Civil Disobedience in the Image of God

by Dan Koch

In 1964, civil rights groups exerted nonviolent pressure on then-president Lyndon Johnson, persuading him to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress.  This move was politically complicated and costly to both LBJ and the Democratic Party. It dan-jm-colorresulted in a major shift in both parties. Pro-segregation Southern Democrats began leaving the party en masse for the GOP, yet few today would question the moral rightness of this politically difficult move.  Martin Luther King, Jr. and associated civil rights groups and leaders exerted pressure on LBJ through televised speeches at the 1964 Democratic National Convention and organized marches, lunch counter sit-ins, and more.

This history is well-worn territory, but what exactly were those activists doing, and what are we doing today, theologically speaking, when we peacefully and nonviolently demonstrate or protest?  Are we using the most effective or the more loving means available to us as humans to fight against unjust laws, leaders, or practices?  Are we imitating God by acting the way He has chosen to act in the world?  Are we taking part with God in the only way God can act, given His nature?

There are at least three possibilities. Using the best means available to us, imitating God’s chosen way of love, or taking part in God’s essential nature, mapping onto different views of God’s sovereignty, character and action in the world.

1. The first is simply the traditional view of God as completely omnipotent and omniscient. He can do anything that is not logically impossible, and He knows everything that is knowable, including the future.

2. The second is the view put forward by John Sanders that God voluntarily self-limits His own power. Although He could act unilaterally and coercively against his creatures, in love He chooses, before creating the universe, to never do this.  (“Before” is used not necessarily in its temporal sense, but more accurately in the sense of logically prior.)

3. Essential Kenosis, the view of Thomas Jay Oord, contends that God cannot act coercively at all, even if “He wanted to,” because it is part of God’s unchanging, necessary, and essential nature to be self-limiting and self-emptying (kenosis). Selfless, loving persuasion is the only means available to God to act in the world because it is God’s essential and necessary nature to be kenotic.

Applying these three views of God to our scenario above, we find some differences, namely in what exactly we are doing when we act non-violently and persuasively toward some end:

1. In the traditional view, God knows everything and can do anything.  He could unilaterally act to bring an end to segregation by convincing LBJ supernaturally that he simply must get the Civil Rights Act passed.  Furthermore, God could convince enough Senators and Congresspeople supernaturally in their own minds to vote Yes on the bill.  But, for whatever reason, in God’s wisdom, He does not do this.  Rather, the mystery of human moral life is that it falls to us, His creatures, to act in a way in accordance with His loving will. Love is at least a major aspect of God’s character; on this view, God is also Just, Holy, Sovereign, perhaps, we could say, in equal measure or status. When King and others acted nonviolently, they were acting in a loving and moral way, according to God’s will.

2. In Sander’s view, before creating the world, God limited Himself to not know the future, to not coerce His creatures to do anything against their will.  From that point on (to imperfectly use temporal parlance again), God can only act in non-coercive, lovingly persuasive ways.  When the civil rights activists acted in a similar way, they were joined to God, co-workers with Him in this world He created, lovingly acting in the same way that God has chosen to act.  This is indeed a beautiful picture of cooperation between creator and creature.

3. In Oord’s view of essential kenosis, we can take this progression one step further.  It isn’t that God chose to be self-limiting and kenotic.  It is that God is necessarily kenotic, necessarily self-limiting or selfless. The only way God can act toward his creation is through non-coercive persuasion.  So, when we act nonviolently toward some end, it isn’t simply that we are acting in the only way God acts today. Rather, we are taking part in the divine nature itself. We are aligning ourselves with the defining characteristic of what it means to be God.

One way of delineating between options (2) and (3) would be to say that in Sanders’ view, God does the just and loving thing to limit Himself.  Therefore, when humans act in the same manner as God, they too are doing the just and loving thing.  In Oord’s view, God has no choice but to limit Himself; it flows from his essential nature.  And, therefore, when humans act in the same way God acts, yes, we are doing the just and loving thing, insofar as justice and love flow from God.  But, additionally, we are acting in the only way available to God.

Both views (2) and (3) provide a more robust grounding of nonviolent action than does view (1). It is worth exploring in greater detail the consequences of how we might view human non-coercive action in light of essential kenosis.

Dan Koch earned his Bachelor’s in Philosophy from the University of Washington, and is the host of the political Depolarize! Podcast. He is also co-host of the theological Reconstruct podcast, and lives with his wife in Seattle, WA.

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