Does Jesus Wink at Violations of Civil Liberty?

June 10, 2013 // Civil Rights
"Buddy Christ" from the film "Dogma" - View Askew Productions

“Buddy Christ” from the film “Dogma” – View Askew Productions

In light of recent revelations of widespread domestic spying by the NSA, it’s a good time to reflect on the notion of Civil Liberty and – given the title of this blog – its implications for followers of Jesus. First and foremost, what do we mean by the term “Civil Liberty”? In this context, the word “civil” simply suggests something pertaining to citizens, whereas “liberty” is a way of denoting the absence of oppression, most commonly by the State. As humans, we all have a duty to non-violently do what we can to cure and prevent suffering, including that resulting from political oppression. That’s why the documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden quite possibly present every one of us with an obligation to act.

Assuming such an obligation exists, followers of Jesus are by no means exempt. Jesus’ ministry was characterized by help and healing, but he also persistently spoke truth to power, despite knowing full well that doing so would lead to a violent, agonizing death. Just as persistently, he instructed his disciples to go and do likewise ~

“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give…

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you…

The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Matthew 10:7-28 emphasis added)

I said above that, regarding civil liberty generally, we are all under a duty to do what we can and that, regarding the particular threat revealed by the NSA leaks, we have a potential obligation. As to doing what we can – there are all sorts of suffering – all types of oppression. Obviously, we each possess scarce resources and therefore can’t tend to everything. While none of us can get away with doing nothing, neither can we all be crusaders for social justice – at least not if we acknowledge the importance of other things such as healing the sick and encouraging the downcast. Second, reasonable, informed people may differ over the urgency of the threat posed by the NSA’s widespread domestic surveillance. If you disagree with me that aspects of the NSA program endanger our liberties, I can attempt to persuade you – but I can’t insist that you’re obligated to do something about it.

What is also clear, however, is that apathy and fear are not valid excuses to remain silent or otherwise passive about confronting oppressive abuses of power. At least not for the Christian. At least not if the life, death and teaching of Jesus have any bearing on what it means to be a Christian.

And yet, in the United States, Christians are for the most part conspicuously absent from the struggle to preserve our increasingly threatened civil liberty. (Sadly, their absence is not nearly as conspicuous in the struggle to impinge on civil rights.) Even from a non-theological standpoint, this is puzzling, given the potential for extreme suffering – both in terms of severity and scope – that is at stake. Looking back on just the last century, it is difficult to imagine a source that has generated suffering more acute than unchecked State power. And, unlike disease, poverty or depression, despotism  is a malady that necessarily afflicts all of society (aside from the powerful few who intentionally propagate and benefit from it).

It is profoundly tragic – though perfectly predictable to those familiar with biblical and church history – that the duty to render life-sacrificing love appears largely lost on American Christianity when it comes to the problem of State oppression. What I’d like to offer in this post is a small opportunity for all of us to turn away from the temptations of apathy and fear and take action on this important front. Ultimately, however, the very real, very perilous threat posed by government overreach is a human concern. So, whether you’re Christian, agnostic or somewhere in between, please take a moment to read the following statement from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and consider emailing your representatives to ask for “a full, public investigation into the domestic surveillance of Americans by the intelligence communities.”

Here is the statement in full ~

In Response to the NSA, We Need A New Church Committee and We Need It Now

““[The National Security Agency's] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.” —Senator Frank Church, 1975

Following on the heels of the Guardian reporting that the NSA is collecting all US call data records of Verizon customers, the Guardian and Washington Post yesterday reported that nine of the biggest Internet companies, including Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft, are also working with the government in a vast spying program, where a massive amount of online data flows to the NSA, all in secret.

The revelations not only confirmed what EFF has long alleged, they went even further and honestly, we’re still reeling. EFF will, of course, be continuing its efforts to get this egregious situation addressed by the courts.

But one thing is clear.  Congress now has a responsibility to the American people to conduct a full, public investigation into the domestic surveillance of Americans by the intelligence communities, whether done directly or in concert with the FBI.  And it then has a duty to make changes in the law to stop the spying and ensure that it does not happen again.

In short, we need a new Church Committee.

In the mid-70s, in response to revelation that the government was engaging in systematic domestic surveillance on domestic targets—including anti-war activists, academics, and government critics like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Daniel Ellsberg—the distinguished Senator from Idaho, Frank Church, convened a Senate investigative committee that ultimately put a stop to large scale domestic spying for decades.

The Church Committee report, which can be read in full here, led to the passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), setting up the secret FISA court that put strict procedures in place for conducting surveillance for intelligence activities. Most importantly, following a Supreme Court ruling in 1973, FISA required an individualized, probable cause warrant for national security spying, just as the Fourth Amendment requires.

While there is much to criticize in the original FISA, it did rein in the government, and its system of checks and balances remained largely in place until shortly after September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush first authorized a broad warrantless wiretapping program.  The government decided to illegally bypass the FISA court and started warrantlessly wiretapping the communications, as well as collecting and data-mining the communications records of innocent Americans.

When a portion of the NSA warrantless surveillance was revealed by the New York Times in 2005, there was widespread outrage among the American people. Unfortunately, Congress reacted in the opposite way as the Church Committee once did. Instead of fixing the problems, they institutionalized most of them and swept the rest under the rug.

In 2008, Congress gutted the original balance of FISA with the FISA Amendments Act, which allowed the government to get court orders with less than probable cause that would target groups of people—instead of individuals, like the Constitution requires.  The law also allowed the NSA to collect information on innocent Americans when they are talking to people outside the US who are targeted by the government.

But it gets worse.  EFF and others had long alleged that, despite the rhetoric surrounding the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Act, the government was still vacuuming up the records of the purely domestic communications of millions of Americans.  And yesterday, of course, with the Verizon order, we got solid proof..  And it appears that the reach of this vacuum goes much further, into the records of our Internet service providers as well.

Now it’s not as if these efforts haven’t been challenged.  EFF has been seeking judicial review of the dragnet surveillance, both wiretapping and records collection, since 2006, facing one procedural maneuver after another by the government.  The ACLU brought a strong constitutional challenge to the FISA Amendments Act that was dismissed by the Supreme Court only two months ago for lack of “standing.” The court ruled in a contentious 5-4 decision that because the ACLU couldn’t prove for a “certainty” that their clients were being surveilled, they couldn’t challenge the law.

Well, it turns out, the new revelations prove everything the ACLU was arguing, in addition to confirming all of the allegations in EFF’s warrantless wiretapping case, Jewel v. NSA.

Of course, the evidence has been there all along. Even after the FISA Amendments Act passed, the New York Times reported in 2009 the NSA was still collecting purely domestic communications in a “significant and systematic” way after the original bill passed in 2008. And just last year, the government admitted, the secret FISA court has ruled “on at least one occasion” that the government’s surveillance under the law had violated the Fourth Amendment.

That secret FISA court ruling is still classified, as are the OLC memos that supposedly give the government’s best case that all this purely domestic surveillance is legal. But one has to wonder, if the FISA court “routinely” authorizes the collection of all US call data, what kind of surveillance was the NSA conducting that they couldn’t approve?

Shamefully, Congress has had a chance to add provisions to both the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act in the last two years. In 2011, the Obama administration opposed all transparency and accountability amendments to the Patriot Act when key provisions were renewed for another five years. Just six months ago in Decemebr 2012, the administration again opposed all oversight amendments, even those more moderate than the ones he voted for as Senator in 2008.

So here’s your wake up call Congress, and an opportunity to be a hero. We need a Church Committee for a new era. It could be headed by Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, the two Senators who have been trying to warn the American people about the government dangerous interpretation of the Patriot Act for years. Udall said today, he “did everything short of leaking classified information” to stop it.

But someone in Congress needs to step up and fill Frank Church’s shoes.  They are big ones, but EFF stands willing to help. And so, we suspect, will millions of innocent Americans whose privacy has been violated and who are ready to have their constitutional rights back.”

About the author

David Walker is a blogger and independent musician residing in Los Angeles. You can contact him at

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