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In the time that I have spent advocating for more compassionate immigration reform, one counterargument I have heard fellow members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints use repeatedly is that our shared religious beliefs require a commitment to obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law. As a student of both the law and the gospel, I see great wisdom in our Church’s 12th Article of Faith, but I have always been troubled by the implication that any ethical or moral failure—of an individual or society—is automatically excused or justified by strict adherence to the law. The argument is often used as a trump card of sorts to squelch thoughtful and nuanced discussion: “If the law says it, then it must be right.” Right?

Well, it’s an interesting question, particularly if you look to the scriptures for guidance. In fact, the scriptures are filled with examples of people who faced this dilemma, and many of the most admired were defined by particular moments when they chose a divine, higher law over the laws or traditions of men; Daniel, Moses, Mordecai, Esther, Rebecca, Eve, to name a few. 

In Luke 20, those who were seeking to destroy Jesus sent spies to trap him with a question about whether one is obligated to obey unjust laws.

21 And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly:

22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Cæsar, or no?

23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me

24 Shew me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Cæsar’s.

25 And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which be Cæsar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.

26 And they could not take hold of his words before the people: and they marvelled at his answer, and held their peace.

It is telling, I think, that Jesus’ answer was nuanced—a directive, perhaps, not just to give Caesar the money with his face on it, but to present the question itself to Caesar. In fact, Jesus demonstrated repeatedly that He was mostly unconcerned about man’s laws and worldly traditions. He rescued the woman taken in adultery from a public stoning. He repeatedly healed on the Sabbath. He taught the Samarian woman at the well. And always, He directed the people to live a higher law: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

But He didn’t just flout or disregard the laws carelessly either. As He emphasized in Matthew 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill.” 

So what does this mean for us? As we exist in a world in which God’s laws and earthly laws are not always perfectly aligned, what is our responsibility? Are we to give blind devotion to unrighteous leaders? Are we to make martyrs of ourselves in the cause of Christ? As it was in Jesus’ day, the answer is more nuanced. And it is spelled out pretty clearly in Doctrine and Covenants section 98:

4 And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.
5 And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.
6 Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land;
7 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.
8 I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free.9 Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn.
10 Wherefore, honest [wo/men] and wise [wo/men] should be sought for diligently, and good [wo/men] and wise [wo/men] ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil.

Some days we can feel nearly crushed by mourning and feelings of helplessness over laws and policies that inflict suffering on God’s most vulnerable children. But we can find some comfort in supporting and becoming honest, wise, and good leaders and citizens who are doing our part to fight for more just and ethical laws at every level of government. And we can find peace in knowing that God will help us in efforts that can at times seem impossible, especially when we are seeking to bring our lives and our laws into greater accordance with the two great commandments. 

 “Wherefore, we search the prophets, and we have many revelations and the spirit of prophecy; and having all these witnesses we obtain a hope, and our faith becometh unshaken, insomuch that we truly can command in the name of Jesus and the very trees obey us, or the mountains, or the waves of the sea. Nevertheless, the Lord God showeth us our weakness that we may know that it is by his grace, and his great condescensions unto the children of men, that we have power to do these things.” (Jacob 4:6-7)