Legal But Immoral; Moral But Illegal

stowepaintingStill reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our book group. This morning we discussed two chapters that present diametrically contrasting situations. In the first, Haley, a slave trader taking a group of slaves down the Ohio to New Orleans, sells the infant child of a slave, takes the child when the mother is distracted, and when she finds out, basically says, “get over it.” She does. Later that night, while in fetters, she jumps into the Ohio River, and drowns. For Haley, it is the cost of doing business. Nothing he did was illegal, but as even he admits, there may be some things in the end he will need to repent of. This is the legal but immoral chapter, highlighting one of the worst aspects of slavery, breaking up families, even the bond of mother and child.

The next chapter is set in a Quaker settlement, presumably in eastern Indiana. Eliza and her child, who ran from their owner when she learns he is selling the child, have taken refuge with them.  News comes to the Quakers of another slave they will be sheltering. It turns out it is George, Eliza’s husband, an intelligent but abused slave of another owner. The chapter ends with the joyous reunion of husband and wife in a settlement vowed to protect them even though they are breaking fugitive slave laws. This is the moral but illegal chapter, where a religious community defies the law to help break the shackles of human bondage.

Both chapters open our eyes to a disturbing reality and a fateful choice. The disturbing reality is that not all that is legal is moral. Holding slaves or denying voting rights to a class of people because of gender or ethnicity was legal at one time in this country. Sometimes this leads people to fateful choices. Those who harbored and aided the flight of slaves broke fugitive slave laws.

What is hard in all of this is that the rule of law is considered indispensable to an ordered society. The just and impartial administration of law is crucial to a society that believes that all are created equal. President and poor man are subject to the same laws and should enjoy the same rights, and suffer the same punishments should they break these laws. Lawlessness, a contempt for the law where the law is wantonly broken, is rightfully denounced and punished, because unchecked, it leads to an anarchy of fear and violence.

Some in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s day would have called the acts of the Quaker settlement lawlessness. Yet I would argue that the practice of civil disobedience is never wanton or contemptuous of law. It takes law and justice seriously enough to disobey and challenge laws that violate more basic moral law, whether concerned with human rights and dignity, or concerned with refusing to the state the allegiance one should give to God alone, even when such allegiance is “lawfully” demanded. It also does not seek to evade the penalties of lawbreaking, another way of showing the seriousness with which both laws, and the decision to disobey a law is taken.

Today, we celebrate those who sheltered and aided fugitive slaves. We recognize them as worthy of honor because they refused to do the legal but immoral action. We celebrate those who lied to Nazis and risked their lives to help Jews escape to safety. We celebrate Rosa Parks simply for sitting down.

It does seem that in many cases, those who refused to obey immoral laws picked their battles. Then as now, one could find a hundred things to go to jail for. Sometimes the battles picked them. This also happens in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when a state senator in a free state (Ohio, no less), supports a fugitive slave law, and then find he can’t obey it when escaping slaves seek shelter in his kitchen.

Perhaps all the talk of sanctuary cities and so forth makes reading Uncle Tom’s much less a matter of abstract discussion. What the reading does for me is call into greater focus the contrast between legal but immoral laws and moral but illegal acts, and the uncomfortable reality that sometime, I may also have to choose between these.

There is no question that civil disobedience is a challenge to law. This should challenge any of us who care for the rule of law to be watchful against the use of law for immoral ends, and to be vigilant for the just and impartial enforcement of law. It is a gift to live in a country where the rule of law is highly valued. It is a gift to be guarded against both tyranny, where law is used to oppress, and anarchy, where law no longer rules.

More fundamentally, the possibility of civil disobedience relies upon a moral compass-the ability to recognize when law violates the good, the true and the beautiful. It challenges us as citizens that perhaps our first work is to cultivate that moral awareness in our own lives and actions. Doing such work helps us distinguish between something that is truly wrong and something that simply doesn’t serve my interest or suit my taste. There are many sources of outrage, and not all are rooted deeply in the moral sense. This reflection, this cultivation of character, and integrity of life seems to me to be essential to the disposition that both upholds the rule of law, and knows when there is a higher law that must instead be obeyed.

3 thoughts on “Legal But Immoral; Moral But Illegal

  1. Marion Pritchard, a Dutch gentile, has lessons to teach from her experience of hiding Jews from Nazis in her homeland.

    Not only did she commit civil disobedience by hiding Jewish families, she killed a Nazi sympathizer who got into her house and almost found some Jewish children hiding there.

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