Civil Disobedience

By Suzanne Deakins


“One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” – Martin Luther King Jr.


“Civil disobedience is a sacred duty when the state becomes lawless and corrupt.” – Ghandi


“Historically the most terrible things — war genocide, and slavery — have resulted not from disobedience but from obedience.” – Howard Zinn


Civil disobedience is the active, professed refusal to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government, or of an occupying power. Civil disobedience is a symbolic or ritualistic violation of the law, rather than a rejection of the system as a whole. By its very nature civil disobedience is meant to be nonviolent. This is the method used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

The goal of civil obedience is to attempt to convert your opponent by exhibiting the justice of your cause. Active nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate your opponents, but to win their friendship and understanding.

Three Principles of Civil Disobedience

The goal of civil disobedience is to win over your opponents in a nonviolent manner. Your nonviolent actions should show that you respect the law but are refusing to accept unjust laws that target certain classes of society and are discriminatory in their application. You are not opposing the rule of law. You are not trying to win an argument. You are trying to show others the injustice of a particular law or government command.

First Principle:

Maintain respect for the rule of law even while disobeying the specific law that you perceive as unjust.

Nonviolent activists do not seek to undermine the rule of law, but to repeal unjust laws. Gandhi and King’s demands were clear and simple: laws that discriminate and disenfranchise must be abolished. Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and other outcasts such as African-Americans, women and GLBTQs do not want special rights; they simply want the rights that all others enjoy.

All legislators should recognize that keeping discriminatory laws that many reasonable people protest erodes respect for the law.

Second Principle:

Plead guilty to any violation of the law.

As Gandhi explains: “I am here to . . . submit cheerfully to the highest penalty that can be inflicted upon me for what in law is a deliberate crime and what appears to me to be the highest duty of a citizen.” Gandhi instructed his disciples to take the penance of their oppressors upon themselves. Gandhi’s tactics were a form of moral and political martial arts. Some of Gandhi’s judges felt as if they were the ones charged and convicted. Thoreau said that his one night in jail made the state look foolish.

Third Principle:

Attempt to convert your opponent by demonstrating the justice of your cause. Active nonviolence does not seek, as Gandhi says, to defeat or humiliate your opponents, but to win their friendship and understanding.


Staying Safe

Safety is a major concern during any protest. Before you participate in a demonstration of civil disobedience or a protest walk, practice and talk about what could happen. Think about solutions to situations where someone might pour water on you, kick, hit, or spit on you, and other possible dangers. Visualizing what can happen and different scenarios of your reaction will help you stay calm and safe.

Look your opponent in the eye. Be pleasant and don’t react in kind to angry words and actions. Violence in words, physical actions, and body language only begets more violence. You want to convince opponents of your humanity and your desire to see all are treated in a respectful and humane manner

The force of a crowd gathered to protest has energy that is always greater than the sum of the individuals participating. It can feel as if your identity is the crowd. Hold onto the idea that you are a person seeking respect for all humanity and life. Remain as calm as possible and respectful to all that gather or appear to be opponents of the ideals and laws you are protesting.

Each time we stand up for what we know to be morally right and ethical for all, we are creating a ripple in consciousness. Like the principle of a butterfly flapping its delicate wings, our commitment as individuals and as a community can change the very nature of unjust laws across the Earth.  What we do is for the children of tomorrow and for the recognition of the primacy of Spiritual Truth being the foundation for the equality of all humanity.