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Taking Liberties: On the Stifling of Dissent

The Social Principles affirm, "We hold governments responsible for the protection of the rights of the people" (¶ 164A). Yet governments often use wartime and/or perceived threats to national security to justify restrictions on civil rights, immigrant rights, and the right to express political dissent.

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh appealed to a mixture of patriotic loyalty and national security fears to justify the repression of immigrants: "Come let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will . . . in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land" (Exodus 1:10).

The prophet Jeremiah, like many of the other biblical prophets, voiced his dissent to the unjust practices of his government during war. The powers-that-be repeatedly condemned Jeremiah, charging him with "desertion" (Jeremiah 37:13-15). The prophets invariably faced beatings, imprisonment, and death threats for their political dissent in times of national crisis (See 1 Kings 22:13-27; Jeremiah 20:10; 26:11; 37:13-18; 38:4; Psalm 120).

The early church often faced beatings, imprisonment, and death for their religious and political dissent. The early church, as a religious minority, was frequently accused of being a political opposition group that must be suppressed: see Acts 6:11 on charges brought against Stephen. In Acts 17, early Christians are accused: "They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor"(17:7).

Yet in the midst of repression, Paul affirms the importance of due process respect for civil liberties. He insists that government officials acknowledge their own human rights violations: "'They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens . . . and now are they going to discharge us in secret Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.' So they came and apologized to them" (Acts 16:37, 39).

The recent US-led "war on terrorism," the USA PATRIOT Act ("Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism") legislation, the creation of military tribunals which lack due process or independent means of appeal, as well as draft legislation known as PATRIOT Act II, or the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, have created a political climate in which an increasing number of governments have adopted executive orders and legislation restricting the rights of immigrants and opposition groups. Such measures include:

  • use of "unlawful combatants" to designate political opposition,
  • detention without charges or a trial,
  • use of secret evidence and secret hearings,
  • expanded wiretap and government surveillance,
  • denial of access to legal counsel,
  • deportation of asylum seekers, refugees and others who face persecution in their home country,
  • use of racial and religious profiling,
  • threatening to strip someone's citizenship,
  • denying rights of peaceable assembly and freedom of speech based on political beliefs,
  • use of military tribunals that lack due process and independent judicial review, and
  • the combination of restrictive government measures with appeals to unquestioning patriotic loyalty often foster a climate of mounting intolerance and repression against foreigners and any who voice peaceful political dissent.

The international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch, has compiled a report entitled, "Opportunism in the Face of Tragedy: Repression in the name of anti-terrorism." ( The report analyzes various repressive laws and measures adopted by 17 nations in the name of fighting terrorism. In reality, most of these measures seek to stifle internal political and religious dissent, as well as restrict the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and foreigners. Those who are targeted are often the most vulnerable and violated in a society.

Legitimate security concerns of any nation are best met by upholding and protecting the full human rights of all, including the rights of political opposition, immigrants, and minority groups. The church has a long history of advocating and protecting the rights of religious and political dissent.

Even in a context of heightened fears and violence, The Social Principles clearly declare, "We also strongly reject domestic surveillance and intimidation of political opponents by governments in power. . . . The use of detention and imprisonment for the harassment and elimination of political opponents or other dissidents violates fundamental human rights" (¶ 164A).

We affirm the prophetic tradition of dissent and call on all United Methodists to publicly speak out for the protection of all human rights for all-including the right to dissent through peaceable assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and other nonviolent means.

We call for the following actions:

  • local congregations to undertake educational efforts (studying the Social Principles ¶ 164, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the US Bill of Rights) to promote greater understanding of international human rights and civil liberties, especially the rights of immigrants, political opposition groups and religious minorities, and that these educational programs build toward the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 2008;
  • General Board of Global Ministries and General Board of Church and Society, working with national and international civil liberties and human rights organizations, such as the Center for Constitutional Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and American Civil Liberties Union, to develop resources and advocacy materials for use in local congregations, to: 1) monitor potentially restrictive government measures that effect people's civil liberties; 2) challenge repressive legislation and executive orders already in place (such as ones listed above); and 3) protect the rights of peaceful dissent;
  • to call on the US government and all other national governments to submit timely reports on their compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Convention Against Torture, and that governments especially document steps taken to insure full civil liberties to
    religious and political minority groups, immigrants, and the right to peaceful dissent; and
  • local congregations, working with others in their communities, organize to defend civil liberties by encouraging local authorities to adopt Civil Liberties Safe Zone resolutions, and by forming local Bill of Rights (or Human Rights) defense committees to create a climate of tolerance and respect for different views.

readopted 2008
resolution #240, 2004 Book of Resolutions

See Social Principles, ¶ 164A and F.

From The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church - 2008. Copyright © 2008 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.