Calculated civil disobedience, seemingly so innocent, has brought in an era of lawlessness and bloodshed that can plunge our nation into unbelievable chaos. The tragic death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and subsequent events bear mute testimony to the uncontrolled forces now unloosed across the land.

In recent years nearly every major denomination has passed resolutions on civil disobedience defending the principle of resistance to the law and constituted authority while admitting that those who break the law must be prepared to accept the consequences.

What a few years ago appeared to be a gesture of sympathy toward those engaged in civil disobedience has now developed into support of individuals and movements that are challenging constitutional procedures and encouraging a spirit of rebellion and anarchy. Some churchmen now say openly that there must be revolution, even bloodshed, before there can be a new social order.

Perhaps this year will prove to be the last chance for general assemblies, conferences, conventions, and the like to take a second look at a philosophy that is able to destroy the foundations of the nation. For if lawlessness prevails, the outlook for America is bleak.

Civil disobedience can lead to the dissolution of law and order, with anarchy the result. Further, it can lead to revolution. And revolution can open the way to dictatorship, with the resulting loss of freedom and ultimate bondage.

Riots, bloodshed, arson, loss of life and property—a dismal story—are the result of trying to redress wrongs in the streets rather than in the courts and at the ballot box. In rejecting “gradualism” with its attending frustrations and disappointments, many are resorting to a senseless rebellion that adds tensions and injustice.

Writing in Look magazine a few months ago under the title, “Dissent or Destruction?,” Eric Sevareid observed:

“The use of force to express conviction, even if it takes so relatively mild a form as a college sit-in that blocks the administration building, is intolerable. When Dr. Martin Luther King, who may well be one of the noblest Americans of the century, deliberately defies a court order, then he ought to go to jail. Laws and ordinances can be changed, and are constantly being changed, but they cannot be rewritten in the streets where other citizens also have their rights” (Look, Sept. 5, 1967, pp. 22, 23; copyright 1967 by Eric Sevareid; used by permission).

To engage in or condone civil disobedience is to loose a tiger of destruction. The welfare of any nation depends on respect for and enforcement of law. Lawlessness is now prevalent enough to endanger the very life of our nation. Laws that are inadequate or unjust should be changed in the courts and at the polls; they cannot be changed in the streets.

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Furthermore, those who incite riots and disorder, who advocate violent disruption of communities and go about as hatemongers, whether they be members of secret organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, black-power advocates, or something else, should be handled by the law on the basis of their public threats, before they commit violent acts.

Any person who openly flouts the law should be called to account.

The hooded organization that engages in terrorism, arson, and bombings should be infiltrated by representatives of the law until its leaders are behind bars and its members scattered into oblivion.

The wave of civil disobedience that is threatening our national life seems to have paralyzed us into fear and inaction. But unless it is reversed, we face anarchy. No segment of society can be permitted to act above the law and to destroy the things on which a decent society is based.

We are on the verge of being frightened enough to believe that the outlay of hundreds of billions of dollars is the answer to our problem. No one questions the need to rebuild our cities; but chaos cannot be cured by money, no matter how great the sum. Even if every person in America were put in a mansion, without regard for law and order our problem would continue.

No one can deny that we have countenanced discrimination and humiliation to such a point that a sense of frustration is inevitable; now this frustration has caused violent reactions. These sins against human beings must cease, and equal opportunities must be available to all. But with these needed changes (and tremendous progress is being made in this direction), respect for law and law enforcement must be maintained.

This is no plea for maintaining the status quo. It is a plea for recognition that the blindness and unconcern of the dominant segment of our society must be completely changed. And on the other hand, it is an affirmation that any status and rights gained through civil disorder will be gained at too high a price.

Two centuries ago Edmund Burke, the great English statesman, gave this warning: “Men are qualified for civil liberties in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.… Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite is placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

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In medicine there is a condition known as “generalized carcinomatosis,” which, in layman’s language, means cancer that has spread over the entire body. At that stage there is no known cure.

The lawlessness that has entered our national life through civil disobedience—a concept having the approval of most of the major denominations—can prove to be the moral cancer that will destroy our country.

This is a plea to churchmen, who will be meeting during the coming months, to take stock of what has been loosed upon the land. Civil disobedience is not the “harmless gesture of protest” it was once said to be. Rather, it has grown into a monster of disorder, riots, and general lawlessness that is eating at the vitals of our national life. It is proving as senseless—and as devastating—as the proverbial “burning down the barn to get rid of the rats.”

Some of our most distinguished jurists and law-makers have deplored the actions of various church courts in condoning civil disobedience. Sufficient time has now elapsed to assess the damage; one has but to open his daily newspaper to realize that we totter on the brink of open rebellion.

Responsible law-makers must do everything they can to eliminate injustice, discrimination, and humiliation. At the same time, those who administer the law must be supported at all costs.

The alternative is national disaster.

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