The Moral Responsibility to Disobey Unjust Laws

Commentary
International passengers arrive at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Dulles, Va. June 26, 2017. REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

“I feel as though the Supreme Court has kicked us in the stomach.”

"Shameful and immoral.”

“My heart is broken.”

“I am outraged.”

“A very sad day in America … ”

“History will judge this ruling harshly.”

“God, give us wisdom and courage for this hour.”

These were just some of the initial reactions of our group as the ill-conceived ban on certain Arabic-speaking countries was upheld by the United States Supreme Court, a poorly structured policy that speaks not of America first, but of compassion last.

The decision to uphold President Donald Trump’s callous Muslim ban will be remembered in history alongside other cases where the highest court in the land failed deeply and shamefully to deliver justice, like Dred Scott when SCOTUS denied citizenship to anyone of African descent and Korematsu when SCOTUS upheld internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

Here’s what happened.

President Trump has made disparaging remarks about the Muslim community and his administration enacted discriminatory policy based specifically on religious affiliation. The Supreme Court failed to find discrimination and the policy was deemed constitutional. Yet the intent of this newest Muslim ban is the same as the previous bans — to keep out people from Muslim-majority countries. It’s an overtly discriminatory order that flagrantly violates America’s longstanding, values-driven commitment to serve due to the color of their skin, the language they speak, or how they pray. The Muslim ban undermines our values and weakens the moral fiber upon which our nation stands.

The Trump administration will be emboldened to continue policies that enact cruelty, racism, and xenophobia against families at the border and our airports. The Supreme Court slammed our nation’s doors on desperate refugees from places like war-torn Syria and Yemen who are seeking safety from violence, persecution, and starvation. It has slammed our nation’s doors on reunifying families. The Supreme Court is wrong.

Perhaps as wrong is the message this ruling sends to our global neighbors. When U.S. law declares that it is fine to break apart families, purge people groups and let them die based on fear of “the other,” this is the message: U.S. law only cares about some — not all. This is not a democracy. We are not who we say we are. America will discriminate against entire groups of people based on their faith.

We’ve violated the tenets of faith to love the neighbor and exercise welcome and hospitality toward the stranger. We’ve violated the belief that all people are created equal before God and that our lives and all life are inextricably interwoven. Violating these values weakens our relationship with God. To people supporting this profound government exclusion of religion who claim Christian faith, it says this: The forebears of our faith would renounce us. Their hatred brings soul death to our friends and families. This hatred also rots the heart of the perpetrator.

We’ve been here before.

The Supreme Court's endorsement of President Trump’s religious bigotry goes against our nation’s founding principles of religious freedom. The first settlers on New England shores fled religious persecution. Centuries later our nation's founders built a firewall against the corruption of faith through government intrusion or prohibition. They called that firewall the First Amendment to the Constitution. Ours became the first nation in the world to ban the establishment of state religion and our democracy is rich with faith because of it.

Witnessing today’s refugees and immigrants and the nativist backlash against them reminds us of the experience of many of our own families who arrived on America’s shores in the early 20th century. Scapegoating people of one religion, restricting their travel, separating families across international borders … we’ve seen this before. The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, a law aimed at keeping the United States free of immigrant populations deemed to be “suspicious” or “dangerous,” including Jews, Italians, and Asians, led to disastrous consequences when many who might otherwise have immigrated here perished in the Holocaust.

Now this administration’s renewed evils of racism and Islamophobia offer fertile breeding ground to solidify power with the targeted separation of the “other.” We must change this course.

One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.

“We will resist.”

“We will not succumb to such lies and false illusions of fear.”

“Future generations will not judge us by expensive walls built for political gain, but by the bridges we erect.”

“We will wrap our arms of love and protection around you.”

Just because the ban has been declared legal does not mean it is moral or righteous. We understand that God has no “other” and the immorality of such acts are not made righteous by the legalization of them.

While caged in a Birmingham jail, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King penned these words to white southern pastors who were uncomfortable with King’s presence and public outcry for justice: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

Historically, when the U.S. government has enacted policies that demonize entire groups of people, hate crimes go up. State violence is always tethered to hate violence. Make no mistake, hate crimes will go up. Not one of us can afford to be bystanders. So we may move forward with heavy hearts, but we move forward, full of resolve to resist the colonialist racism and fascism being perpetrated by this country. We will defend the core American principle of religious freedom and fairness for all against authoritarian measures. We stand against all who would enshrine and canonize bigotry into law.

The task for each of us is to remain in the struggle; we cannot despair to the point of surrendering to feelings of helplessness and impotence. If this president is empowered by his office to make decisions that alienate, the next president is empowered to unmake those decisions. That makes this SCOTUS decision a usable blessing.

In the face of every unconscionable policy or ruling, we the people rose up and fought for the soul of America.

“When my Sikh grandfather saw his Japanese Americans neighbors rounded up and sent to camps, he looked after their farms while they were incarcerated and traveled to the desert to see them.”

“Right after the election, a group of LA clergy gathered at the Islamic Center. Most of the clergy there were Latino. A mosque representative greeted guests saying, ‘You are safe here.’”

“Last year, 19 rabbis were arrested outside the Trump International Hotel protesting the original Muslim ban. A network of 2,000 rabbis will not stop protesting this ban, in any form, until it is canceled for good.”

Grief is prophetic; even as we mourn, even in our frustration, we must never forget the unbelievable power we have when good people of moral courage bind our hearts and wills together to make America free, really free, at last. We must take our dissatisfaction to the polls, voting out the haters, and electing officials who value each human life. We must elect a Congress that will hold this administration accountable and will act as a meaningful check on executive actions based in bigotry.

We come from a people who don’t give up. We serve with a people who don’t give up. We send the words “You are safe here.” Just because the Supreme Court decides something is legal, it does not make it just or moral. We will not be silent. Onward to the polls.

The Auburn Senior Fellows are 25 of today’s top leaders: fresh voices who bring justice-centered faith into the public square to help meet, head-on, today’s most pressing challenges — from race and equality to religion and politics, and beyond. They are an unprecedented cohort of changemakers brought together by Auburn Seminary in New York City. See their bios here

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