The history of civil disobedience as an aspect of Unitarian Universalist faith can be traced back to an essay by Henry David Thoreau, “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” declaring that silently accepting unjust governance is the same as submitting to it. Thoreau did not advocate violence, he advocated non-violent non-assistance to unjust governance. Indeed, Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience is reflected in several UU principles, and especially the 5th Principle to “affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,” as well as the 2nd and 6th Principles of Unitarian Universalism.
But civil disobedience isn’t just a “UU” thing - it’s a nonviolent movement for change that influenced the social justice movements of Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who wrote:
“During my student days I read Henry David Thoreau's essay On Civil Disobedience for the first time. Here, in this courageous New Englander’s refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico, I made my first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times. I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good… As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest. The teachings of Thoreau came alive in our civil rights movement; indeed, they are more alive than ever before. Whether expressed in a sit-in at lunch counters, a freedom ride into Mississippi, a peaceful protest in Albany, Georgia, a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, these are outgrowths of Thoreau's insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”
– (From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
And civil disobedience works! Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent, 17-year long movement led to Indian independence in 1947, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s non-violent movement for civil rights in the 1960’s led to passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. A sustained campaign of civil disobedience led to the end of the Vietnam War; Thoreau would have loved that civil disobedience defeated the British Poll Tax in 1990; and, civil disobedience worked to create more justice and equity for students at Howard University just this month.
Unitarian Universalists do more than only believe in the principle of the right of conscience, they act from conscience to overcome injustice. UUs have been present to protest police brutality and racist policing tactics in Ferguson, MO, and with Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives. And UUs have protested when protest is not legally sanctioned in acts of civil disobedience: as in Phoenix, Arizona when both Reverend Susan Frederick Gray, president of the UUA, and former UUA president Peter Morales were arrested protesting the racist immigration policies of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Arizona State Bill 1070; or climate justice “warriors” in Standing Rock,SD, West Roxbury, MA, the “Valve Turners” in Montana; and Elizabeth Mount who hung over the Willamette River to protest oil drilling in the Arctic Sea, and who all risked arrest when their moral values, inspired by their faith, called them to it.
Today, the issue calling many UUs to witness, protest, and even practice civil disobedience is gun control, and since 17 people were killed with an assault rifle at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year young people have responded as never before. This April 20th marks 19 years since the mass-shooting of students at Columbine High, at the time the deadliest campus shooting in American history and one of the first to gain national attention.
The students of today aim to transform this terrible anniversary into a day of organized civil disobedience on a mass scale by leaving classrooms all over the country to demand change. Many school leaders support this walkout, so in a sense it isn’t true civil disobedience, but for young UUs whose school isn’t participating in the walkout, this presents a dilemma - whether to risk punishment for expressing their faith as they are called, or to submit to an injustice they are not allowed to oppose.
As the office of the Unitarian Universalist Association that supports ministry to youth and young adult UUs, the law claims it would be irresponsible of us to encourage youth to participate in acts of civil disobedience because youth don’t have legal responsibility for themselves - their parent or legal guardian does, and that’s the adult with which youth need to have this discussion. So we don’t tell youth to go into the streets to protest, but we do encourage youth to live their faith in ways that are creative, effective, as safe as possible, and under the guidance of responsible adults.
The National School Walkout is one such opportunity for youth to demonstrate their beliefs on the issue of gun control, and for UU youth to put their faith in action to make a change for the better. However, if you are a youth whose school is not participating in the walkout or if your school administration is preventing you from walking out, we encourage you to talk to your parents, and consult with your minister. Enlist them to help you live your faith by helping your school administration understand how civil disobedience is part of your Unitarian Universalist faith. Your parents and minister could meet with the principal of your school or local school board and let them know that building the Beloved Community and affirming and promoting our Principles are core tenets of our faith. If your school still doesn’t want to honor your freedom of religious expression, ask your parents and minister to have your back if you need it.
Not sure how to approach the problem? Read Kari Gottfried explaining how as a UU youth she is called to participate in protests and acts of civil disobedience to obtain stricter gun control laws. And for more on the relationship between UU faith and activism, read this thought piece in UU World, “Do you have to be an activist to be a Unitarian Universalist?”