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This article is from Issue 54: Nov/Dec 2011

Civil Disobedience

When—if ever—should Christians break the law?

Martin Luther King Jr. sat quietly in a Birmingham City Jail cell. He had been arrested during a nonviolent protest against the racial segregation of downtown retailers. While confined, King penned “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” which was smuggled out of the prison in a tube of toothpaste.

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue,” King wrote. “It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

The now-famous letter by the civil rights paragon expressed what has become an often cited rationale for civil disobedience. King stated that one has a moral obligation to break unjust laws when efforts to change those laws are unsuccessful. The oppressor never offers freedom voluntarily, he argued, but rather the oppressed must demand it.

Fast-forward 48 years.

On June 6, 2011, Steve Willis sat in an Orlando city jail cell. He and two other volunteers with Food Not Bombs (FNB) had been arrested for violating an ordinance prohibiting group feedings of the homeless in downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola Park.

FNB is an anti-war, anti-poverty activism movement that protests injustice and feeds the hungry in more than 1,000 cities nationwide. They had been caring for the poor in Eola’s skyline-shaded expanses since 2005, so the City of Orlando’s ordinance restricting group feedings struck them in the heart.

At first, FNB attempted to skirt the law. They tried feeding from the sidewalk on the edge of the park rather than within the park, and even ladled soup from the back of a van. Each endeavor was eventually prohibited, so they decided to brazenly oppose the law both in the park and in the courts. Twenty-seven FNB activists have since been arrested, and the matter has risen to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The media wanted to spin it and say we are media whores. But that isn’t it,” Willis says. “Poverty is a real issue and has many faces—from young children to old men. We want to make relationships with the people behind those faces by sharing food in public spaces.

“I believe people in individual communities should regulate themselves,” Willis continues. “Nationwide regulations don’t work. The only thing that works is intentional communities in direct democracies. The Good News provides a message that another world is possible.”