If you read the July 20th Arizona Republic article “Plaintiffs poised to challenge Arizona’s immigration law,” you may have noticed that Luz Santiago, a pastor at Iglesia Pueblo de Dios in Mesa, has been confronted with a horrible dilemma by the passage of Arizona’s new immigration bill.
Frédéric Bastiat famously stated in The Law that “when law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law.” Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening. Both outcomes of this decision are deeply undesirable for the people of Arizona.
These types of dilemmas are very troubling, but history does provide some guidance. Examples abound with moral lawbreakers. Martin Luther King didn’t ask the permission of racists to challenge their convictions. Gandhi stood in defiance of the law to the British imperialists. John Brown would not wait to see enslaved Africans liberated any longer and acted decisively. Lysander Spooner never groveled for state sanction to become a lawyer or to start the American Letter Mail Company. Henry David Thoreau refused to pay a poll tax in protest of the travesty of the Mexican-American War, subsequently writing Civil Disobedience as a result. It was in his cell that he proclaimed, “under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Harriet Tubman reacted to the injustice of slavery and risked her life many times to free the enslaved from bondage. The Tea Partiers of the American Revolution did not wait for the law to catch up to their sense of moral indignation; they acted on their own consciences as a small fraction of the Boston community!
Recently, Bradley Manning bravely acted out against the murderous policies of the American state. His and Wikileaks’ actions, though illegal like those of Daniel Ellsberg of a previous epoch, did a great deal to unearth the madness of the policies of the state and furthered justice.
We certainly do not judge well the “Good Germans” of World War II who were supposedly uninvolved in the Nazi terrors. “Just following orders” is contrary to most Americans’ intuitive sense of justice. If one obeys a law because the guiding principle is just then morality and our community are well-served. People who behave in this manner do our communities a great service. However, if one obeys a law for no better reason than that it is law, all one is doing is respecting power, and disappointingly, not virtue.
American culture is many things, but it is definitively not about respect for unjust authority. The entire history and culture of this place echoes a profound respect (at the very least rhetorically) for freedom and justice under the law. America has seen a strong tradition of individuals acting immediately as nullifiers to laws they deem unjust.
Regardless of whether one agrees with the thrust of Arizona’s immigration bill, SB1070, we should all agree that following laws merely because they are laws is a horribly low standard to set for our communities. I personally don’t want people who “just follow orders” as my neighbors. I want neighbors who boldly confront problems which prick their moral indignation and offend their sense of justice. Members of our community who are willing to act against their moral convictions and follow bad laws are not reliable members of a responsible community, and never could be.
Even if one does not agree with Luz Santiago’s anti-SB1070 stance, one should openly welcome her voice in a freethinking and inquisitive community and be glad that there are some who will bravely follow their moral convictions in the face of great opposition. One would be lucky to have such neighbors in any community.