Obligation to Obey the Law: How Far Does it Go?
From early childhood, we are taught to distinguish between right and wrong. Our parents made rules for us to follow, in order to protect us from harm. Our country makes rules, called laws, with the intention of protecting its people and preserving peace. Sometimes, a person, or group of people, feels that a law does neither of these things. Are they obligated to obey the law, even if that law seems wrong or unfair to them?
Picture a prison cell in Athens, Greece, in 399 BC. On the narrow bed lies Socrates, the greatest philosopher of that time. He is condemned to die when the ship from Delos returns, as is the custom. His crime is teaching people to think for themselves. Socrates' friend, Crito, comes, offers him a chance to escape, and begs him to take it. Sitting up, Socrates begins to explain why he will not.
First, Socrates says that the law is an absolute authority. People need to have such a standard to maintain order. If he were to escape, that order would be undermined, because other people who had broken a law would try to escape their punishments, and after a while, the law wouldn't do any good. So, Socrates concludes, people are bound to obey the laws of the state to preserve the ideal balance of society. A few days later, he gives himself a drink of hemlock, lies down, and goes to sleep for the last time.
Picture a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 AD. On the narrow cot sits Martin Luther King, Jr., the greatest civil rights leader of that time. He is condemned to a jail sentence of two weeks. His crime is participating in a march protesting segregation without a permit. He is writing a letter to seven fellow clergymen, who agree that segregation is wrong, but not with King's method of deliberately breaking the law to protest.
King tells the men that, unlike Socrates, he does not believe that people are bound to always obey the state law, because there are just and unjust laws. The just laws are the ones which protect peace and, of course, preserve justice (order). These we should and must obey. But "justice" has changed meanings many times.
An unjust law, King writes, is really not a law at all. He describes such "laws" as ones which don't apply to everyone, treat certain people as less than human, and are forced upon people who don't have a say, or representation, in the law making process. Unjust laws must be protested through non-violent, or "civil" disobedience. Segregation was legal and accepted in King's time. But it perfectly fits King's definition of unjust laws.
King points out that he isn't the first person to disobey unjust laws. Being a pastor, he turns to the Bible for many of his examples. Against the law, Daniel prayed to God instead of the king. Against the law, Jesus healed on the Sabbath and taught that He was the Son of God. Against the law, His followers carried on His message, some of them dying for their beliefs. But the Bible says they all found "favor in the eyes of the Lord", which strongly suggests that there is a "Higher Law", as King writes. Here, he disagrees with Socrates, who believed that the State is the highest law there is.
I, like Socrates, know that laws are the standard for peace and order, and the means by which these are maintained. But, like King, I believe that a Higher Law, God's law, exists. When the two contradict, God's law must be obeyed, whatever the cost or consequences.