During the summer weeks between Juneteenth and Independence Day, I find myself thinking about the best and the worst of the United States, a nation that promises “liberty and justice for all,” yet has so often failed to deliver it.
This year is no exception: As I get ready for fireworks and barbecues, I’m at once relieved the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled against a legal theory that would have threatened the integrity of our elections and dismayed by reactions to the federal indictment of former President Donald Trump. The former is a victory for upholding the integrity of our electoral system; the latter is a threat to our constitutional commitment to equal justice under the law. Both rights — the right to vote and equal justice under the law — are indispensable to the freedoms we hold dear as Christians, from the right to assemble and protest to the right to worship freely.
I write this as someone painfully aware of the myriad ways in which equal justice under the law has rarely been achieved in the U.S., especially for Black and brown people. Just today, the Supreme Court ruled against affirmative action, a move that is likely to reduce the number of Black and brown students on some university campues. I also write as a Christian who believes deeply in the power of nonviolent civil disobedience, something I’ve participated in (and been arrested for) when facing laws or policies that I believe were deeply unjust, such as the Iraq War and the family separation policy under the Trump administration.
Yet as a Black man, a Christian, and a frequent protester, I still consider myself a staunch supporter of the rule of law. Here’s why:
When Christians think about the role of faith and the law of the land, we often turn to texts like Matthew 22:15-22 — the famous “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” passage — or Romans 13:1-10, in which Paul writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” Both passages have been misused to justify oppression, including slavery and patriarchy, as essential to Christian “obedience.” But I see something different: Both passages contrast human laws and human authority against the more foundational laws and authority of God — and understand that the latter always supersedes the former.
In Romans 13, the apostle Paul ties obedience to God’s expectation that governing authorities restrain evil and provide for the common good. The government, Paul writes, should be “God’s agent for your good” and “execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” In other words, laws and policies should be evaluated — and obeyed — based on the degree to which they promote the common good and restrain evil. And when governing authorities are unjust, the Bible offers examples of people who resisted, including the midwives defying Pharaoh (Exodus 1), Daniel and his friends defying Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3), and Peter and John questioning religious authorities (Acts 4).
So how do we determine which laws are just and which are worth of defiance? Admittedly, this is difficult, especially in the context of a legal system that all too frequently applies laws unevenly along racial and economic lines. But as with so much else, we can look to the life and teachings of Jesus, who preached peace and nonviolence, yet confronted the unjust authorities of his day, even to the point of his own crucifixion. Through it all, Jesus always acted for the common good, particularly in the context of protecting the most vulnerable and marginalized.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrestles with this question directly in his seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’ … Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
King is clear: The justness of a law or policy is based in whether it uplifts or degrades human beings. In other words, does the law or policy affirm human dignity or deny it? Does it expand who is included in “We the people…” or shrink it? Does it promote the common good or suffocate it?
But while we disobey unjust laws to obey the moral laws we have been given by God, there’s a flip side: As both Scripture and King make clear, when human laws do serve the common good or restrain evil, we should obey them.
And it’s through this lens of “obey laws that serve the common good” that I feel alarmed at reactions to Trump’s federal indictment, in which he has been charged with 37 felony counts of mishandling classified documents and obstruction of justice. According to recent polling, 81 percent of Republicans said politics is driving the case. While other elected officials, including former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Mike Pence, and President Joe Biden have been investigated for possession of classified documents, each of these politicians cooperated to quickly return the documents. The charges brought against Trump, by contrast, allege that Trump misled his own attorneys and the government to retain the documents in question.
The charges brought against Trump have a clear impact on the common good: Mishandling classified documents poses a risk to national security and obstructing justice undermines our ability to hold folks accountable for wrongdoing — which in turn can undermine our ability to stop others from acting similarly in the future (consider how prosecutions of Jan. 6 insurrectionists have helped deter further political violence). In seeking to hang on to classified documents despite the good faith efforts of public servants to reclaim them and a court subpoena, Trump was serving no one but himself.
As with anyone else accused of a crime, Trump should be presumed innocent until proven guilty; he deserves a fair trial in which the evidence brought against him — including the tape made public this week in which he confesses to knowingly sharing highly classified documents — is carefully reviewed and considered by a jury. He, like everyone else, deserves equal treatment under the law.
But Trump has long exhibited the characteristics of “strongman” leaders who seek to be above the law. When things don’t go his way, Trump makes himself the perpetual victim, claiming that any charge brought against him — whether by the FBI, the media, or the Justice Department— is a political witch hunt. And this sense that he’s above the law has not only put Trump in a serious legal bind of his own making, but it’s also put our nation’s commitment to democracy to an unprecedented test.
Regardless of what happens in his case, Trump’s claim that his indictment is politically motivated serves only to help himself. Just as Trump’s lies about the results of the 2020 election simultaneously decreased confidence in our electoral system while energizing his own supporters, claiming that his federal indictment is a witch hunt decreases confidence in our justice system while inflaming the supporters who are eager to see Trump become the 2024 Republican candidate. In other words, Trump continues to uplift himself while degrading confidence in our democracy — a tested tactic of strongmen and fascist leaders the world over and counter to God’s teaching about laws.
As fireworks boom this Independence Day, I will be praying that our country strives ever closer to realize our commitment to deliver equal treatment under the law — whether you’re a recent immigrant, a person living at the margins of our society, a CEO of major corporation, or a former president. And while I’m grateful for this country, particularly because of its highest ideal of extending liberty and justice for all, that love of country never supersedes my commitment to living out what Jesus called the two greatest commandments: to love God with all my mind, body, and soul and to love my neighbors as I love myself.