Latest in the news about NSA leaker Edward Snowden is that he claims to have enough classified details to cause America great harm. As the international drama surrounding the fate of Snowden draws on, so too does the debate over the legacy of the man accused of leaking classified information on secret government programs that involved spying on American citizens, as well as the citizens of U.S. allies.
Whistleblower or traitor — whatever your position on the lengthy Snowden saga, I believe there is at least one takeaway on which we can and should agree: at some point, there must be a line between taking orders and doing what you believe to be right; between obedience to authority and responsibility to our deeply seated ideals. We all, eventually, encounter difficult decisions which we must make before God and our conscience. Whether or not Snowden indeed made the right decision, and whether he acted out of pure and honest motives, is obviously a valid point of contention.
But as outlined in the Nuremberg principles — which stemmed from the trials of Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities during the Holocaust — it is never a plausible defense to simply plead, “My boss/commander/superior gave me the order.” You and you alone are ultimately responsible for your actions; you and you alone must answer for them someday, whether in a court of law or before your Creator. As Christ made clear, we are utterly liable for every single one of our choices. “But I say to you that for every idle word men may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment” (Matt. 12:36).
Defining the boundary between submission and conscience is, of course, an age old quandary. Thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others have all grappled with the moral tension between obedience to authority and personal responsibility. None had an easy time defining the boundary between the pair of competing principles with certainty. This dilemma — and how we must solve it — is crystalized in the words of another great thinker, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
Deciding which laws are just and which are unjust — which authority should and should not be obeyed — is certainly complicated, but we must all be prepared to distinguish between the two and act accordingly when the time comes. For when we stand before God, we all desire to know that we acted well in the midst of our trials and challenges, to be told, “Well done good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).