Declaration of Independence







 

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The next three week’s readings come from Martin Luther King’s most influential book, Why We Can’t Wait.  In this week’s chapter, “The Sword That Heals,” Dr. King discusses many of the same principles that we have discussed in earlier weeks.  This time, the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience are told in their historical context.

 

Civil Disobedience

            One of the most persuasive passages I’ve read about civil disobedience comes from this chapter.  Dr. King wrote,

          There were no more powerful moments in the Birmingham episode than during the closing days of the campaign, when Negro youngsters ran after white policemen, asking to be locked up.  There was an element of unmalicious mischief in this.  The Negro youngsters, although perfectly willing to submit to imprisonment, knew that we had already filled up the jails, and that the police had no place left to take them.

            When, for decades, you have been able to make a man compromise his manhood by threatening him with a cruel and unjust punishment, and when suddenly he turns upon you and says: “Punish me.  I do not deserve it, I will accept it so that the world will know that I am right and you are wrong,” you hardly know what to do.  You feel defeated and secretly ashamed.  You know that this man is as good as you are; that from some mysterious source he has found the courage and the conviction to meet physical force with soul force.

            So it was that, to the Negro, going to jail was no longer a disgrace but a badge of honor.

When I read these paragraphs, I am completely convinced that nonviolent civil disobedience—when practiced widely—has more power to break the psychological shackles of unjust laws crippling our community than almost any other principle.  Moving across international borders to pursue happiness is not wrong!  We must stop acting like it is.  We must challenge (not just ignore) the laws that prevent that pursuit.

 

Constitutional Litigation

            In this chapter, Dr. King gave a summary of the various approaches for equality since Emancipation.  He started with Booker T. Washington’s admonition to work hard, moved on to W. E. B. Dubois’s call for education, explained Marcus Garvey’s ideas about racial pride and a return to Africa, and ended up describing the NAACP’s recourse to Constitutional litigation.  It is then that Dr. King said, “Nonviolent action, the Negro saw, was the way to supplement—not replace the process of change through legal recourse.”

            This quote brings me back to a problem I have been wrestling with for quite some time, without sufficient success.  What success can we hope to see in a civil disobedience campaign without Constitutional litigation?  This is difficult because of the plenary power doctrine, which says that Congress has absolute power of the area of immigration and the courts cannot overturn its legislation.  If the Supreme Court is unwilling to apply the Constitutional guarantees to immigration law, how damaging is that for us?  How necessary is litigation in the fight for rights in the United States?

Nonviolent vs. Violent Reform

            I love King’s quote here in pages 27 and 28, and just have to share it.

          Angry exhortation from street corners and stirring calls for the Negro to arm and go forth to do battle stimulate loud applause.  But when the applause dies, the stirred and the stirring return to their homes, and lie in their beds for still one more night with no progress in view.  They cannot solve the problem they face because they have offered no challenge but only a call to arms, which they themselves are unwilling to lead, knowing that doom would be its reward.  They cannot solve the problem because they seek to overcome a negative situation with a negative means….  The conservatives who say, ‘Let us not move so fast,’ and the extremists who say, ‘Let us go out and whip the world,’ would tell you that they are as far apart as the poles.  But there is a striking parallel: They accomplish nothing.

Let us not be guilty of the same accusation.  When I am properly trained, I plan to actually do what I’m talking about.  I plan to break the law and submit myself to arrest.  I am trying to get in contact with a law student who is organizing a civil disobedience campaign for this summer in the Arizona desert.  He plans to defy the law that makes it a felony to aid someone that a reasonable person would consider to be an “illegal immigrant.”  Given that people are dying in the desert, he plans to provide food, water, and a car ride to anyone who needs it.  I’m hoping he plans to get arrested.  If so, I’ll likely join him.

 

The African American Example

            Dr. King knew this day would come.  On page 31, King said, “The Negro saw that by proving the sweeping and majestic power of nonviolence to bring about the beloved community, it might be possible for him to set an example to a whole world caught up in conflict.”  He often said some variation of,

          When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say ‘There lived a race of people, black people, fleecy locks and black complexion, of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights.” And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and of civilization.

When I study history, I am compelled to say it – to quote it just like King said it.  When I study history, I am compelled to look at the sacrifice of the hundreds of thousands who marched, the thousands who were jailed, the hundreds who were beaten, and each person who was killed, and say ‘I will not let your lesson go unlearned.’

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From this week’s reading assignment, I have just two points and a question. First, I will reexamine how King determines what makes disobedience civil. Then I will make an argument about segregation and tokenism as it regards immigration. The question I’ll leave you with is about whether we are in a time of sowing or reaping.

In contrasting the differences between civil- and uncivil-disobedience, Dr. King says:

“In disobeying such unjust laws, the students do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, they willingly accept the penalty, whatever it is, for in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question and will thus decide whether it uplifts or degrades man.

“This distinguishes their position on civil disobedience from the “uncivil disobedience” of the segregationist. In the face of laws they consider unjust, the racists seek to defy, evade and circumvent the law, and they are unwilling to accept the penalty. The end result of their defiance is anarchy and disrespect for the law. The students, on the other hand, believe that he who openly disobeys a law, a law conscience tells him is unjust, and then willingly accepts the penalty, gives evidence thereby that he so respects the law that he belongs in jail until it is changed. Their appeal is to the conscience.”

King lists the qualities of civil disobedience as: peaceful, open, nonviolent, and accepting of penalty. King lists the qualities of uncivil disobedience as: defiant, evasive, and circumventing of the law; and unaccepting of penalty. King lists the outcomes of civil disobedience as: public reexamination of the law, and increased respect for law. King lists the outcome of uncivil disobedience as: anarchy, and disrespect for law.

 

King’s lifelong fight was against a system that prevented all people from freely associating with those of a different race in all aspects of life. In the United States of America from (roughly) 1896 to 1965, that system was called segregation. In South Africa until the mid 1990s, that same system was called apartheid. In the United States of America, that exact system is called restricted immigration. I cannot freely associate with those who I choose to if the government tells them they do not have a legal right to be here. I think we should come up with a name for restricted migration that makes this reality clear. Perhaps the term “national segregation” could work. I’m not sure, what do you think?

 

Understanding restricted immigration as segregation makes clear that a system which gives a few people permission to enter the United States, while denying hundreds of thousands of others, is a system of tokenism. Tokenism is also giving amnesty to the undocumented immigrants currently living in the country while blocking the way for others. Ours, instead, “is total commitment to [the] goal of equality and dignity,” and not just for those currently here. This is why Reagan’s amnesty plan failed.

Abraham Lincoln and the Reconstruction Congress well understood this principle. Tokenism for them would have been emancipating a generation of slaves while maintaining the institutions of slavery and the slave trade. Our situation is no difference. We are not fighting for the Mexican; we are fighting for the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indian, the Irish, the Italian, the Mexican, and whatever ethnic group will come next. To paraphrase Dr. King, God is not interested in the freedom of movement of black men and brown men, but in the freedom of movement of all men. Our goal must be unrestricted migration, not just because it is necessary for democracy, but because it is morally compelling.

 

My question comes from this line. “The current breakthroughs have come about partly as a result of the patient legal, civil and social ground clearing of the previous decades.” While there has been social ground-clearing, there hasn’t been any legal ground clearing (not for 125 years at least). My questions are these. Would civil disobedience be premature right now? Does the legal have to preceed the social? Dr. King’s movement came after the major legal battle to end segregation (Brown v. Board). Is something similar required before civil disobedience will be effective and useful, especially given that disobedient immigrants are not jailed, they are deported? Civil disobedience is designed to change unjust laws. Dr. King used it to change unjust local laws that were out of compliance with newly implemented federal standards. Immigration law is an unjust federal law. Do we need to advance international law before we use civil disobedience to challenge the more local, federal laws?

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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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