How not to engage in civil disobedience: Leave country after custody battle

You’re doing it wrong.

No, I don’t mean you personally, dear reader. I mean the Internet meme. Bathing a pet in the dishwasher: “You’re doing it wrong.” Taking a boat out on the lake, while it’s still attached to the trailer: “You’re doing it wrong.” That sort of thing.

I just encountered a new one.

Mat Staver teaching civil disobedience: “You’re doing it wrong.”

Staver is the lawyer in a unique custody battle. His client, Lisa Miller, gave birth to a daughter, Isabella, while in a civil union with her then-partner Janet Jenkins. After breaking up and coming to believe that homosexuality was evil, Miller wanted full custody without visitation rights for Jenkins, but the courts eventually ruled that Jenkins should have them. After Miller repeatedly disobeyed the court’s orders, the courts found her in contempt and gave Jenkins custody over Isabella.

But when the time came for Miller to hand over custody, she was nowhere to be found. She had fled the country with Isabella.

Were it not for the young child caught up in the mess, the story would almost be quaint. It plays so easily into the left’s and the right’s stereotypes of each other that the headlines in the partisan press write themselves: “Homosexuals try to separate daughter from her mother” or “Christians believe themselves above law, resort to kidnapping.”

But there’s an added wrinkle: It’s suspected that Miller’s lawyers, including Staver, had knowledge of her fleeing the country and perhaps assisted her flight as well.

A recent Religion Dispatches article contained some interviews with students from Staver’s class at the Liberty University School of Law and a copy of a test from the same class. One of the questions concerned Lisa Miller, giving some background on the case and then asking the students how they should counsel her if they were her lawyer.

Those students who suggested she engage in civil disobedience or flee the country got full credit. Those who suggested she comply with the law were marked down.

So while Staver claims to have told Miller to obey the law, he was teaching his students to tell her to disobey. Curiouser and curiouser.

Now, I could easily spend a column — or a year of columns — bludgeoning teachers who shove their personal morality onto their students, but that merely angered me. What really slipped under my skin and unsettled me was the use of the words “civil disobedience.” Staver instructed that civil disobedience was the solution whenever “man’s law” contradicted “God’s law.”

But nothing about the Lisa Miller case says “civil disobedience” to me.

It just says “disobedience.”

Why? Because no one took responsibility.

For civil disobedience — in the tradition of King and Gandhi — to work, one first disobeys an unjust law and then accepts the punishment without retaliation or resistance, and in so doing puts the injustice on full display. Simply disobeying a law makes one look like a criminal: Disobeying and accepting the consequences therefrom makes one look like a hero.

Think to whatever example of civil disobedience is clearest to you (the “Tank Man” at Tiananmen Square keeps popping up in my head). It’s the bravery, the courage, that makes it stand out, the desire to stand up to injustice regardless of the personal cost, regardless of the pain it may entail. That’s the power of true civil disobedience: It resonates so strongly in us.

I don’t see anything like that in the Lisa Miller case. No one is standing up for their convictions. Everyone’s denying involvement. Staver says he did nothing. A pastor, who was recently indicted for helping Miller and her daughter flee the country, also says he did nothing.

No one is acting like a hero here. No one is willing to stand up and say, “I did it. I felt it was unjust. And I take full responsibility for my actions.”

So if Staver believes this is a prime example of civil disobedience and is teaching his students to study and emulate it, then all I can say is …

“Matt Staver, you’re doing it wrong.”

_Joseph is a graduate student._