
prudent to do it. Just because I can do something does not mean I must
do it. Consequently, even if the use of force were morally justified,
prudential judgment indicates that in the current stage of the abortion
debate it would be severely counterproductive.
Objection 2: Since spiritual death is worse than physical
death, rescuers should also block the entrances to churches that lead
people to spiritual death.
Problems with this objection can best be illustrated by the following
example: Suppose one had to choose between stopping one of the following
two fathers. Father A is taking his son to the woodshed to kill him with a
44-magnum handgun, but only after an hour of torturing him by covering his
body with battery acid. Father B is taking his son to the First Church of
the False God, where they will attend Sunday service and return home. Even
though spiritual death is ultimately worse than physical death, it seems
obvious that the rational person would choose to stop Father A, based on
First, physical death and spiritual death are fundamentally different.
Just as in the case of Father A, the physical death in abortion is
inflicted on someone by another and is irreversible. By contrast,
spiritual death is _self_-inflicted (people choose to reject God)
and can be reversible prior to physical death.
Second, one prevents physical death differently than one prevents
spiritual death. One cannot prevent the spiritual death of another by
blocking the entrances to churches. People choose to reject the Lord apart
from whether or not they will enter a building. One can only hope to
prevent the spiritual death of others by telling them the truth about the
Lord and praying for them. Consequently, the child who is led to a false
church by his or her parent will ultimately have the opportunity to make a
choice for himself or herself after reaching the age of accountability. On
the other hand, one can prevent an abortion (physical death) by blocking
the entrances to an abortion clinic.
Objection 3: Rescuing makes the pro-life movement look bad
and divides the movement.
This is a prudential judgment, not a moral argument. Rescuing may hurt
the pro-life movement in terms of popularity and group unity, but it may
still be morally justified. Prudential judgments and considerations should
never be underestimated, for they are important to political strategy. But
they are not decisive in moral judgment. For example, just as giving money
to a homeless person may be imprudent (that person may buy whiskey),
rescuing may be imprudent as well (it may undermine the long-term
political goals of the pro-life movement). Yet both acts may be morally
It seems that pro-life civil disobedience is morally justified from a
biblical perspective. When we look at the Bible, we find that it allows for
the violation of a law when -- whether directly or indirectly -- it
prohibits one from obeying a command of God. Since pro-life Christians are
required by the enforcement of trespassing laws not to love their unborn
neighbors, the law indirectly commands Christians not to obey Jesus' command
to love one's neighbor as oneself. Meanwhile, the objections to this view
are not compelling. In addition, since pro-life civil disobedience is not
morally obligatory, the question confronting the pro-life movement is
whether it is a prudent thing to do. The leadership of those groups that
engage in pro-life civil disobedience must answer this serious and important
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AND ABORTION:
AN OPPOSING VIEW
by Paul Feinberg
The apostle Paul said that a God-ordained duty of human civil governments
is to reward those who do good and punish evildoers (Rom. 13:1-7). When
governments fulfill their duty, it should be easy for Christians to support
them. When civil authorities fail in this duty, however, Christians find
themselves faced with a crisis of conscience. This is particularly the case
when a government grants its citizens a legal right to do something immoral.
Christians have wrestled with this problem throughout church history, and
unfortunately they have not always come to agreement on what the duty of a
disciple of Christ should be. Therefore, it should not surprise us that
Christians do not agree on what should be done concerning the liberal
abortion laws that are presently in place in North America.
I shall argue for a position that has two elements to it. First, civil
disobedience is not always wrong. Cases clearly exist in which it is our
duty to disobey the demands of our government. Second, however, conditions
that obligate Christians to acts of civil disobedience do not presently
exist in North America with respect to the abortion laws.
DEFINITIONS AND DISTINCTIONS
To understand my position it is necessary to give some important
definitions and make some critical distinctions. First, not all forms of
protest against a governments actions require civil disobedience. In fact,
means of protesting do exist within the laws of the land. What
characterizes civil disobedience is that it involves breaking a law passed
by the government.
Second, it is important to see that civil disobedience takes two forms.
Citizens may demonstrate their disagreement with certain laws by taking violent
action. Actions of this sort may result in personal injury, even death,
and/or the destruction of property as in the bombing or arson of abortion
clinics. Citizens may also show their displeasure with laws by engaging in nonviolent
action. In the civil rights struggle, African Americans refused to obey a
law that allowed them to sit only at the rear of buses. In the fight to stop
abortions, many pro-lifers also engage in nonviolent action by blocking the
entrances to abortion clinics to prevent the death of babies.
There is another important distinction related to civil disobedience. One
may disobey a law directly or indirectly. When civil
disobedience is direct, there is typically a law which, if obeyed, would
require one to do something immoral. Imagine a law that required one to
commit adultery with a neighbor's wife. Direct civil disobedience would
require that one disobey this law by refusing to become sexually involved
with the neighbor's wife.
Whereas direct civil disobedience involves the breaking of a law
when it compels me to sin or do evil, indirect civil
disobedience occurs when the law allows someone else to sin, and we
break a law or some laws to protest what they are doing. To protest a law's
permission of others to do what is immoral, we must break other laws that
are only indirectly related to this law in an effort to prevent others from
exercising their legal right. In the case of abortion, this means the
breaking of trespassing laws and laws that govern private property. Good
laws must be broken to protest bad or immoral laws in indirect civil
A DEFENSE OF THE NEGATIVE VIEW
Civil disobedience is not always wrong. It's difficult to see, however,
where Scripture or reason permits individuals to disobey immoral laws by
violent acts. The use of the sword is placed in the hands of civil
government, not individuals. Therefore, the murder of doctors or support
staff at abortion clinics is morally wrong. Nor is it helpful to attempt to
soften the immorality of such acts by pointing out the immorality of
abortion. Those who destroy innocent life in the womb and those who
take justice into their own hands through violence are both wrong.
On the other hand, nonviolent civil disobedience is sometimes justified.
God does not require blind obedience to our governments. In fact, when
government requires that I do something evil or immoral, I am obligated to
disobey that law.
Many such examples appear in the Bible. The midwives disobeyed Pharaoh's
order to kill all the Hebrew baby boys (Exod. 1:15-22). Rahab lied to
protect the Jewish spies who reconnoitered Canaan (Josh. 2:1-14). Daniel's
three friends disobeyed Nebuchadnezzar's command that everyone should fall
down and worship a pagan image on the plain of Dura (Dan. 3:1-18). Peter and
John refused to cease preaching the gospel, saying it is better to obey God
than man (Acts 5:29). Each case involved nonviolent direct civil
Therefore, I think one would be justified in disobeying any law that
required one to have an abortion. Repeatedly there are reports from the
People's Republic of China that families are allowed only one child. If a
woman gets pregnant again, the government demands that the fetus be aborted.
In this case I think the woman would be justified in disobeying the law
since it demands that she do something sinful.
By contrast, I do not think the conditions that justify civil
disobedience are present in North America at this time. No law requires one
to have an abortion. Laws only permit those who desire to have an abortion
to do so. Since these laws permit others to do something that is immoral and
wrong, the only nonviolent act of civil disobedience one can perform
requires the breaking of good laws to protest laws that are immoral. For
instance, one could block entrances to abortion clinics. Or one might try to
change a woman's mind about having an abortion by shouting arguments at her
or even calling her names -- actions she most likely would consider to be
harassment. In my opinion, then, the only act of civil disobedience
one can perform against the law as presently constituted in North America is
to indirectly disobey it, and I see no justification for that.
Before I turn to the justification for my view, let me guard it from some
common misconceptions. My position in no way entails the belief that laws
that permit others to do immoral acts are right or moral. Laws that are
wrong and immoral should be repealed as quickly as possible. Nor do I excuse
the guilt of those who act on such laws. They have sinned in the exercise of
their freedom, and they are guilty before God.
Furthermore, my view does not release me from the obligation to protest
the evil that is occurring. In fact, my obligation is to protest within
the limits of the law. In democracies like those in North America,
possible courses of action are many and varied. For instance, we can write
about and speak out against abortion. We can support pro-life candidates.
God may even call some of us to run for public office to address this ill.
Crisis pregnancy agencies are another way we can protest the sin of
abortion. I do not praise quiescence and passivity to evil.
The reasons for holding that civil disobedience is not always wrong, but
that it is not justified at present in North America, are as follows:
(1) Christians are called to obey civil authority. Though believers in
New Testament times lived under pagan civil rules, they were commanded to
obey their civil magistrates. Jesus told His disciples that they were to
render to Caesar the things that were Caesar's (Matt. 22:21). They were
even to pay their taxes -- taxes that were most certainly used in ways not
in keeping with Christian morality (Rom. 13:7). Paul said Christians are
to submit to their rulers (Titus 3:1). Peter concurred when he wrote that
we are to submit to every authority instituted among men (1 Pet.
2:13). This includes both the king and lesser officials (1 Pet. 2:17).
Again, however, the Bible does not require blind obedience to the
government. When the government demands that we do what is expressly
prohibited in Scripture, we must follow God rather than man. We are then
obligated to directly disobey that command. However, it is difficult for
me to see how Christians follow the commands of Scripture when they
disobey good laws because they do not like other laws that are
immoral but that do not obligate them to do evil.
(2) The cases of civil disobedience presented approvingly in the Bible
always involved nonviolent direct civil disobedience. In each example a
demand is made on individuals that requires their disobedience to
God. They disobey that demand. In no case is there an example of
indirect civil disobedience; nowhere is there anything that warrants
protest against moral evils that includes the breaking of good laws.
(3) God has not given individuals the duty or right to prevent others
from doing what is wrong or immoral. God has given civil governments the
duty of establishing a just and moral society. But even that has limits.
While God has created a universe that is governed by moral absolutes, He
has granted His creatures the freedom and ability to disobey Him (e.g.,
murder, lying, adultery), even though He could have prevented those sins.
Civil authorities are established to circumscribe evil. Even when the
laws are moral and just, they do not always succeed. People break the law.
It is surely more serious when the government is party to the evil
committed, but government is ultimately accountable to God. Let us not
forget that He will set things in order in the end. Nowhere, however, is
there a duty imposed on individuals to protest the evils of the civil
authority that includes the breaking of good laws. Therefore, I do not see
that civil disobedience is even permissible to prevent others from having
(4) Even if it were morally permissible, civil disobedience is
prudentially inadvisable. That is, whether we grant that one may or may
not protest liberal abortion laws by breaking good laws, it is simply not
wise to do so. The two most commonly heard prudential arguments are that
civil disobedience saves the lives of unborn babies and that in the long
run it will bring about the pro-lifers' goals. Let us examine these
Does civil disobedience really save lives? Whatever may happen in the
long run, so it is argued, it will help the baby that is scheduled for
abortion today. To shut down a clinic today saves the lives of any
babies that were to be aborted at that clinic today. Moreover, abortion
rates go down in that area for a reasonable period of time.
Arguments of this sort are difficult to evaluate. It is true that no
babies are aborted at a closed clinic. However, is there really a decline
in abortions? Could it be that women simply go to an area where there is
no protest and have an abortion? How can one be sure that the reason a
woman decides against an abortion is the closing of a clinic? More to the
point, how can we be sure that some women who are initially neutral on
abortion do not become so upset by the actions of pro-lifers that at some
point they either have an abortion themselves or come to support access to
it for others? It must be remembered that we are not simply trying to save
the life of a baby, we are trying to convince and, in some cases, change
the ideas some people have about abortion.
Will civil disobedience bring about pro-life goals? Some argue that it
will bring the issue of abortion to the attention of the public, and the
arrest of protesters will force the courts to deal with the issue. All of
this, it is argued, will result in the limiting or elimination of abortion.
There is no question that civil disobedience will bring the matter of
abortion to the public's attention. It is not clear, however, that it will
result in the pro-lifers' desired end. Will those who fall in the middle of
this debate -- those who are undecided on the matter -- be moved to the
pro-life side by their perception of such tactics? Or will it result in the
reinforcement of negative stereotypes of the pro-life movement?
Furthermore, I am concerned about a number of other consequences of those
who practice civil disobedience. Will it create a climate where those who
are at the fringes of the pro-life movement feel justified in taking violent
action, like bombing clinics and killing doctors? And as more and more
pro-lifers are arrested, how will the overload on the court system be
handled? Our court and prison systems are already overloaded. To
aggravate that problem is a serious matter. There is definitely the
possibility that those guilty of more serious crimes and who constitute a
more imminent danger to society will have to be released.
Finally, does the breaking of good laws foster disrespect for the rule of
law and ultimately raise the specter of anarchy? One cannot say with
certainty, but it does raise this troubling prospect.
BECKWITH'S REBUTTAL TO FEINBERG
I agree with much of what my friend Paul Feinberg has said. I believe he
is correct in saying that (1) biblically, civil disobedience is justified in
some circumstances and not in others; (2) the Christian has an obligation to
obey the laws of the state except when those laws require that one directly
violate biblical norms; and (3) even if nonviolent civil disobedience is
morally permissible, one must question whether the activity is prudent.
I believe, however, that we have two points of contention: (1) Feinberg
stresses abortion as a sin performed by the mother, whereas I stress
abortion as an evil against her unborn child; and (2) Feinberg seems to be
arguing that one may violate only evil laws, whereas I believe it is
permissible to violate a "good" law (trespassing law) if used in
an evil way.
THE UNBORN CHILD AS VICTIM
The first contention is evident in Feinberg's claim that "one would
be justified in disobeying any law that required one to have an
abortion...," but "no law requires one to have an abortion. Laws
only permit those who desire to have an abortion to do so." Therefore,
"the only nonviolent act of civil disobedience one can perform...is to indirectly
disobey them, and I see no justification for that."
The pro-life objection to abortion, however, is not that it is merely an
immoral act performed by a moral agent (the pregnant woman), but rather, it
is an act of unjustified homicide against an innocent, vulnerable, and
defenseless human person by means of crushing, dismembering, suffocating,
and/or burning. Consequently, it is wrong to characterize pro-life civil
disobedience as merely trying to prevent a fellow citizen from performing an
immoral act. Indeed, it is an attempt to rescue innocent human persons from
a brutal and morally unjustified execution. Feinberg's stress on the
mother's sin rather than on the victimization of her unborn child skews the
nature of pro-life civil disobedience.
VIOLATING GOOD LAWS
Feinberg also argues that the Christian is permitted to break only laws
that directly require one to violate a biblical norm. Laws that do not
directly require the Christian to do evil should not be violated. I believe
this argument is flawed.
First, Jesus commanded us to "love your neighbor as yourself"
(Luke 10:27b). The government, however, by forbidding Christians to save the
lives of the unborn, is telling them not to love their neighbor as
themselves. Doesn't this law violate a command of God?
Suppose Feinberg replies, "The government is merely forbidding
pro-lifers from disobeying trespassing laws. It is not telling them not to
love their neighbor." But isn't this more insidious than a law that
forbids them from loving the unborn by saving their lives? Trespassing laws
are being used to force Christians to disobey a command of God, just as
perjury laws were used in Nazi Germany to force those who hid Jews from
certain death to tell the truth under oath as to the Jews' whereabouts.
Based on Feinberg's position, one could characterize the situation in Nazi
Germany this way: "The government was just forbidding its citizens to
disobey good perjury laws but not directly forbidding them to rescue
Jews." Consequently, according to this reasoning, those who rescued
Jews from the Holocaust were wrong, since the state was not compelling most
of them to directly kill a Jew.
Second, how is one to evaluate whether a law is good or bad? Is it how
the statute is written and intended by a legislator? Or is it how the
statute is applied in practice by law enforcement, the courts, and the
executive branch? It seems that Feinberg thinks it is the legislative
branch's written text and not its application that is the arbiter in morally
evaluating a law. But he has provided no reason to believe why that
is the case.
Even though Feinberg and I disagree over the issue of when civil
disobedience is justified, what we hold in common is far more important:
abortion ought to be illegal since it is unjustified homicide. I applaud
Feinberg's important work in this area.
About the Author:
Francis J. Beckwith, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy,
Culture, and Law, and W. Howard Hoffman Scholar, Trinity Graduate School,
Trinity International University (Deerfield, IL), California Campus and
Senior Research Fellow, Nevada Policy Research Institute. His books include Politically
Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Baker,
1993), Matters of Life and Death: Calm Answers to Tough Questions about
Abortion and Euthanasia (Baker, 1991), and The Abortion Controversy:
A Reader (Jones & Bartlett, 1994).
FEINBERG'S REBUTTAL TO BECKWITH
The discussion between Beckwith and myself demonstrates that a variety of
positions may be taken on the question of abortion and civil disobedience.
Actually, though, our views are quite close in several respects. For
instance, we agree that civil disobedience is not always wrong for
the Christian; we agree that pro-lifers have no obligation to commit
acts of civil disobedience; and we agree that such acts are most likely
imprudent in the struggle to save lives today.
There is, however, an important point of disagreement between us. It is
over the question of whether pro-lifers have a right to commit acts of
nonviolent civil disobedience to prevent others from having abortions.
Beckwith thinks they do; I disagree. In this short reply, I will focus on
the two arguments Beckwith offers for his view.
The first argument is drawn from biblical examples of civil disobedience
that are presented with divine approval (Exod. 1:15-22; 5; Josh. 2:1-14; 1
Kings 18:3-15; Dan. 3, 6; Acts 4; Rev. 12 13). In my judgment, however, none
of these cases parallel what pro-lifers are doing today. The biblical
examples involve direct civil disobedience. That is, believers are
commanded by their government to do something that disobeys God, and they
refuse to comply. None of these cases involve indirect civil
disobedience. Nowhere is there an example of believers breaking good laws to
prevent others from doing wrongs permitted by their government. Thus, I
think this argument fails to prove its intended point.
Beckwith's second argument at first seems to offer more promise, but in
the end it is equally flawed. He defends the right to civil disobedience
based on what might be called the Good Samaritan principle, which requires
that I love my neighbor as myself. The unborn is my neighbor. To love him or
her I must try to save that life. Since the state is preventing me from
following God's command, I am justified in breaking the law so I may love my
This argument fails in the end for these reasons:
(1) While this argument tries to avoid the direct/indirect
distinction with respect to civil disobedience, it does not. Disobedience
is not directed against any law that requires me to do anything. It is
against good laws to protest laws that permit others to do what is wrong.
(2) Love for one's neighbor is a very general command. To be followed,
specific actions must be performed. Beckwith assumes that breaking good
laws to protest bad ones is a specific action that falls under this
general command. This argument, however, will not convince anyone who does
not agree with this assumption. Moreover, this argument focuses quite
narrowly on the unborn child who is about to be aborted. It does not take
into account that such acts may lead to an increased disregard for
the law or even anarchy. It does not take into account that such actions may
lead to overcrowding in our prisons and the early release of a dangerous
criminal who may murder my neighbor. Therefore, in determining what
constitutes loving one's neighbor, we cannot just attend to the unborn.
We must take into account a broader group of people.
(3) The general command to love one's neighbor is used to
disobey the specific command that we are to obey and submit to
civil authority. As I have said, I do not think this requires uncritical
or complete obedience. However, neither do I think it authorizes actions
that require the breaking of good laws so one can protest or prevent
others from exercising a right that their government gives them and that
(4) I do not think my view prevents me from praising those who hid Jews
during the Holocaust. Beckwith's claim ignores the direct/indirect
distinction with regard to civil disobedience. The Nazi government
demanded that individuals turn in Jews for deportation and probably death.
They disobeyed that demand. Their disobedience was direct. But
would we think it morally praiseworthy for someone who wanted to protect
the Jews to break into the houses of informers and detain them so they
could not aid the government?
Let me close by reiterating two points. First, I do not believe abortion
is morally right. It is a terrible wrong. But it must be fought in a
morally justifiable way. Second, I am not saying we have no obligation to
oppose abortion. I have simply argued that our opposition must be within
About the Author
Paul Feinberg, Th.D., is Professor of Biblical and Systematic
Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is co-author of Ethics
for a Brave New World (Crossway Books, 1993, with John S. Feinberg) and Introduction
to Philosophy (with Norman Geisler).
 See Randy Alcorn, Is Rescuing
Right? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990); John Feinberg and
Paul Feinberg, Ethics in a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway
Books, 1993), 91-98; Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from the
Birmingham Jail," The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral
Philosophy, ed. James Rachels (New York: Random House, 1989), 236-53;
Randall Terry, Operation Rescue (Springdale, PA: Whitaker, 1988);
Ernest Van Den Haag, "The Dilemma of Civil Disobedience," Philosophy:
The Quest for Truth, ed. Louis P. Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1989),
433-42; and John Rawls, "The Justification of Civil Disobedience,"
The Right Thing to Do, 254-70.
 They are called supererogatory acts
-- acts in which one has a right to engage but not an obligation since they
involve great personal risk. For more on this subject, see Hadley
Arkes, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and
Justice (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 288-308.
 Terry, 99-111.
 Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics:
Options and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 239-56; and
Feinberg and Feinberg, 91-98.
 For an excellent overview of the biblical
passages, see Alcorn, 4-56.
 Ibid., 42.
 Some of the strongest objections to
pro-life civil disobedience can be found in Geisler, 239-56; and Feinberg
and Feinberg, 91-98.
 See the recent symposium on this
issue: "Killing Abortionists: A Symposium," First Things: A
Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life (December 1994): 24-31.
 John and Paul Feinberg do an excellent
job of weighing these prudential considerations in Ethics in a Brave New
End of document, CRJ0197A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"Operation Rescue: Debating the Ethics of Civil Disobedience
Two Opposing Views"
release A, August 31, 1994
R. Poll, CRI
A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the
preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.)
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