When Breaking the Law is the Right Thing to Do

This post was originally posted on The Art of the Taleh

Being a member of God’s kingdom often causes us to be at odds with the nation in which we live. John Stott writes, “To put it in a nutshell, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, possessing dual nationality, the one earthy and the other heavenly. And each citizenship brings duties that we are not free to avoid.” Philippians 3:20 reminds us that “our citizenship is heaven,” and this truth demands that we welcome the immigrants pouring into our country with open arms. But how do we do that when our nation’s immigration policies label God’s children as illegal?

In 2011, Georgia enacted Georgia House Bill 87 (official title: Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011), an immigration law, which gives the state the right to arrest, detain, and fine someone for harboring or transporting undocumented immigrants. This crime is punishable of up to $1,000 and a prison sentence of up to a year. As I sat with a friend, fears being separated from her family because of deportation, I was enraged that by opening our spare room, I could go to prison for a year. Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid worker, was arrested for providing water, a meal and shelter for migrants. He is not the only person to face charges for helping migrants. Teresa Todd, an elected Texas official, pulled her car over to help a migrant family on the side of the road and was. Both Todd and Warren were following their conscience to care for those in need. I have stopped for many families on the side of the street. I’ve passed out water bottles to people and given money and meals freely to those who ask. I’ve never stopped to ask if someone had documentation. But the enforcement of similar laws as Georgia House Bill 87, make me questions these small acts of mercy.

Because of House Bill 87 and the enforcement of similar laws, I’ve struggled with what it means to care for the immigrant. If I follow God’s command to love my neighbor, I become at odds with my state’s immigration policies. If I provide shelter for the homeless immigrant, I am breaking a Georgia law.

The Old Testament documents how we are to care for the immigrants and foreigners among the Israelites. In Deuteronomy 10:18, it says that God himself “defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” Jesus builds upon these teachings by saying, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). Throughout scripture, God details the importance of caring for the immigrant, foreigner and refugee. As I’ve wrestled with how Scripture implores me to welcome the immigrant, I’ve begun to realize that to follow God; I must engage in civil disobedience.


Church history provides a rich account of men and women wrestling with the tensions and often dichotomies of their spiritual and physical citizenships. How do we obey both God and “the emperor” (Romans 13)? What if the laws of the Bible and laws of the government oppose each other? Perhaps it might surprise you how often Christians have had to navigate this dilemma, often times making the brave choice to defy national policy in order to love and care for the marginalized, the needy and the oppressed. Other times, they stayed silent or, worse, they participated in the atrocities themselves.

In the 1800s, it was illegal to help former slaves, even if you were north of slave holding states. The fugitive slave act, which Congress enacted in 1793, authorized local governments to arrest slaves and send them back to their slave owners. The law made it illegal to harbor and give aid to any escaped slave. Despite the law, Christian abolitionists, such as Benjamin Lay and Elizabeth Freeman risked their own lives to advocate the ending of slavery and ferry slaves to safety. They believed that slavery was immoral. Tim Stafford, in a CT article, writes, “But even those who had left the church drew on unmistakably Christian premises, especially on one crucial point: slavery was sin. Sin could not be solved by political compromise or sociological reform, abolitionists maintained. It required repentance; otherwise America would be punished by God.”

While abolitionist fought to end slavery, many in the church considered abolitionist criminals. Christians beat abolitionists in the streets and burned their houses. Sadly, abolitionist chose to break the law to follow Jesus and were demonized by the church.

In Nazi Germany, most Christians tried to remain neutral. Those in the church watched as Nazi’s took Old Testament’s from churches, stole businesses from their Jewish neighbors and eventually moved Jews into ghettos and later into concentration camps.

However, Dietrich Bonhoeffer could not remain silent in the face of the Nazi’s evil. He was a critic of their policies. He established the Confessing Church – one of the only organized networks not only to resist Nazism but to help Jews as well – and was head of the illegal seminary of the Confessing Church. He also joined the resistance movement. Bonhoeffer was later arrested for his plot to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, and yet his faith told him to join the resistance. He broke the law and was executed by the Nazi’s. He chose to align with God’s kingdom and died for his obedience.

In Rwanda, Christians didn’t just sit by and watch as their neighbors were slaughtered in the Tutsi genocide; they participated. In his article, Church Politics and the Genocide in Rwanda, Timothy Longman writes, “As critics of Rwanda’s churches have pointed out, not only did church buildings become the sites of massacres, but most of the killers were Christian, and even some pastors and priests participated in the slaughter.”

The church had close ties with the ruling political party. The church helped to provide legitimacy for the regime and to organize support. And while there is no evidence that they were members of the core group of military officers that planned the massacre, the churches helped to create the soil of racism that allowed the killings to happen. Longman also writes, “Instead the churches helped make genocide possible by making ethnic violence understandable and acceptable to the population.”

The church in Rwanda had a policy and practice of teaching obedience to authority, which made it easy for church leaders to ignore pleas of sanctuary from their Tutsi neighbors. It even gave cover for their parishioners to join in the slaughter.


There is a history of Christians choosing to break the law to bring God’s kingdom here. But there is also a history of our church choosing to ignore Jesus’ plea to care for the poor and marginalized out of misplaced desire to be obedient to the state.

With the freedom of hindsight, we can easily judge the churches that were on the wrong side of history. Since slavery is illegal in our country, it is easy to assume we would have been abolitionists. When the allies defeated Nazi Germany, we all condemned the church’s silence. And because we know the horrors of the Rwandan genocide, we have the freedom to argue for a guilty verdict of the Rwandan church.

But how do we know that we would have chosen God’s kingdom over our earthly nation during past conflicts if we are refusing to do so today?

Our church is once again asked to choose between God’s kingdom and our earthly nation. In the unjust laws of the immigration system, our country has systematically taken advantage of men and women who cross our borders. As this injustice continues, God asks in Deuteronomy 10:19, “Who will speak for my children? You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” And yet many in the church hide behind the argument that the church is not a political entity. But the church’s responsibility to care for God’s people has nothing to do with politics. God’s call to love our neighbor does not include the exception: if the country you live in allows it.

Will we care for God’s people, regardless of the law? Or will we ignore the human rights’ violations that are happening at our border? Will we as Christians try to be neutral? Or will we aid the current government and demonize immigrants? Will we give the current administration legitimacy ignoring the killing of innocent children in detainment centers? Will we forget our command to love our neighbor and refuse sanctuary when ICE comes knocking?

I want to believe that if I had lived in the 1800's, I would have been an abolitionist. I pray that I would have sided with Bonhoeffer and risked death to oppose the Nazis. I hope that I would have done all I could to have saved the Tutis, even at my peril. But if I cannot stand up for Jesus today, then what makes me think that I would have the courage to have stood with him in the past?

There is no wiggle room in the gospel. Jesus’ command to follow him does not allow us to wait until 2020 or some other time in the future. To follow Jesus requires action today, regardless of the law of our nation.

As a church, we need to ask ourselves what it means to be the body of Christ. Will we follow Jesus, even when it is difficult and unpopular? Will we be like the writers of the New Testament and risk imprisonment for the sake of the gospel? Will we follow Jesus and take up our cross, being willing to lose our life?

If the answer is yes, then the church must stand against what the government is doing at the border. We must, as a church, choose to offer sanctuary, food and comfort to all God’s children.

It’s the government’s job to worry about borders and policies. But as a church, it is our job to care for all God’s people. And as for me and my household, we will choose to follow God, regardless of the law.


To learn more about how to join us in caring for God’s children, consider the following resources:

  • Border Perspectives: This organization equips people to go to the border. You can find out more about this fantastic organization here.

  • The Immigration Table: This organization has resources on how you can help in different border towns. Learn more here.

  • The Immigration Coalition: Directed by Rondell Trevino, this organization equips the church with critical, thoughtful ways to understand the immigration debate. You can learn more here.

There are also great books about how we can love our neighbors:

  • I have just started reading, Sarah Quezada’s book, Love Undocumented and highly recommend it.

  • Also, Welcoming the Stranger by Matthew Soerens, Jenny Yang and Leith Anderson.



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