A gentle challenge—and invitation—to the critics of our recent immigration editorial.
by Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today | posted 04/07/2006 03:15 p.m.
We expected a fair amount of criticism for portraying sympathetically the plight of immigrants in "Blessed are the Courageous." We did not expect one complaint to be repeated in nearly every email:
Your article "Blessed Are the Courageous" misses the point. People, regardless of their beliefs, nationality, good or bad are illegal if they do not follow the law to enter the country. If we are a nation where the rule of law is supreme, then it is wrong to only obey the laws we believe in, and disobey those we don't.
Since nearly every critic expressed this exact sentiment, we thought some clarifications were in order, as well as a challenge for our law-and-order brothers and sisters. While legislation has been temporarily scuttled, we nonetheless want to encourage conversation about issues surrounding immigration.
On the one hand, as the editorial noted, "respect for law is non-negotiable." We do not admire Maria and others for breaking the law, but for the courage, fortitude, and faith they evidence as they make their way into the U.S. We admire them in the same way nearly everyone admires Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Even if some might repudiate his participation in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, even if they believe he was deeply mistaken and unethical to do so, they still admire his willingness to courageously risk his life to stop great evil.
Undocumented workers are here illegally. It may not be politically correct to call them "illegal aliens," but in fact, they are. It is deeply regrettable that they have broken the laws of our land. We recognize that a society cannot enjoy justice or freedom if laws are regularly flaunted. But this does not take away from the fact that it takes courage, perseverance, and faith to get here. While we do not admire lawbreaking, we cannot help but admire people who go through great privation to attain the dream of economic and political liberty.
On the other hand, as the editorial also noted, " … [the law] is not everything." Surely Christians of all people should recognize that there are moments when law-and-order is not "supreme."
This is nothing less than a biblical principle, as witnessed in Daniel's determination to worship his God despite "the laws of the Medes and Persians," in Rahab's betrayal of her people to help Israeli spies, in Jesus' unwillingness to submit to Sabbath laws when they harmed people, in the early apostles' refusal to cease preaching despite the authorities' command. As Peter put it to them, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God" (Acts 4:19). In each instance, the law of man was superceded by the law of love—of God and of neighbor.
Furthermore, it is difficult to understand how any American can consider law-and-order "supreme" when one of this nation's most celebrated moments was the hooliganism we call the Boston Tea Party, and when this nation itself was founded on overthrowing not just a law but an entire government. Our Declaration of Independence is nothing but an explanation to the world for this law-defying act.
The American founders recognized that "prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes," and that "mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed." In other words, day to day, there is very good reason to obey law, even if having to do so causes one a fair amount of inconvenience.
At the same time, the founders noted, "that whenever any form of government becomes destructive … , it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government. … " If this is true of a particular authority (like the U.S. or British governments), how much more true of individual laws?
Laws are repudiated regularly in large and small ways by otherwise law-abiding people. Sometimes, laws are ignored because they fail to serve the genuine and irrepressible needs or desires of people, or do more harm than good, or because they are simply impossible to enforce. Laws that are impossible to enforce do as much damage to respect for law as does excessive disobedience.
This was certainly the case with Prohibition: It became increasingly impossible to enforce consistently partly because it never really gained the assent of the populace.
It is arguably the case with our current immigration laws, and especially with some of the more draconian bills recently introduced (but now apparently abandoned) in the House of Representatives. Since 9/11, U.S. law has made it so onerous and expensive to gain entry into this country, immigrants whose lives are being destroyed by economic and/or political oppression, have determined to pursue life and liberty regardless. Before 9/11 there were some 8 million undocumented workers in the U.S. Now there are 12 million—a 50 percent increase in a mere five years—despite increased surveillance and enforcement. Clearly the current immigration law not only fails to address the needs of desperate people, it is for all purposes unenforceable.
A further unenforceable fact: the near impossibility of "holding accountable" (as some readers argue) the 12 million undocumented workers in our midst. We can think of no way the government could round up and deport 12 million people—short of creating a police state. This does not mean we would recommend a blanket amnesty. But it does mean whatever provision we create for these 12 million, we better make sure it meets the genuine social and political needs that these 12 million represent (both their needs, and our nation's need for workers), and that it is enforceable.
The issue before us is not whether law should be obeyed in normal circumstances. We all agree on that. In addition, everyone agrees that under certain circumstances, laws should be disobeyed. Even normally law-abiding Christians assent to that—or deny the witness of Scripture.
The question is: Under what circumstances is it appropriate to disobey a law? And the particular question facing us now is: If a person from another land is suffering economic and political hardship, and if the immigration policies of the U.S. make it nearly impossible for some immigrants to enter this nation, is it legitimate (albeit regrettable) for an immigrant to enter this nation clandestinely to gain those freedoms?
About this particular concern, Christians will disagree. Some will argue that compassion for the suffering should take precedence over strict adherence to law.
While security, overtaxed healthcare, and other issues also desperately need to be addressed, CT thinks legislation reform should give some slack to those who have entered our land illegally. Some will remain unconvinced.
But it seems to us that those who remain unconvinced have to do more than merely proclaim the supremacy of law-and-order. They have to explain, in the face of the biblical teaching to extend hospitality to the stranger and succor to the suffering, why the law of man should reign supreme in this instance.