But It’s the Law!

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But It’s the Law!

Posted in : Theology and Political Philosophy on by : Michael Maharrey

Over the last few weeks, there have been several high-profile stories in the news about ICE deporting “illegal” immigrants who were brought to this country as children. Many people – especially political conservatives –  seem unmoved by the gut-wrenching, tearful goodbyes. They paper over any sense of compassion with a stark statement.

“It’s the law.”

Ironically, many of these same people claim the government would have to pry their guns out of their cold dead hands. But couldn’t the governing authorities just pass a law? Wouldn’t that create an irresistible moral obligation to hand over those firearms? The way some of these people talk, I’m pretty certain they would compliantly turn over their guns using their very warm, very much alive hands if the authorities told them to. Obedience seems to be their highest moral end.

I find these people who unthinkingly appeal to “the law” as a justification for any and every government action creepy. It’s as if the mere pronouncement of a legislative body absolves them of any need to consider morality, ethics, justice or mercy. “It’s the law,” becomes the justification for all kinds of evil. I can’t help but think these same people would have unquestioningly turned over an escaped slave to their “master” had they been alive in 1855. After all, it was the law.

According to “the law,” Rosa Parks belonged on the back of the bus. Slaves belonged in the cotton fields. The German Jews belonged in the oven.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to throw up “the law” as a justification for our actions.

Peter was confronted with “the law” early in his ministry.

“And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.

“Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, ‘What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’ So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.’ And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened.” – Acts 4:1-4; 13-21

The authorities laid down the law. Undoubtedly,  many American political conservatives would have just sat down and shut the hell up. After all, it was the law, right? But Peter and the other apostles took more of a Rosa Parks approach. They ignored the law. They ignored the pronouncements of the authorities. They were disobedient and continued to preach Jesus Christ.

And they went to jail.

I can hear our modern conservative commentators now.

“Look, I don’t feel sorry for these guys at all. It’s the law. They were warned. They had every opportunity to comply. They have nobody to blame but themselves. Let them rot in jail!”

Peter and the apostles didn’t rot in jail. In fact, Acts 5:19 tells us an angel of the Lord showed up and opened the doors. Apparently unimpressed with the sacrosanct nature of “the law,” the apostles followed the direction of the angel, went to the temple courts and once again began teaching the people about Jesus. Of course, they got busted again.

“The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. ‘We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,’ he said. ‘Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.’

“Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than human beings! The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.'” Acts 5:27-29

Just because a person violates some statute imposed by a legislative body doesn’t automatically justify hitting them. Violation of some arbitrary law doesn’t make them “wrong.” Doing the right thing when everybody – including “the law” says it’s wrong is still right.

We may follow human laws to keep the boot of government off our necks. But “the law” does not absolve us from our responsibility to act justly, to show compassion and to do what is right. As St. Augustine said, “An unjust law is no law at all.”


Photo by smlp.co.uk via Flickr.

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