On Obeying God Rather than Men

The recent immigration law enacted in Arizona has enraged tens of millions of Americans across the country. It could also offer a moral dilemma for Christians, especially those who minister to the undocumented. The new law makes it a crime to conceal, transport, harbor or shield an illegal immigrant if the person knows or recklessly disregards the immigrant’s legal status. (It does create a legal defense for someone providing emergency, public-safety or public-health services to illegal immigrants). How exactly does that square with the Bible’s concern for the foreigner, the poor and homeless? The problem is complicated, of course, by the fact that illegals have committed a crime. But does that mean Christians should be obligated to turn them away without food, shelter or services, especially when a now hunted people seek sanctuary in the churches? What makes the law even more repugnant is the likelihood of its encouraging racial profiling on a massive scale, as its first victim, a US citizen of Hispanic ethnicity, found out just the other day. Now seven other states, from North Carolina to Utah, as well as local governments are threatening to follow suit.

Arizona has a huge immigration problem on their hands, but such draconian measures may prove more hindering than helpful. Not only is the federal government considering a law suit against the state, even one of its own Congressmen Rep. Raul Grijalva is calling for a nationwide boycott of Arizona products and tourism. In addition, the new law is also estimated to cost Arizona $26.4 billion in economic activity, $11.7 billion in gross state product, and approximately 140,324 jobs. Perhaps that is a call to compassionate immigration reform that even the governor can understand.

Sojourners author and speaker the Rev. Jim Wallis said Monday on MSNBC that he has heard from many evangelical clergy in the state who refuse to comply with the new law on the basis that it constitutes a “social and racial sin.” Are Christians bound to obey such laws? On that topic I thought it would be interesting to see what some theologians and saints of the past have said about unjust laws and Christians’ non-compliance.


From St. Augustine, On the Free Choice of the Will (AD 388-395):

“It seems to me that an unjust law is no law at all.”


From St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica (1265-1274):

Human laws are either just or unjust. If they are just, they have the power to bind our conscience because of the eternal law from which they are derived. As Proverbs says, “Through me kings reign and lawmakers decree just laws” (Prov. 8:15).

Laws are said to be just either because of their end, when they are ordained to the common good; or because of their author, when the law does not exceed the power of the lawmaker; or because of their form, when burdens are distributed equitably among subjects for the common good. For since a man is part of the multitude, whatever he is or has belongs to the multitude as a part belongs to the whole. Thus nature inflicts harm on a part in order to save the whole. Accordingly laws which inflict burdens equitably are just, bind the conscience, and are legal laws.

Laws are unjust in two ways: First, they may be such because they oppose human good by denying the three criteria just mentioned. This can occur because of their end, when a ruler imposes burdens with an eye, not to the common good, but to his own enrichment or glory; because of their author, when someone imposes laws beyond the scope of his authority; or because of their form, when burdens are inequitably distributed, even if they are ordered to the common good. Such decrees are not so much laws as acts of violence, because, as Augustine says, “An unjust law does not seem to be a law at all.” Such laws do not bind the conscience, except perhaps to avoid scandal or disturbance, on account of which one should yield his right. As Christ says, “If someone forces you to go a mile, go another two with him; and if he takes your tunic, give him your pallium” (Mtt. 5:40f.).

Second, laws may be unjust because they are opposed to the divine good, as when the laws of tyrants lead men to idolatry or to something else contrary to divine law. Such laws must never be observed, because “one must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).


From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

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. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I it” relationship for an “I thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

Let us consider a more concrete example of just and unjust laws. An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal. Let me give another explanation. A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law. Who can say that the legislature of Alabama which set up that state’s segregation laws was democratically elected? Throughout Alabama all sorts of devious methods are used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters, and there are some counties in which, even though Negroes constitute a majority of the population, not a single Negro is registered. Can any law enacted under such circumstances be considered democratically structured?

Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.

I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. In our own nation, the Boston Tea Party represented a massive act of civil disobedience.

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

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2 Comments

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  1. Thank you Steve for keeping it in a Biblical perspective. When I wrote about this earlier, I naturally looked at it from a purely socioeconomic and political perspective. While both are valid on their merits, I sometimes forget that the title of my blog is Christians Against Hypocrisy, not Americans or Intelligent Humans Against Hypocrisy. The distinction is important. As always you remind us of what true justice ought to mean to us all.

  2. I thought your blog's constitutional perspective on this was very enlightening. After all, we fight injustice both as Christians and as citizens. So we need to be educated in both.

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