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Just and Unjust Laws

After being roundly criticized for Sunday's tear gassing by U.S. border agents of asylum seekers—including children—Donald Trump defended the action claiming the agents used a "very safe" and "very minor form" of tear gas. Trump also claimed the migrants were "some very tough people." Trump had previously authorized border guards to use lethal force, claiming the caravan included more than 500 "serious criminals."

Although all of Trump's claims are dubious at best, let's try to imagine a scenario where firing tear gas in the vicinity of children could be considered a moral action.

Nope. Can't think of one.

Even if Trump is corrent when he says the border agents have full legal authority to do so—itself a dubious claim—are there any circumstances that would justify this action?

We can find insight from a civil righs leader who has been gone for 50 years.

Five years before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King wrote a letter to white pastors explaining why he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. King had been invited to Birmingham to help local civil rights leaders protest the city's racist laws. The protesters took seats at whites-only lunch counters, knelt at the alters of whites-only churches, and sat down in whites-only libraries. Bull Connor, the city's Commissioner of Public Safety, worked with the city commission to ratchet up the segregation laws, prohibiting public gatherings and parades by African Americans, and increasing bail bond by 650%. In response, King organized a parade, and that's what landed him in jail.

A group of white pastors from other southern cities wrote King with concern about his methods. Wouldn't peaceful negotiation get better results? they asked.

King's response was that yes, peaceful negotiation would get better results, but since the city had not been interested in peaceful results, the protesters were left with no option but to create enough trouble to force the city's hand. King stressed nonviolent forms of resistance to heighten the contrast between the protesters and the response by city officials.

When Americans saw images of African American teenagers being attacked by police dogs and spray with fire hoses, public sentiment turned sharply against Connor, and King got his chance to negotiate. But that would be nearly a month after King's arrest.

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, King made the case that there are two types of laws: just laws and unjust laws. An unjust law, in King's words,

is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.

King further explained that although obeying a just law is a moral action, obeying an unjust law is an immoral action.

So I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court because it is morally right, and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.

King gave examples tracing civil disobedience's pedigree to ancient times.

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

And that it never ceased to be relevant.

I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws.

And so we come to this week's skirmish in Tijuana. U.S. officials saw the approach of a caravan too large to handle, so they closed the gates. Some of the asylum seekers looked for another way through, and attempted to dig under the fence. Was it wrong for them to do so? It was a violation of U.S. law, but is it a just or unjust law?

It's not a difficult calculation. Does denying asylum to those fleeing violence uplift human personality, or degrade it?

By flouting the immoral law, the asylum seekers were following a higher, moral law. The border agents missed an opportunity to do the same. Civilans who have walked hundreds of miles to escape violence deserve better treatment.

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