Law and morality are distinct from one another. This difference is apparent when societies evaluate laws to see if they’re moral. Some laws are clearly unjust—for example, ones that uphold human slavery or the Jim Crow laws that discriminated against people based on the color of their skin. Moreover, because law and morality aren’t the same, people aren’t morally obligated to obey all laws—only those that are just.
Opposition to Unjust Laws in History
History records a long tradition of philosophers and theologians explaining why we’re not morally bound to obey unjust laws. For example, thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas explained that just laws are based on God’s standard of justice, which all humans know through our consciences. Such laws treat people with dignity and are put in place for the common good, not just the good of the ruler or ruling class.1
On the other hand, when laws are unjust, people aren’t bound to follow them and may sometimes be morally required to disobey or oppose them. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. expounded on the natural law tradition of Aquinas and church father Augustine of Hippo in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” King pointed out that laws that degrade human persons by falsely claiming certain groups aren’t equal to others are unjust laws that we’re morally obligated to disobey.2 King wrote:
There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”3
King pointed not just to Augustine and Aquinas but to the early Christians who continued to worship Jesus in spite of Roman law. He also cited biblical figures Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3), who refused to obey the Babylonian law requiring that they worship Nebuchadnezzar. King explained:
There is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.4
If we aren’t morally obligated to obey unjust laws, the obvious question is whether disobeying unjust laws will lead to chaos—with everyone disobeying the law as they see fit. For example, can I ignore traffic laws because I think it’s unjust to stop when I’m in a hurry to get home? Traffic laws, when well-thought-out and impartially enforced, serve an essential function in a flourishing society. And many laws play the same role, so we can’t allow everyone to ignore laws they dislike.
Aquinas and King recognized this issue and explained that we must obey just laws but oppose egregiously unjust laws. For Christians, the apostle Paul states that in most cases we should obey the law because laws like those that punish murder and theft protect us all (Romans 13:1–7).
Determining the Just from the Unjust
But then the issue becomes how to determine when laws are unjust. This kind of discernment assumes we have a robust sense of right and wrong. And we do have such a sense. Humans have a deep sense of right and wrong that recognizes acts like torture and murder as being morally wrong. If someone were to try to reimplement racial segregation laws, we know those laws would be unjust. We know that the enforcement of laws prohibiting the running of red lights protects us. In the absence of a life-threatening emergency, no one can make a good faith argument that we’re justified in running a red light to get to our destination more quickly. So, there’s no justification for telling the police officer that the law requiring me to stop at all red lights is unjust! It’s only in the exceptional circumstances where laws are blatantly unjust and demean other persons that we should oppose them.
There may be many laws that we’d prefer not to be on the books because we disagree with the public policy goals behind them. For example, we might disagree with the tax policy of our jurisdiction. And in good faith we can debate the merits of laws on tax policy and advocate for laws we think are better for society. However, mere disagreement with a law doesn’t justify disobeying it. In fact, Paul explains in Romans 13:6–7 that we should pay taxes that are owed.
Moreover, as King explained, our opposition to unjust laws should be peaceful even in the face of violence. This is how the early Christians faced Roman barbarity and how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced the fiery furnace. The goal of peaceful civil disobedience is not to create anarchy, but instead to draw attention to unjust laws so as to create a more just set of laws that will help society flourish. King wrote:
An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.5
In most circumstances, Christians should obey the law. However, in very exceptional circumstances where laws are blatantly unjust, Christians have a moral duty to peacefully oppose unjust laws. For example, if a law were passed banning the ownership of Bibles, Christians would be morally obligated to disobey this law.
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Treatise on Law, The Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947), Articles 90–96.
- Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (April 16, 1963), African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, accessed 9/22/22.
- King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
- King, Jr., “Letter.”
King, Jr., “Letter.”