Friday, March 26, 2010

Oberlin and Civil Disobedience (3)

Just read chapter 5 of Donald Dayton's Discovering and Evangelical Heritage. If you want to follow the crumbs back, the previous one is here.

I had a number of thoughts about the incident of chapter 5, one in which an escaped slave being hid on the Oberlin campus was seized by some southerners who had come looking for him. A crowd of Oberliners met up with them in nearby Wellington and retrieved him, then sent him north to Canada. The Democrats who held sway in Cleveland were going to have their way with these Oberliners as violating the Fugitive Slave Law, but the Republicans of Oberlin cleverly set the trial for the southerners for kidnapping at the same time. In the end the compromise was that both charges were dropped.

I am struck by a number of things. First, the Oberliners used "higher law" arguments for civil disobedience. This is always a tricky thing, as I think we now know and many knew then. Although I support the civil disobedience of the Oberliners, recourse to "higher laws" is always iffy because everyone has a different sense of what that higher law is. For example, those who are threatening Democratic congressmen right now might easily say they are following a higher law, as might someone who shoots abortion doctors or sets homosexuals on fire. If you truly believe something like the Oberliners did, you must simply be willing to face the consequences of civil disobedience because you disagree with the law.

Probably the most striking thing is how much the values of the Republicans and Democrats have reversed in the last century and a half. The Republicans used to be the ones advocating civil rights and the power of the federal government over the states. Now these are values of the Democratic party. In that sense, I am an old Republican.

I have not studied the issue thoroughly, but it seems to me that somehow, seemingly without much reflection, the issue of abortion has inadvertantly pushed conservative Christians toward a states rights orientation. I suppose since a large portion of conservative Christians are southerners, it is natural that many conservative Christians would take this position anyway. But it is fascinating to me how others have absorbed this point of view that really has nothing to do with conservative Christianity and is actually antithetical to the original orientation of Republicans.

States' rights issues, for example, are involved in Roe vs. Wade. Its repeal will only send the issue back to the states. In itself, its repeal will not stop a single abortion. What I think we would prefer is a federal ban on abortion. But would the Supreme Court justices Republican presidents have sent up support such a federal law any more than Roe vs. Wade?!

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