Recent lockdown protests in Sydney reveal a troubling division in society
The phrase civil disobedience stirs up a whole range of reactions. We might think of Gandhi’s brave followers beaten to the ground in their serried ranks as they tried to break the salt monopoly, or Martin Luther King’s peace marchers, or of WWII resistance fighters in Greece, France, and Italy, and all the other occupied countries in Europe and Asia. Not forgetting those Japanese and Germans who braved the even more perilous route of opposing their own governments. Churchmen too: Tutu in South Africa and von Galen in Germany escaped martyrdom; Beckett, Bonhoeffer, Archbishops Luwum in Uganda and Romero in El Salvador were among many who paid the ultimate price. This is high praise from Albert Einstein:
“Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
Countless bold people throughout history have faced punishment, even death, because they understood that moral law and civil law sometimes clash. They believed that the moral law — the Law written on our hearts — must always trump the edicts of government. Cicero speaks of moral law as “true law, right reason, congruent with nature, infused into everyone, unchanging and everlasting…we cannot be freed of its obligations by senate or people” (On the Republic, iii).
We humans are generally pretty good at nurturing double standards. One man’s traitor is another man’s hero. Joan of Arc and Edith Cavell were either troublemakers or heroines, it depends whom you ask. Both are long dead, though, and time lends a certain detachment. When we come closer to home the judgments we pass on each other can cut us more deeply. As an insular (in every sense) Australian I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in countries like Spain or Rwanda, whose peoples were so savagely divided within living memory.
Closer to home, those who recently protested in Sydney against lockdown laws were comprehensively excoriated by all sections of government, from both sides of politics, by health officials and by senior police. They are pariahs in the minds of many of their fellow citizens. Few public figures gave any indication of pity or sympathy. It is no doubt true that some protesters are driven by crazier conspiracy theories, or may even be provocateurs, but it would be absurd to dismiss the concerns of medical experts who are effectively silenced, committed human rights activists and lawyers, even police who dare to question the rightness of their orders.
On the face of it the situation is heating up, as fines are increased to savagely punitive levels, and there are subtle signs of a turn in the tide. Mainstream TV reporting, long accustomed to dismiss scornfully as “misinformation” any opinion that doesn’t accord with the official narrative, actually gave a fair hearing to some protesters. I recall a woman speaking of the sadness of her young daughter missing more than a year of schooling at that critical age when socialization is so important. We are starting to hear more often the voices of those who have lost their jobs or their businesses, and we can scarcely fail to notice that many of those who cry “we’re all in this together” have been in fact well insulated from loss, or indeed rewarded.
I think it possible that the tide will ebb further and that there will be bitter recriminations as we tally the true costs to our nation, not only of financial debt but of loss of freedom and a broken constitution. If that happens, let us cling to kindness and remember how genuinely terrified many people are of the Covid specter.
Regardless of which way it pans out, it is a good thing to prefer to believe the best of people rather than impute all sorts of mean motives. Our opinions may be misguided. None of us has certainty in this world. Oliver Cromwell gave some good advice: “I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, consider that ye may be wrong.”
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