Understanding the role of political involvement has been a topic of debate throughout the history of Christianity. During Jesus’ time, the Zealots wanted to rebel and impose a Jewish government. The Pharisees and Sadducees enjoyed the benefits of joining the current political order. The Essenes chose to completely abandon society and live separately for the end goal of righteousness.
Entering the age of Thomas Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory, much of western culture has embraced a rational concept of a contractual agreement to receive rights. The modern understanding of the concept of human rights originated with Leviathan by Hobbes published in 1651.
Social Contract Theory laid the theoretical groundwork for the establishment of the United States, with the Constitution and Bill of Rights as the “social contract” every American “signs.” An aspect that could be called into question of this is how every born American is unable to individually negotiate the contract and is “signed” by their mother by giving birth on American soil and receiving a birth certificate.
In order to “negotiate” this contract, people must work together by means of direct action or electoral mediation. There is no legal obligation to get involved in either method; however, there may be a moral obligation.
Dr. James Cone, Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, explained what could be a religious imperative within the realm of politics. During the Civil Rights Movement, Americans of various ethnicities conducted direct action in the form of sit-ins, strikes, counter-economics and political violence for the purpose of securing rights for people of color as a manifestation of theological praxis.
“Christian theology cannot afford to be an abstract, dispassionate discourse on the nature of God in relation to humankind,” Dr. Cone stated in his book, “A Black Theology of Liberation.” “Such an analysis has no ethical implications for the contemporary forms of oppression in our society.”
Civil disobedience, often a contentious topic in relation to direct action, raises the question of when it is morally permissible to intentionally break a law. In 1846, Henry David Thoreau refused to pay taxes that would be used to support the Mexican American War, was imprisoned for his evasion and later became a major inspiration to Martin Luther King Jr.
Vernard Eller, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of La Verne, argued against civil disobedience among Christians. No Christian ought to commit a “deliberately illegal action” to address an evil in society.
Leo Tolstoy, the Russian author, was happy “to fight the Government by means of thought, speech, actions” and asked for Christians to desist from engaging in the participation of a state’s power dynamics; however, strictly in a non-violent way.
Certain areas of Christian thought promote the ideal of engaging in direct action to fight oppression. Each individual ought to consider their own personal moral obligations to determine how to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ while under the social contract of American policy.