Breaking the Law is Quintessentially American and Biblical

Breaking the Law is Quintessentially American and Biblical July 13, 2018

Boston Tea Party, Creative Commons

I find a lot of “They broke the law…Send them back” claims in the immigration debate. While the claims may be intended to shut down the debate, they only open Pandora’s Box. After all, breaking the law is quintessentially American. Every Fourth of July, we as a nation celebrate the rebellion of the American colonialists—British subjects—against their own empire.

In Romans 13, Paul tells Christians that they are subject to the governing authorities, and that the ruler does not bear the sword in vain. The ultimate governance back then and there was an empire—the Roman empire. It was not a nation state. So, there is greater similarity involving Romans 13 with the Roman empire and the British empire (which like Rome extended far beyond national borders) than a nation state like the U.S.

The claim that we should send undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers back simply because they break the law is a red herring—a misleading and distracting argument. The question is not whether someone breaks the law or not, but whether the law that is broken is good and just. The American colonialists who broke the British law by claiming independence certainly believed they had just cause: for example, “No taxation without representation.”

Jonathan Edwards’ disciple Samuel Hopkins, along with other early abolitionists from that time, maintained that emancipation from Britain needed to be tied to the emancipation of slaves in the new country.[1] As the story goes, the colonies at that time rid themselves of unjust rule only to reinforce under the new government unjust rule over kidnapped Africans–forced immigrants—and their descendants. I should add that only in 1808 did the “Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves” (1807) take effect in the U.S. Slaves were eventually proclaimed free in 1863 with President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, though slavery did not come to an official end until December 1865 with the ratification of the 13thAmendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in public places and employment discrimination to racial minorities, among others. Until that time, Dr. King’s civil disobedience efforts to end segregation and related injustices were deemed illegal. But King argued by no means were such acts of civil disobedience immoral. He placed himself under a higher law.

Then there is Jesus, who broke the law repeatedly by healing people on the Sabbath and in other contexts. Take for example one among many texts (Mark 3:1-6; NIV):

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

The New Testament and early church community’s refusal to worship Caesar was also an act of rebellion against Roman rule. Jesus alone was Lord—a point he made clear on numerous occasions. Jesus alone will judge the nations, as Matthew 25:31-33 and other passages make clear. Rome required Caesar worship to keep the Roman Peace (Pax Romana). Thus, Jesus as the Christ must die on a cross—the form of capital punishment reserved for rebels. After all, Jesus was a king, and as such, was no friend of Caesar’s rule, as Jesus’ enemies rightly argued (John 19:12). We fail to realize with our privatized version of the gospel that when Jesus told Pilate his kingdom is not of this world, he was not arguing that his kingdom was irrelevant to this world, but that it is of a different order, operates by different and higher principles while intersecting it at every turn, and ultimately brings this world order to account before God (John 18:36; 19:11).  With these points in mind, it is no wonder that Jesus’ followers must die or at least suffer severe persecution for not bowing the knee to Caesar.

With that biblical point in mind, I have no idea how President Trump’s advisor Paula White can claim that Jesus never broke the law. Jesus often broke the law in service to a higher law. That is why he never sinned when breaking the man-made laws of his day. Jesus made his case to the ruling authorities that mercy trumps laws that harm or hinder people’s well-being at every turn. While Paul and the Christian community did seek to live in such a manner that they could be salt and light in the Roman empire, they broke the law when a higher law was at stake. Caring for orphans, widows and aliens in their distress always wins out biblically (Deuteronomy 10:18; James 1:27).

Instead of simply trying to shut down arguments by claiming undocumented people break the law and must be sent home, we must open up the box and ask if the laws that presently exist support life or harm life, not simply for this or that nation state or empire, but for all people. After all, Christians believe that our kingdom is not ultimately of this world system.


[1] See: Kenneth P. Minkema and Harry S. Stout, “The Edwardsean Tradition and the Antislavery Debate, 1740-1865,” The Journal of American History vol.92 no.1 (2005): 56.

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