I’d dare to venture that there’s almost no one who has not, at one point or another, done something that was illegal. I speed. On a daily basis. Not necessarily by a lot, but it seems to me that it would actually be unsafe to go 55 miles per hour on most of the Interstates in suburban Chicago. At 60 or 65 miles per hour, I still should be in the slow lane to avoid upsetting other drivers. (And, let’s be honest, sometimes I go faster than that). A lot of us have sent a text message while driving (or while at a stop light), even though we know that’s illegal in many places and even though we’d probably acknowledge that it’s a reasonable law that is designed to curtail distracted driving and save lives. I’ve been pulled over (but never yet given a ticket—thank God for prosecutorial discretion) for failing to come to a full and complete stop at stop sign.
It’s not just traffic laws, either: copyright and other intellectual property laws get broken frequently, often without consequence. Some of us have broken the law by downloading music we did not pay for (remember Napster or Limewire?). Others have posted an image on a blog to which they did not own the copyright (“you mean I can’t just copy and paste from Google Images?”). Some churches and schools have screened films without purchasing the public performance rights.
There are other laws that get violated on a regular basis but that few people even realize are on the books. Here in Illinois, where I live, fornication—having sexual intercourse with a person other than one’s spouse—is a misdemeanor offense. As a Christian, I believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, but I’m pretty sure it happens quite often in Illinois. In Tennessee, it’s a misdemeanor offense—or in some cases a felony—to share your Netflix password: you could actually spend time in jail. In Appleton, Wisconsin, very near to where I grew up, some kids recently got busted for running a lemonade stand.
I’m not condoning the violation of any law, but I do think it’s interesting that there’s only one category of law for which offenders get labeled “illegals” in our society. People who are present unlawfully in the United States, in violation of immigration law, have not even necessarily committed a crime (U.S. immigration law is civil law, not criminal law, so unless they have been convicted of an additional offense, it is simply inaccurate to say that “all ‘illegals’ are criminals”).
People who have entered the United States unlawfully or who have overstayed a visa have broken the law, and I think it is appropriate in most cases that they be penalized: the bipartisan immigration reform bill that passed the U.S. Senate last month did so by requiring those present unlawfully to pay a total of $2,000 in fines and meet certain standards of good behavior during a ten year interim period before being eligible to apply for permanent legal status (the bill includes distinct, slightly less onerous processes for agricultural workers and for those who were brought to the United States as children). But I don’t think that we should use dehumanizing terms like “illegal” to describe those who have violated civil U.S. immigration law, unless we’re willing to apply the same term to all who violate a civil law. Jesus said, when confronted with a woman caught in adultery, that he who was without sin should cast the first stone (John 8:7). The government has a divinely-ordained role of maintaining order, and it may be appropriate that it apply fines or other penalties for those who have violated immigration laws, but my role as an individual Christian is distinctly different. Before I condemn others, I’m instructed to examine myself, removing the plank from my own eye before trying to remove the speck from my brother’s (Matthew 7:5).
When laws are dysfunctional—when our society collectively agrees that they are not working—we should change them. That’s the blessing of a democracy, and that’s the process that is now occurring in our Congress: the Senate has passed a strong, bipartisan bill, and now the House of Representatives has the responsibility to come up with common sense reforms.
On Friday, we’ll debut a new video here on G92.org that light-heartedly makes this point: that we should change laws that are broken, rather than merely labeling those who have violated the law. Along with the video, we’ll be launching a new advocacy tool on our site, allowing you to quickly make a phone call to your Representative and help to change our broken laws. But we need your help to spread the word and to get as many people as possible to make telephone calls. Here’s what you can do:
1) Sign up now for our G92 email list and we’ll send you a link with a password for a sneak preview of the “Illegal” video.
2) Sign up to support our “Thunderclap” with your Twitter account, so that you’ll automatically tweet out a link to the new film on Friday.
3) On Friday, please watch the film, follow the instructions to make a call to your Congressperson, and then share the video as widely as possible: on Facebook, on Twitter, via email, and in whatever other creative ways you can imagine.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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