The central thesis of Thoreau’s treatise “Civil Disobedience” is that, simply stated, unjust laws are meant to be broken. The integrity of moral truth somehow derived by a consultation with one’s inner-soul, is of much greater importance and power than any legislated law or socially instituted moral precept.
Such a viewpoint is not only politically combative, but it is weighted with so much ambiguity that those who have criticized civil disobedience and non-violent protest as socially disruptive and potentially treasonous actions find credible traction for their rebuttals.
One might counter Thoreau’s easy acceptance of his own soul-based morality as a law higher than nay that man can create, and his insistence that to serve justice, unjust law must be broken by honest people, with the very real fact that laws and legislative bodies are meant to apply to the civil, rather than subjective, sense of justice and morality. However, it is precisely the conflict between these two ideas: personal and civic morality, that produced Thoreau’s fiery manifesto and also began his idea of “civil disobefdiene” wherein an unjust law would e broken by a just man in order that others might come to understand the original law as unjust.
Although such behavior circumvents, and , indeed, challenges the sanctity of the common law and the political p[processes by which a democracy such as America has chosen by common consent to govern itself, in actual practice, civil disobedience has, in fact led to social change and cultural evolution which has resulted in the betterment of both political policies and cultural ideas.
A great case in point is the example set by Dr. Martin Luther King who was a leader during the civil rights movement of the nineteen sixties in America. The expression of non-violent activism by King relied as much on spiritual conviction as that of Thoreau. This conviction brought about a similar adherence to the concept of breaking “unjust” laws as a method of civil disobedience. King, like Thoreau, found justification for the breaking of social laws by the invocation of Divine Power.
The result was that King experienced some difficulty in making his racial and social activism truly universal, although such a desire to do so formed an underlying precept of his overall strategy for social and political change. In a rather unique twist of philosophy, King opted to not only resist unjust laws non-violently, but tor each out to his so-called opponents: white racists with language of reconciliation, good-will, and fellowship. King’s invocations of “the good to be achieved” (Wolf, and Rosen, 2005) were powerful counterparts to his criticisms of the social conditions he sought to transform.
Since King’s goal was to “to bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible” (Wolf, and Rosen, 2005) his reliance on civil disobedience and the breaking of unjust laws by Divine justification requires a deeper examination. Such revelation is possible due to King’s extensive writings; in particular his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” a famous document where he addresses the concern of his fellow clergymen regarding the breaking of laws by civil activists.
The letter repeatedly appeals to a shared sense of religion; King also cites Biblical examples to bolster his argument. Responding to the criticism that his actions and the actions of his followers, even though non-violent in practice, ultimately resulted in violence on the behalf of the white Southerners who beat and jailed the protestor (and sometimes lynched or otherwise killed African Americans), King compared the fight for civil rights with the fight of Jesus to spread the gospel.
King’s appeal via religion and spirituality was based in a desire for unity and understanding. While he denied accusations of extremity or of inciting violence, he admitted that the impulse for civil rights was, by his reckoning, the will of God. King advises that the will of all people is toward freedom and equality. By forwarding the notion that civil rights are an inevitable outgrowth of both God’s will and the flow of history, King is, in effect, offering a justification for his tactics and philosophies regarding civil rights.
The justification for the elements of passive resistance which had led to violent confrontation is also based in King’s ideas of justice. King’s idea is that God’s law is the highest law and that man’s laws may be broken when they obviously disagree with or even insult God’s law.
With the belief that God’s Law is the highest law and that history shows that all people will struggle for freedom and liberty, and by appealing to the rational sense of justice and the emotional and spiritual senses of brotherhood and love, King attains justification for his actions but does not seek to evade or subvert laws outright. An examination of King and other civil-rights activists who relied upon civil disobedience reveals certain universal traits among the different incarnations of non-violent activism. Among these universal traits is a belief in the breaking of “unjust” laws for the purpose of bringing about social and political change.
This belief is often, if not always, accompanied by an ambiguous but firmly articulated that such a braking of laws is based in Divine Will. Another core belief seems to be that non-violence rather than violence is, in fact, more in keeping with humanity’s organic nature. This idea often results in a corresponding belief that the violence evident in human society is the result of a kind of perversion of humanity’s natural attributes into an unnatural and unhealthy state.
Against this backdrop, it is very difficult if not impossible to envision the philosophies of non-violent activism as we know them today as anything short of a religious and spiritual philosophy with extremely pragmatic roots in social and political activism.
Not only is the spiritual aspect of non-violent philosophy seemingly universal in the three historical figures studied in this short discussion, but the attributes of spirituality embraced by non-violent activists are, in themselves, of great and abiding interest to any observer. A discussion of this aspect alone would probably reveal that the philosophy of non-violence has existed as a spiritual conviction at various times in various cultures throughout the entire history of humanity.
Wolf, Charles, and Brian Rosen. (2005) “Public Diplomacy: Lessons from King and Mandela.” Policy Review (2005): 63+.