Civil disobedience (CD) is normally understood as the refusal to follow a law that our consciousness deems unjust, harmful, or in a moral sense unacceptable. The big question here is: Shall I obey the law of my state or the law of my conscience? For example, shall I pay taxes that will go to killing others? Shall I obey going to war? And the questions that might immediately follow are: What is obedience? What is the price of disobedience? Am I willing to pay it? Can I live with those consequences (jail, stigmatization, being called a coward)?
In Allow the Water, Canadian activist Leonard Desroches points to the meaning of obedience as listening—the deepest possible listening. And in this case, listening to our conscience becomes profound obedience to a higher law, a law that honors the commandment of not hurting, not killing, not cooperating with falsehoods that declare to be acting for the good of the people when in fact they are rooted in self-serving interests or misguided idealism. It is not hard to see how relevant this act of deep listening is in today’s world, where technological disruption and mass media messaging threaten our capacity to think independently—and therefore listen to our inner voice—and lies are served as truth daily. (Climate change, nuclear war, and brain hacking are the greatest dangers we face today, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari).
Throughout the ages, brave men and woman have engaged in civil disobedience, changing the course of history. For example, Henry David Thoreau is remembered as a naturist and as the author of the essay “Civil Disobedience.” This was the first great declaration of the right and duty to commit civil disobedience, to set the demands of conscience above the demands of the law and the ruling authorities. As he said, ”I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.” People know what is good, he added, but they don’t do it. Thus it is crucial to change one’s life to move closer to our ideals—in other words, one must walk one’s talk. When he refused to pay taxes that would go, in part, to support the US war against Mexico and, in part, to support a judicial system that countenanced slavery, Thoreau refused*. He was taken to jail. It was this event that became the basis for his book and inspired countless people to refuse to go to war.
Civil disobedience and nonviolence have often walked hand in hand. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the font of a bus to a white passenger, she was breaking Alabama law and obeying the law of her conscience. She went to prison for it and she sparked the powerful Civil Rights Movement that abolished segregation in the American South. Needless to say, Martin Luther King engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience, as did Dorothy Day, Mahatma Gandhi, Daniel Berrigan, Stephen Biko in South Africa, and all those people who refused to go to Vietnam to kill or be killed. The list is long.
What would CD look like in present day context? We are no longer forced to enlist in the military—at least in Europe, with the exception of Greece, and the US—but the threat of nuclear proliferation still looms over our heads, though by some standards we in the western world are enjoying the most violence-free society ever. However, for peoples in other parts of the world, war is still raging and this affects us all. Sensitive as some of us are to the plight of refugees and immigrants, we are aware that much more could be done as a nation to alleviate their suffering. Civil disobedience in this case is following the dictates of our humane concerns and not of our comfort. It could be said that what is hurting us globally is the lack of integrity in our politicians, the indifference to environmental issues and the dangers inherent, as mentioned above, in the expansion of artificial intelligence. So how does this relate to CD? I think the field of action is actually our heart/minds.
Strange as this might sound, if it is true that all revolutions start in the minds of men, this is perhaps the most important moment in history to apply CD to the rule of the rampant authoritarianism, hierarchy, patriarchy, racism etc. that we bow down to. Deep listening must be used to see the implications of the pain caused by cutting down social services, promoting hatred of “the other” and denying health care for all. We need to free ourselves from conditioned responses that are harmful to others and inhumane. It is urgent that we educate ourselves and learn to work cooperatively towards a social order that cares for all peoples and their habitat. For that we must muster our courage to say no to what our consciousness says is unacceptable and cruel and dangerous to the lives of our children and the future of the planet. A call to creatively to non-cooperate with the status quo is crucial.
There are a great many uncertainties facing a person who decides to engage in civil disobedience, both inner and outer. In the traditional understanding of CD there are a number of steps to follow when contemplating this option. Primarily, mental stability needs to be considered and evaluated. The decision must stem from soul force, not from misguided idealism or personal psychological motivations. Preparation needs to happen in terms of day-to-day responsibilities to family, jobs, and so forth. Individuals must contact legal counsel for advice and be aware of their legal risks.
From the viewpoint of CD as heart/mind decolonization, the path might involve less fear and risk (maybe) but be equally transformative and impactful. Plus, most of us are so busy working, taking care of children, and so forth that we do not feel we have the time to implicate ourselves further. But there is a lot that can be done if we decide to care and raise our consciousness. The information is out there as are the relevant organizations (Campaign Nonviolence/Pace e Bene, World Beyond War, and Training for Change, for example). Who would have thought fifty years ago that we would end up having multiracial congresswomen in government? But this phenomenon is the result of a change in perception, social movements, and will-to-power. If enough people organize themselves to create “awareness chains” in their local communities and promote nonviolence training in schools, as another example, twenty years down the road bullying will be a thing of the past. As UNESCO says in its Seville Statement, “Just as wars begin in the minds of men, peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us.”
We at Pace e Bene/Campaign Nonviolence can offer pathways to advance the needed transformation. In a lifespan stretching thirty years, our organization has developed curricula to teach people the width and breadth of the nonviolent life. For the past five years, we have been organizing an annual week of nonviolent actions that has grown from 250 actions to 2,500 in 2018. It is clear to us that people need what we are offering: an alternative to the worn out trend of structural, cultural, and direct violence. A culture of peace is needed and it is imperative that we educate ourselves and others in the values, philosophy, and strategies of what that means and how to achieve it. We must refuse to silently witness the deterioration of values and allow the sacredness of life and human beings to be blown to shreds. It’s time to disobey all pressure to conform to injustice. Let’s cooperate to that end. Come join us.
Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.
Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.