Posted by: jobelenus | February 28, 2008

The Camden 28: Break the Law to Promote Peace?

I recently saw this documentary about the Camden 28

The story goes something like this (this is the short version, follow the link to wikipedia for the longer version). During the Vietnam War, there were many draft protests, and of course many violent ones. There were also non-violent ones. Some “Leftist” Catholic priests had previously gotten their hands on draft papers from draft offices and burned them in public as a protest. Without the papers, the local draft could not continue. Those people stood by the fires watching as a symbol of their dedication. Quickly many were being arrested and serving jail time. Several catholic priests in Camden NJ got together (28 total people) and decided they were going to protest as well, though differently. They decided they were going to break into a Federal building, steal thousands of draft papers, and take them to be destroyed. They were caught in the act. I’m not so much concerned that they were found innocent or the trial. Actually I was slightly disappointed in the documentary not giving their faith a severe highlight. Some of the clear statements in the film by the Camden 28 were quite to the point. They way they understood the Gospel meant that what was happening in Vietnam was entirely wrong on an ethical level both from individuals and the government. And they felt they needed to do something about this, hence their strong action.

There was one more interesting fact. One of their friends, a fellow “leftist” Catholic turned into the FBI Informant on the group – that is why they were caught in the act. He entirely agreed with their viewpoint on the war, however he did not feel it was appropriate that they protest in such a manner by breaking and entering a Federal building – by breaking the law.

And that brings me to my questions. What do we think about all this? Which side would we be on? Agreeing something is wrong, but not wishing to violate the law to stand up for God’s principle? How “tight” does our violate of the law against the offense need to be? Clearly breaking and entering and destruction of federal documents is an odd law to break when protesting war. How does this relate to sit-in’s performed by African-Americans in the Civil Rights movement? Is that how “tight” our offenses need to be? Violating just the one law we feel is injust. How does that work against a war?



  1. John, you raise some excellent questions that I have been grappling with since I watched The Narrow Path movie. Should we intentionally break laws in order to make a prophetic peace declaration? Biblically, our grounding comes from the account of Peter and John when confronted by the authorities of their day.

    Acts 4.18-20
    18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; 20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

    In this case there is a clear contradiction between the law the disciples were breaking (don’t speak in the name of Jesus) and what Jesus had told them to do. But what would the basis be to break into a draft office? It would certainly get the attention of the media and so publicize the event to such a degree that others may question the validity of war, but aren’t we supposed to obey the laws of the land? I understand that when they conflict the law of God we must break the country’s law and take the consequences, but isn’t this sort of law-breaking different?

  2. I agree that this isn’t as clear cut as John and Peter’s situation. What do we make of Jesus’ position that the preservation of life is the highest calling? For example, Jesus will eat and heal on the Sabbath. Not because he is breaking the Sabbath, or because he thinks it is invalid. But rather because the law of Moses yields to something higher (Schweitzer). And that something higher is the preservation of life. Both Jesus and Hillel felt that way, specifically of the Sabbath. Hence Jesus’ criticism “won’t you save an animal from a pit on the Sabbath?”

    In the case of violence, should we not yield towards the preservation of life?

    I also find this hard, because the government is ordained to use the sword. Of course this does not mean that all their uses of the sword are valid and God-approved. But contrary to “The Narrow Path” I don’t think it is our duty to get our country to melt all their weapons down and create the kingdom before it gets here. But when the use of violence breaks some line (gotta figure that out too), should we not stand up for those who are being oppressed in the preservation of life?

  3. JohnO, you bring up some excellent points. I like the ethical principle you bring up. However, the Camden 28, the Catsonville 9, and others in the peace movement don’t usually go to the pit and get the animal out, rather they go to the pit digger and publicly complain in some mildly annoying way. The pit digger (the government) just says, “well, those pacifists are always going to be there” and then move on with their new found way to dig 7,000 pits at once.

    In other words I’m bringing up two issues. (1) are public disobedience demonstrations really like taking an animal out of the pit? (2) are they effective in any way in stopping the pit digger from digging more pits?

  4. To follow the analogy:

    (1) To “get the animal out of the pit” would be to charter a 747 and get soldiers out of war zones… etc.

    The only problem there is that most of the soldiers want to be there (they prolly could have done it in Vietnam and been successful, no one wanted to be there).

    But I think you’ve abused the parable šŸ˜› Jesus isn’t yelling at the pit diggers. The Pharisees didn’t go around digging pits and when animals fell in on the Sabbath forbid the owners to get them out.

    Jesus is yelling at the people who refuse to cherish life because of law. Indeed all of Torah is to preserve life and should not be interpreted in a way that would destroy life.

    So I think your second point is moot. And we know that we don’t judge our “success” by visible means.

    But the first point is this: Are we demonstrating the value of life by public disobedience demonstrations against war? Even if we were to raid a draft office like the Camden 28 and destroy documents so that men and women would not get sent to war? I think that answer is yes.

  5. But isn’t that an extremely loose ethic? Be pro-life in all situations. What if by killing one person we save a thousand? Then we should kill instead of love? Certainly not.

    The don’t-steal-and-destroy-government-property law was broken by these people, but for what reason? Was it because Jesus commands that we should steal and destroy government property? No! It is because they wanted to make a public demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the war. Surely they could have done that lawfully, especially in a country that permits demonstrations of all sorts of different types.

  6. They did make lawful public demonstrations. But in their thinking it was not enough. The injustice was never going to be resolved through their lawful activities. I am certainly not advocating that we start with unlawful – of course we start with lawful. But I think we have to come to the conclusion that unlawful actions can be taken in prophetic public demonstrations of injustice. Or we must say that the unlawful marches and unlawful sit-ins of the civil rights movement were wrong and unChristian. Can we say that?

  7. Or equally can we say that bombing of abortion clinics is wrong if our ethic so loose? The question is: where is the line? When is it right to break the law. You are drawing the line in the most aggressive manner–saying that so long as there is something bad happening we can break whatever laws we choose to oppose it (presumably non-violently). I am drawing the line ultra-conservatively–saying that unless the law directly conflicts with biblical instruction then the law should not be broken. Obviously we should not sin in order to stop others from sinning. That is a good guide line (which gets you off the hook regarding the abortion bombing) but are we really the bastions of righteousness who are to forcibly, though non-violently, pressure the world into change? Are we the constant revolutionaries who sniff out injustice and then squeeze the oppressors using non-violent tactics? For example, we can agree that not recycling when one can easily do it is an unnecessary harm to the earth. Should we then hack the computers of a local business that we know doesn’t recycle and accost the workers with the message, “start recycling by noon or your computer hard drive will be deleted?”

  8. In regards to “pressuring the world to change” – aren’t we supposed to pressure someone to change? Why is it a big difference if it is through public demonstration or public preaching and witnessing? Aren’t we supposed to stand for the new age, and show what it is going to be like?

    And I did not say “something bad happening”. I was specific about a seriously aggregious problem. I think we have a hard time gauging what the status of the nation was during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war. I’m certainly not suggesting that just because the environment is a problem that we start blowing up smoke stacks (like that’d make it better). I would think the first step in that case would be some research to find out what products are the offenders and work on boycotting them. But, at this point, that is an intellectual problem – not a problem of crisis (not yet any way, I don’t mean to degrade it). It is not anything like the civil rights movement or the vietnam war protest era.

  9. In regards to ā€œpressuring the world to changeā€ – arenā€™t we supposed to pressure someone to change?

    I refer you to Robert Hach’s book Posession and Persuasion to indicate that we are engaged in the work of persuading people not coercion. We call people to repentance through the gospel and this may even be intense at time (cf. Jesus in Mat 23) but that doesn’t mean we should conspire to force someone to do something. We are not to use mafia tactics where we make an offer someone cannot refuse (even if we are non-violent).

    And I did not say ā€œsomething bad happeningā€. I was specific about a seriously aggregious problem.

    What qualifies as “bad?” That is why I brought up recycling. It is bad in a minor way (unless our lack of recycling ultimately brings about the destruction of the earth or something). Who decides what issues are bad enough for us to organize to squeeze the people engaged in them (i.e. pressure them non-violently to change or suffer some sort of illegal consequence brought about by the people of God)?

    John, I like the idea of civil disobedience. It takes courage. It is non-violent. It works. I just need you to provide me with the theology that backs it up and also tell where the line is for when we should do this sort of thing. Until then, I must obey these Scriptures:

    Romans 13:1-7 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.

    1 Peter 2:13-18 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, 14 or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. 15 For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God. 17 Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. 18 Ā¶ Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.

  10. And I need you to tell me that the illegal marches and sit-ins of the civil rights movement by MLK were, from a Christian perspective wrong

  11. I’m not sure how to respond to your last comment. It seems you are pressing me to conclude the answer to our inquiry before you even respond to the biblical data. I think the civil rights movement may be a great test case to examine this issue. Essentially you say that if the action is non-violent and is pro-life then it is good to do (you may also add effective, but maybe not). So by your rationale we can and should cut the electricity or in any other way possible (though using non-violent means) disturb the activities that occur in abortion clinics. Isn’t that the inevitable conclusion of your philosophy? Shouldn’t you constantly be breaking the law to end the killing of babies? Shouldn’t you be focusing your energy on organizing people to forcibly pressure abortion clinics to close?

  12. One, it seems you’ve already concluded based on the biblical data – so I want to see you bring that conclusion into reality.

    Two, you’ve missed the crucial point in what I’m saying. It is only when the offense is so rampant, and everyone realizes it. In both of our “test cases”, vietnam, and civil rights, everyone was asking what do we do, how do we fix this. The entire country was in an uproar. The entire country is not in an uproar over the issue of abortion. There is a discussion taking place.

    Only when the oppression extends by using force and silencing those who oppose could something like this be considered. Something that happened in both test cases. Men were forcibly being drafted and shipped to vietnam – and there was no way to get out of it, other than burning your draft card and going to jail. Which many did.

  13. Something happened last night that reminded me of this articles conversation between the 2 of you. I was watching The Sound of Music, and in the end, the nun’s helped the Von Trapp family hide and eventually escape the nazi’s.

    Sister Margaretta: Reverend Mother, I have sinned.

    Sister Berthe: I, too, Reverend Mother.

    Mother Abbess: What is this sin, my children?

    [the nuns look at each other, then reveal from under their robes the distributor and coil they have removed from the Germans’ cars]

    Awesome right?
    did they sin though?

  14. BTW,

    I watched this documentary (on the Camden 28) and found it fascinating…though I’m still uncomfortable with vandalism even if it is to mess up the draft process for an unjust war. Isn’t the means just as important as the ends for Christians?

  15. I think my question still stands Sean,
    Did the nuns in the sound of music do wrong? they vandalized and stole from the nazi’s. For a greater good.

    With the case of the camden 28 we have a questionable means but to what end? Wouldn’t a more suited statagey be to prostilitize to the names on the draft papers? To go and preach to the nations? Hard questions to answer.

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