At the end of perhaps the greatest sermon in history, Jesus of Nazareth said,

Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

The difference, Jesus says, is in the doing. 2000 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,

America has been something of a divided personality, tragically divided against herself. On the one hand we have proudly professed the great principles of democracy, but on the other hand we have sadly practiced the very opposite of these principles.

Dr. King pointed out that we have a problem with the doing. Notice, too, that he didn’t say we had a problem practicing equality; he said we had a problem practicing democracy.

The word democracy is Greek and means ‘rule by the people.’ According to the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics, the first question of democracy is “who are to count as ‘the people?’” That question is at the heart of the most fundamental problem of U.S. history. It also brings us back to the problem of actually doing what it is that we say we believe. It gets back to Dr. King’s question of whether we will do what we say we will do.

Thomas Jefferson justified our disloyalty to, and war with, England with these words:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dr. King pointed out that the Declaration of Independence “doesn’t say ‘some men,’ it says ‘all men.’ It doesn’t say ‘all white men,’ it says ‘all men.’”

It has always been amazing to me that throughout the struggle for abolition/emancipation in the 1860s, and 100 years later during the civil rights movement, African Americans did not make arguments that the language of the founding was too narrow or too exclusive. Rather, they often quoted that language because they recognized that it wasn’t the language that was insufficient. It is not the language which fails us; it is our inability to believe in, and act upon, the claims made in that language. In other words, our failure as a nation isn’t that we need a new mandate, it is that we have not lived up to the mandate we started with.

This is very poignant to me because Jefferson himself had neither the capacity nor the courage to believe his own words. He relied on the institution of slavery personally and although other duties kept him from the Constitutional Convention, there is little doubt that he would have been willing to ignore his own Declaration of human equality—and dehumanize African American enslaved persons to the legal status of three-fifths of a person, and devoid of human rights—in order to form a union between the thirteen colonies.

This reminds me of Jesus and Caiaphas, the high priest. In the Gospel According to Saint John, Caiaphas and his council said,

If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.

In this passage, Caiaphas does not mean to be prophesying about the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, but rather of the expedience of killing this popular and dangerous man in order to keep peace.

When I think of Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, I have to relate it to Caiaphas. Dr. King, like St. John, was able to see the wisdom in the words of people who didn’t have a full understanding of what they themselves were saying.

It is with that perspective that I relate Jefferson and King to immigration. When are we, as a nation, actually going to believe that all humans are equal? When will accept that “there are no gradations in the image of God,” and that “all men are equal in intrinsic worth.”? When will we see that creating the classification illegal immigrant “substitutes an ‘I-It’ relationship for the ‘I-Thou’ relationship and relegates persons to the status of things.”? This isn’t only evident when people use the adjective “illegal” as a noun (thus stripping the humanity of the individual away, leaving only the legal status). It is seen when we—a country who claims that rights are not given to citizens because of their relationship with the state, but rather to persons because of human kind’s relationship with our Creator—acknowledge the rights of some, but not of others. This is the epitome of dehumanization. My personal humanity refuses to allow me to treat my fellow humans as a function of their legal status simply because “this nation” has yet to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

It is this basic belief, this basic sense of justice and fairness, this basic sense of humanity–and our distance from those ideas–that forces me to entertain the ideas of civil disobedience. If this is not a law that morality requires me to break (aiding a so-called illegal immigrant), there never was such a thing.

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