Is civil disobedience appropriate for religious leaders?

Priest Daniel Alliët is this week’s guest in Kerk & Leven. They invited him to answer the question: Are acts of civil disobedience appropriate for religious leaders?

Read the full text below.

Daniel Alliet

Priest in Brussels, defending undocumented migrants in particular

“Are religious authorities promoting civil disobedience? What will be next? Will we see men in cassocks and Roman collar throwing soup on paintings in museums or blocking access to motorways?” the French medium La Croix states so defiantly in its 2 December 2022 edition, after a remarkable group of activists – a rabbi, a Catholic bishop, a Protestant minister, an imam and a Buddhist monk – took part in the occupation of a petrol station in protest against a TotalEnergies oil project in Uganda and Tanzania.

Generally, a society needs rules and you have to abide by them. “The (basic) law is not a scrap of paper,” Leo Tindemans once exclaimed. However, is it true that in a democracy, everyone should always obey the law? If so, we would not be where we are today. Women’s suffrage came about after “disobedience” to male authority – up to and including a hunger strike – by a group of English women. Slavery only got abolished by (unlawful) uprisings. The right to strike followed ‘unlawful’ strikes. Think of the actions of priest Daens and of socialists in the late nineteenth century. Black people in the United States only got civil rights after a lot of ‘illegal’ actions, first and foremost those of Rosa Parks. Indians got just salt prices only after Ghandi’s massive illegal Salt March and hundreds of thousands of ‘civil disobedient’ poor.

One could argue that all those ‘civil disobedient’ stood up for more just rules. They acted not for personal gain, not by force and only after ordinary legal means proved inadequate. With many others, political philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that it is fortunate that those people are there, because without them democracy scleroses, falls hopelessly behind changes and advancing insight, and risks becoming extremely unjust, in short, the opposite of democracy.

Thus Jesus healed on Sabbath, an undeniable act of civil-religious disobedience. The then almost 16-year-old Greta Thunberg disregarded compulsory schooling when she decided to stand at the Swedish Parliament every day until the elections in 2018, with her self-made banner ‘Skolstrejk for klimatet’. And so there also came that occupation of that petrol station against the tragedy of TotalEnergies.

And yes, that included ‘that religious quintet’. Is that kind of civil disobedience appropriate for religious leaders? And sometimes it is added whether it is ‘expedient’. Well, the Greek philosopher Socrates chose to drink the poison cup instead of having to follow what he considered unjust rules. It was a Buddhist monk who was the first to publicly set himself on fire against the US war in Vietnam. Jesus healed on Sabbath – an unmistakable act of civil-religious disobedience, which helped cause him to be condemned and crucified. In his wake, many Christians refused to worship the emperor as a god.

Closer to our time, there is the example of a Belgian bishop who protested against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and took in 20 undocumented women to call for a different regularisation policy. When 100 desperate and supposedly “double illegal” persons occupied the Beguinage Church in Brussels during the Corona crisis, the parish did not turn them in. Even the chief rabbi, an imam and representatives of humanism openly supported them.

So are such actions inappropriate or inappropriate? Granted, nobody has a monopoly on truth and you always run the risk of defending a wrong point of view. That does not take away from the fact that every human being has his or her own conscience and that not (daring to) act is by no means a neutral choice either. This also applies to religious leaders, who in certain circumstances may judge that they have to take action, as human beings and as citizens. Their fait may make them feel extra motivated.