Civil disobedience: breaking the law for the sake of the poor

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If you do not move from this place, you will be arrested!” It was one of those moments in life—a turning point. At 52 years old, I’d never even had a speeding ticket, let alone been arrested. I felt calm as I replied, “I understand that, officer, but, with respect, I’m not going to move.”

My journey into civil disobedience had begun.

Why I broke the law

Image supplied

How had it come to this? That an otherwise law-abiding citizen would consider civil disobedience—delibe­rately breaking the law—in pursuit of justice? Here’s my reasoning: Governments make the laws on which society runs. Most of those laws are very useful and help our society operate smoothly. Sometimes, however, governments make laws that benefit only a few powerful groups to the detriment of the many. The basis of civil disobedience is for me, quite simple: if a law or system harms people, especially those at the margins, then there is a mandate to disobey.

The deteriorating climate situation is already causing immense harm to those on the margins, whether they be Australians facing drought and bushfires, Bangladeshis losing their land to sea-level rise or future generations who will have a much less habitable planet. In this context, my government’s stubborn refusal to deal with the situation—instead enacting policies that exacerbate it—is for me, reason enough to engage in civil disobedience. Others have come to the same conclusion, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Civil disobedience activists are canaries in the coalmine of society, saying, “We have a problem here. We need to recognise it and act differently.” Activists are willing to risk arrest, pay fines and possibly even go to jail to get that message through.

The particular action for which I was arrested was against a corporation facilitating the controversial new Adani coal mine. Along with other activists, we sat in the lobby and asked for a meeting with the regional manager. That was refused. The police were called. Several of us declined to “move on” and were arrested. Over the next several hours at the Brisbane watch-house, we were photographed, fingerprinted and given bail conditions, after which we walked free.

The author being arrested after refusing police directions to “move on”. Image Supplied.

Aren’t Christians meant to obey the law?

Christians are often seen as people who follow the rules and “do the right thing”. They tend to support the status quo. Many Christians support this stance by pointing to Paul’s exhortation in the Bible to “submit to the authorities” (Romans 13:5). However, if we define a Christian as someone who follows the teachings of Christ, we get a more nuanced view of obeying (and disobeying) the law. While Jesus generally taught His followers to obey the Roman law (see, for example, Matthew 17:24–27), He also indicated there is a hierarchy of laws, with some more important than others. When He was asked which is the greatest law, He replied that it is to “love God.” The second most important, He added, is to “love your neighbour” (Matthew 22:34–40), defined in the famous Good Samaritan parable very broadly, as anyone who is in need (Luke 10:25–37).

Therefore, it should come as no surprise to find Jesus challenging minor laws (such as the detailed Sabbath work prohibitions—see Luke 13:10) in order to keep the more important law of “loving your neighbour”. In the most famous incident of this sort, Jesus broke the law that allowed exploitative commerce in the temple. His civil disobedience involved overturning the money changers’ tables, an act which, not surprisingly, led the authorities to attempt an arrest (Mark 11:12–18).

Eventually, of course, He was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Jesus practised civil disobedience and paid a very heavy price for doing so.

I therefore felt on solid theological ground when I broke the law for the sake of the poor affected by climate change. Several weeks after our arrest, we were handed our penalty. Far from being crucified, we received a $200 fine.

Civil disobedience through history

There are many examples of governments, usually under the influence of powerful vested interests, making harmful laws, and those laws being resisted by ordinary people:

  • Colonisation: From the eighteenth through to the early twentieth century, the British in India enacted unjust monopoly laws favouring British business. Mohandas Gandhi and others disobeyed the laws and eventually saw the British quit India in 1947.
  • Civil rights: Up to the 1960s in the US, there were unjust laws enabling racial segregation. Activists, many of them people of faith, deliberately disobeyed the laws and eventually saw the dismantling of (formal) segregation.

Environmental degradation

In the 1980s, corporations gained approval to dam the Franklin River in Tasmania’s wild south-west. Acti­vists protested and blockaded, and eventually the river was protected.

In each of these examples, it was the civil disobedience of activists that brought unjust laws into the public spotlight. While, at the time, their protests were highly controversial, many now celebrate their actions as heroic. Other civil disobedience campaigns are ongoing, such as the “Love Makes A Way” actions by Christians fighting for a more humane refugee policy, and the struggle by Christian activists to protect the rights of the unborn.


Will being arrested achieve anything?

After my first arrest and conviction in Brisbane, a month later, along with a dozen other people of faith, I travelled to the site of the Adani coal mine itself in central Queensland. There we undertook a peaceful, symbolic blockade of the workers’ camp. After several hours, six of us were arrested. We were all convicted of disobeying a police direction, with some also attracting a trespass charge.

I’m under no illusion that our small efforts at civil disobedience will bring corporations and governments to their senses. However, there are still two powerful reasons for me to carry out these actions.

Firstly, the arrests helped me overcome an inner barrier—that I have to follow all of society’s rules. I now have a sense of personal autonomy—that I can use my conscience to determine whether something is right or wrong, rather than slavishly obeying everything the authorities say. As Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1849: “Must the citizen ever resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has man a conscience, then?”

Secondly, I hope that my actions help to normalise civil disobedience in the hearts and minds of others. That’s one reason I wore a business suit for the arrests, and why my colleagues and I pointed out to observers that we take time off our regular paid work to do these actions. None of us are “hippies”, but ordinary, middle-class people who are no longer prepared to watch this crisis unfold without doing something. If this approach is effective, and many more ordinary people do get involved, then change will come.

Principles and practice of civil disobedience

If you feel you might be approaching a situation where civil disobedience is called for, consider these tips:

#1. Don’t act alone. Work with friends who feel as strongly about the issue as you do. There is strength in numbers, and you can encourage each other when things get tough—like sitting in a cold police cell!

#2. Try legal methods first. Sign a petition, visit your local politician, write an article for the paper. But, if at some point you feel the time is right to escalate . . .

#3 Plan carefully. First decide the message: what change you want to see and why you are acting this way. Your own story can powerfully attract others to the cause. Next, decide who you want to target your message at: a particular politician, a corporation or the general public? Finally, decide who will take the various roles necessary: police liaison, taking photos, speaking to the media and, if you think it appropriate, several people willing to be arrested. While arrests aren’t imperative, they are very useful in gaining the public’s attention.

Almost all civil disobedience actions will use a code of conduct that requires participants to act non-­violently and respectfully at all times, and not to damage property. Christian actions may additionally encourage participants to “love your enemies” by not demonising the police or security. In our case, that was made easy, as the police acted professionally and with restraint. In fact, a number of the police officers seemed sympathetic to our cause.

I’m scared—can’t someone else do it?

Like most things we fear, the danger of arrest and conviction is overplayed. Sometimes after an arrest protesters are released without charge. Even if charged and convicted, usually the first couple of offences do not have a conviction recorded by the magistrate, meaning you won’t have a criminal record. Even if a conviction is recorded, it has few implications for most people. Some employers will even applaud your courage. Most countries won’t deny a visa based on a conviction for peaceful protest—they are more likely to be concerned about convictions for drug-related or violent offences. (But please don’t take this generalisation as legal advice—the situation in each jurisdiction will vary.)

I appreciate that many people, for health or family reasons, don’t feel able to engage in civil disobedience. However, I have less time for the argument used by others: that they are not personally affected. If most of us wait until we are being affected, it will simply be too late. We will have reached tipping points that will make the damage irreversible. Prominent critic of the Nazi regime and Protestant pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous words come to mind:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Most of us have spent all our lives obeying the law—rightly so. On occasion, however, our governments behave so poorly that we need to respectfully disobey some laws. Just as civil disobedience was required in the civil rights movement, and to protect the Franklin, I would contend that now, more than ever, it is needed again.


Mark Delaney is a lawyer by training. He and his family have lived and worked with the poor in India for much of the past 24 years. Since returning to Australia in 2019, he has worked part-time for the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change.

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