Chuck Colson, Civil Disobedience and The Manhattan Declaration

Colson dedicated himself to helping the church prepare for possible civil disobedience.

By Alan Eason Published on April 22, 2015

As Christian leaders ponder the need for civil disobedience if the Supreme Court rules against natural marriage, we can draw on the lessons of the Manhattan Declaration.

I was there in Washington DC on November 20, 2009, at the National Press Club. As the newly-hired Internet Director for Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint, my job was to record the event and take pictures. The atmosphere was electric.

The Manhattan Declaration

With an air of tension in the room and a packed gallery of reporters and television cameras, several dozen prominent Christian leaders drew a line in the sand. What they said (and what brought the press to the conference) was that they would not give in to pressures to change the natural and biblical definition of marriage, or accept forced support of abortions (including paying for insurance plans to cover abortifacients), or accept assaults on their freedom to practice according to their religious convictions. Then they capped it by saying they were prepared to engage in Christian civil disobedience to the government here in America, if necessary.

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Bishop Harry Jackson, Washington DC, signer and speaker. Photo/Alan Eason/BreakPoint

The public document articulating these points was called the Manhattan Declaration. They had all signed it and now were asking people of faith all over America to do the same.

Two references in the press release really provoked the press corps: “We will give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God’s.” (The last line of the document.) And just before that, the real shocker: “Through the centuries, Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted, but sometimes required.” They pointed to Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which lays out the conditions for Christian civil disobedience.

As soon as the speeches were over, the press room erupted. National and local reporters asked: “Does this mean that Christians are ready to engage in civil disobedience?” “What does that disobedience look like?” Some questions were directed to His Eminence Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington (now a cardinal).  Wuerl was at that time embroiled in a battle with the city of Washington over the church’s refusal to bow to pressure from the city to provide adoption services to same-sex couples through Catholic agencies. Part of that battle was being waged on the pages of The Washington Post. There were also questions for Fr. Chad Hatfield, Archpriest and Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, who had set the room on edge when he told the press that Orthodox churches (particularly in Eastern countries) know how to live under persecution, and they would not be cowed. The press peppered all the speakers with questions.

To many in the room, the event seemed somewhat bizarre. This was America and these were respected church leaders, not student protesters or angry activists. Everyone knew society was changing and many sensed that Christian churches might have a hard time adapting to those changes. Few, however, expected this.

That’s because few could imagine what these leaders could already see was coming and were prepared to declare — in advance — that there was a line they would not cross.

Inspired by The Barmen Declaration of 1934

Chuck Colson was one of those Christian leaders who understood the times. And he knew history. He had particularly studied, along with Professor Robert George (Princeton law professor and a Catholic) and Dr. Timothy George (Head of Beeson Divinity School  and a Baptist), The Barmen Declaration. It was a model the three of them often looked at while drafting the Manhattan Declaration.

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Manhattan Declaration signers gathered at the National Press Club, Washington DC, before the press conference. Photo/Alan Eason/BreakPoint

The Barmen Declaration, crafted by a group of German pastors in 1934, united several large denominational groups in a public statement, declaring that they would not bow to the increasing demands of the recently elected National Socialist government in Berlin. 3,000 out of 18,000 German pastors signed or identified with the document. Their congregations became known as “The Confessing Church.” Martin Niemoeller, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many other heroic German church leaders were in the group. Of the 3,000, 700 went to prison in 1935 alone. Many died because of their stance.

Chuck Colson, Robert George and Timothy George got the message. The Barmen Declaration had challenged a culturally impotent German church to stand up and be counted.  But it came together too late to change Germany’s course. Chuck and others often pointed this out, and pointed to the need to anticipate the cultural trajectory before we reached the point of no return.  But whenever they made this point, many would cry, “You’re comparing America to the Nazis!”  That was wrong. The comparison was actually between an affluent, educated American culture and a highly educated, sophisticated German culture before the National Socialists ever came to power. More importantly, it was a comparison of a self-satisfied and increasingly silent American church to a German church that had become so weak and compromised that, when the real test came in 1932, it folded.

To avoid the same fate in our own time, Chuck and others were willing to risk speaking too soon rather than too late. It was a call to an American church that still had life, breath and influence.  However, even with the hope that the church would respond, Chuck feared the church was already beginning a descent into what he called “The Spiral of Silence” (after the term coined by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann).

Chuck Colson Preparing for Civil Disobedience

TheManhattan Declaration soon gathered over 400,000 names. Along the way, Chuck was convinced that people needed to be reminded that civil disobedience was a real possibility. Signing the declaration was not an idle commitment.

As we draw even nearer to the front, we can still draw encouragement from Chuck Colson. Below, you can view some of his “Two-Minute Warning” video blogs produced between 2009 and 2012, when he died. It includes the initial press conference, warnings as he saw threats appear, and his most serious warning of all in February of 2012, given shortly before he died. Greatly alarmed by the “HHS mandate,” Chuck sounded the alarm. His words were somber:

We have come to the point — I say this very soberly, where if there isn’t a dramatic change in circumstances, we as Christians may well be called upon to stand in civil disobedience against the actions of our own government. That would break my heart, as a former Marine captain, loving my country — but I love my God more. And you all may have to face that.

A month and a half later, while speaking at the 2012 Wilberforce Awards conference in Washington, Chuck collapsed and had to be airlifted to the hospital. Three weeks later, he died. But his words remain: “You all may have to face that.” Chuck was passing the charge on to us. I filmed and produced these video blogs and I can tell you he was already in great physical pain when he uttered these words, but his heart hurt even more. I think he knew these were his final warnings.

In the video above, Chuck Colson speaks at the Manhattan Declaration press conference, encourages Christians to sign it, comments on the decision by Apple, Inc. to remove the Manhattan Declaration app from the iTunes app store shortly before Steve Jobs died, and responds on government efforts to do away with freedom of religion and relegate it to “freedom of worship,” and gives his final dire warning in February, 2012. 

 What Now?

The challenges to the church on the issues of life, marriage and religious freedom are under increasing attack. Things have deteriorated far beyond what Chuck Colson described in 2012. Pastors, lay people and the entire church must stand up and be counted.

What Will You Do?

Next week, the Supreme Court of the United States will begin deliberation on a landmark case to determine whether states can maintain the natural definition of marriage or will be compelled to equate natural marriage with same-sex “marriage” (SSM). This would almost certainly lead to much more pressure on Christian individuals, businesses, organizations, and even churches and their organizations, to conform or keep silent.

Just as in 2009, Christian leaders are banding together to reaffirm what The Manhattan Declaration proclaimed: There is a line which faithful Christians will not cross.  A new statement, The Marriage Pledge, has just been released, and Christians across America are being called to sign it.  You can read Mat Staver’s piece introducing the Pledge here at The Stream: “On Marriage, We Will Not Render to Caesar What Is God’s.

Please sign it and encourage your family and friends to do the same. A lot is at stake.

Then, if you haven’t yet, sign the Manhattan Declaration. It now has over 550,000 signatures. You can help get it to one million.  It is easy to do at ManhattanDeclaration.org.

The Final Consideration

Our Christian brothers and sisters are paying for their faith with their lives in the Middle East and elsewhere. It’s naive to think it could never happen here.

Chuck Colson was trying to prepare us to pay that cost, while praying that we would not have to. At his funeral, a phrase he often uttered was printed on lapel pins and given to all those who attended: “Stay at Your Posts.”


 

Below are three more videos from Chuck Colson’s “Two Minute Warning” video podcasts.

In this 2010 video, Chuck answers those who think the talk about “civil disobedience” goes too far. He states: “It is critical that you understand exactly what we were saying when we drafted the Manhattan Declaration.” He then turns to a speech by Dr. Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, who talks about what it means to “Obey God rather than man.”

 

 

 In this 2011 Video, Chuck addressed what he saw as a huge problem for the church: “The Spiral of Silence.” He discusses the reluctance of many American Christians to speak out and be “unpopular.” “People are afraid to speak out, afraid that they will be called names by those on the other side, who want them silent. He set the theme of the 2012 Wilberforce Weekend in Washington DC to “Breaking the Spiral of Silence.” It was  at this conference that Chuck made his last speech.

This is Chuck’s later interview (following a speech) on what you can do to help break this deadly spiral.

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