When Doing the Right Thing Is Illegal

Herb Montgomery | June 14, 2019

Picture of a wall with writing that says, "No one is illegal."
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

“What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear.”


“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

In this story in Mark’s gospel, Jesus contrasts that which is lawful and that which is life-saving, and calls our values and priorities into question. Among the values and principles we hold dear and seek to live out in our daily lives, which values hold our highest priority? Let’s look at the story in its entirety:

“Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, ‘Stand up in front of everyone.’ Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:1-6)

Each of the gospels interprets the Sabbath work-prohibition and includes acts of healing in the category of labor that was forbidden during Sabbath.

“He said to them, ‘If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11-12)

“Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’” (Luke 13:14)

“Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath . . . Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’” (John 9:14-16)

This interpretation of what it meant to be faithful to the Sabbath prohibitions was an interpretation by those who did not need healing, those in power and positions of privilege. It was an interpretation by those most prone to underestimate the damage of their interpretation because it did not affect them negatively. 

We must also remember, as we read these stories in our context today, that people in the 1st Century didn’t look at healings the same way most people do today. Healing wasn’t considered exceptional as it is in our post-enlightenment scientific age. Healing was normative. 

The point of these stories was not that Jesus healed, but about who was being healed and when. Jesus continually healed and restored those who were being socially marginalized. He stood with those being pushed to the edges of his society by the elite. 

Every story of healing in the gospels questions the legitimacy of the status quo, and subverts the myths on which the status quo was based. These are stories of resistance, survival, and liberation as well as stories of healing.

Ched Myers in his book “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship correctly states: 

“In contrast to Hellenistic literature, in which miracle-workers normally function to maintain the status quo, gospel healings challenge the ordering of power. Because Jesus seeks the root causes of why people are marginalized, there is no case of healing and exorcism in Mark that does not also raise a larger question of social oppression.” (“Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, p. 14)

Law and Order

And this brings us to the point of the passage we are considering this week. What happens when we have to choose between saving life and abiding by the law? Jesus’ healings call us to take a side either with the marginalized and liberator (with Jesus) or to interpret his acts as lawless defiance. How we choose is determined by which value we hold most dear—standing alongside the vulnerable over and against harm being done or being committed to the status quo above all else.

This is nothing new. White clergy in the South used the legality argument to try to silence Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights movement. King responded, 

“We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.” It was “illegal” to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers.” (Read Letter from a Birmingham Jail)

Today we can still feel the tension between what is legal and what is compassionate, just, or right. Consider the example of Scott Warren and others volunteering for the humanitarian aid organization No More Deaths. No More Deaths provides food and water along migrant trails in Arizona. Right now, Warren is on trial for offering humanitarian aid to migrants in some of the most lethal terrains of their migration. Humanitarian aid is deemed a crime, legally, but the No More Deaths organization is arguing back “that humanitarian aid is never a crime” (see CNN). NPR also reported on these actions last week: “Extending ‘Zero Tolerance’ To People Who Help Migrants Along The Border.” I can hear the echo of Jesus’ question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

Faith Communities and Noncompliance

Within faith communities, there are also times when people have to choose between complying with what their institution’s policies allow versus doing what is right. I think of many leaders in the faith tradition I grew up in having to face compliance committees set up to enforce policies prohibiting the ordination of women, excluding LGBTQ members, and silencing scholars who hold scientific views about Earth’s geological record.

In the United Methodist tradition, there are leaders standing against policy, or what is legal, to do what is right. Just last week I read how two US conferences are ordaining and commissioning LGBTQ clergy despite their institution’s ban. (Read the entire story at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/two-us-conferences-ordain-commission-lgbtq-clergy.)

Taking both their noncompliance and their commitment to doing what is right very seriously, Bishop Sally Dyck, resident bishop of the Chicago Area, stated, “My prayer is that the church will grow in grace so as to fully give its blessing to every child of God who is called to ministry.”

Those being ordained and commissioned are experiencing firsthand the tension between standing for what one believes is right over and against the legality of continued institutional evils. The Revs. Elizabeth Evans who was commissioned as a provisional deacon rightly stated that she doesn’t believe the church can “transform the world” while upholding the same unjust structures as the world does.

It is difficult to make these types of choices. I know this firsthand, too. 

In the gospels, Jesus sided with the vulnerable and marginalized over and against the institutions of his day when they practiced injustice.

He disregarded legality in favor of doing what was right until it escalated to a Roman cross—the punishment for “violating the rule of Roman law and order.” (See Kelly Brown Douglass, Stand Your Ground Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 171)

Jesus’ noncompliance in the gospels challenges us with this question:

Which side of the story would our actions have placed us on?

“Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful . . . to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent.” (Mark 3:4)

HeartGroup Application

  1. What are some examples of when you had to choose between doing what’s right and doing what was compliant? Discuss these experiences among your group.
  2. What examples of this same tension have you experienced or witnessed within either your former faith community or your present faith community? Discuss.
  3. What examples do you presently see in our larger society where people are having to choose between what is right and what is legal? Discuss.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.  Wherever you are today, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.  Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns. 

I’m so glad you’re journeying with us. 

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

Jesus, Law and Order

Herb Montgomery | January 31, 2019


“Legality is never the end of the moral discussion. We must also ask if what is being done is right . . . Law and order arguments too often fail to account for whether the laws people are breaking are unjust. Are those breaking such laws practicing a moral responsibility by breaking laws rooted in racist ideology to begin with?”


“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?” (Luke 22:52)

I want you to try something that will be difficult for many Christians, and that is to consider Jesus as a law breaker. In Luke’s story, just two days have passed since Jesus engaged a disruptive social protest in the Temple. 

It was not a religious protest: Jesus was not protesting his own religion. He was protesting against the aristocratic elite that was using the Temple state to exploit the poor. His concern was not the temple’s purity, a concern that drove the monastic knights of the historically brutal Christian crusades. Instead Jesus’ concern was the oppression of impoverished people in his own society, people who also bore the image of God and whose situation was worsened by the elite (see Mark 12:42-44). After his last temple protest, Jesus was arrested by the temple police. 

Think back to the statement of Dr. King that we considered last week: “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” (Letter From A Birmingham Jail, May 1963). Jesus didn’t break just laws for the sake of it. Rather, Jesus chose to break laws that he deemed were unjust.

Let’s consider some examples from our more recent past. The reason King had to even address the issue of lawbreaking was that quite a bit of the civil rights movement’s activism included civil disobedience to unjust and racially discriminatory laws. Even apparently neutral laws were disobeyed because segregationists were using them to obstruct the civil rights movement. 

When slavery became illegal in the United States, “Jim Crow” segregation laws were created in the south. And those who migrated north of the Mason-Dixon line did so only to find hostility there, as well. A racist population used Jim Crow laws to keep Black people entrenched in a type of post-slavery slavery (see Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.  Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016). If an emancipated person broke the law they were re-enslaved through a “justice” system that permitted slavery as a punishment for crimes. Unjust and unreasonable laws almost guaranteed a return to slavery in some form. (See Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press, 2012).

After the gains of the civil rights movement, the powerful responded with a racially biased drug war. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (John Ehrlichman, Watergate conspirator and top Nixon advisor, quoted in “Legalize it all: How to win the war on drugs” by Dan Baum, Harper’s Magazine).

President Nixon’s drug war took on new vigor and popularity under President Reagan. During the 1980s, we also saw a spike in Hollywood of movies like Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop selling the narrative of hero cops fighting a pervasive and all-pervading drug war in America. 

Today, being incarcerated as a result of America’s drug war has left multitudes of people of color disenfranchised from their political system, unable to find work or housing assistance, and more. 

The story of Jesus has something to teach us here. In Luke’s gospel is a passage from Isaiah that links the liberation of the poor with emancipation of those in prison. Systems of oppression use imprisonment, as Ehrlichman and Nixon did, to silence resistance and opposition under the guise of concern for “law and order.”  

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners 
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Just as “small government” and “fiscally responsible government” rhetoric have a deeply racist past, “law and order” rhetoric does too (see again Carol Anderson’s White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide).

It’s no wonder that in the gospels Jesus identifies not only with the poor, the naked, and the sick, but also with the imprisoned. 

“I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not take care of me.” (Matthew 25:43, emphasis added)

Note that Jesus specifically names the stranger, or immigrant, in this list, too. I find it equally offensive to see many privileged White Christians using “law and order” arguments when discussing immigration and asylum seeking. It’s lawful for anyone to enter a country to seek asylum. No one deserves to have their families separated and children torn from them and placed in inhumane facilities. And we simply do not provide a legal path toward citizenship for far too many. There must be a merciful solution, a compassionate solution for those who are fleeing social violence our global policies directly and indirectly helped to create. If you cannot see this as a matter of justice then for pity’s sake, have mercy. As Jesus taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they, too, will be shown mercy” (Matthew 5:7). No person is illegal. They are children of God, and share the same image of God as you. They are our human siblings. 

Myers’ groundbreaking commentary on the gospel of Mark offers insight that affirms my deep feelings that it is inconsistent for those of us who identify as Christians to use law and order rhetoric to deny mercy and justice to those who are the victims of unjust and unmerciful laws. 

“As in the modern practice of civil disobedience, which might break the law in order to raise deeper issues of its morality and purpose, so Jesus, just before ‘crossing the line,’ issues a challenge to his audience. Pitting his mission of compassion and justice to the poor against the imperatives of the dominant order, Jesus calls the entire ideological edifice of the law to account.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, pg. 162 )

Legality is never the end of the moral discussion. We must also ask if what is being done is right. Last week many in the U.S. celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King wrote in the same letter quoted above, “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ . . . It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at the time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963).

Law and order arguments too often fail to account for whether the laws people are breaking are unjust. Are those breaking such laws practicing a moral responsibility by breaking laws rooted in racist ideology to begin with? (see No Room in the Inn)

Today, law and order arguments are used to defend police brutality and both the existence of and inhumane actions by agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). There must a better way. A just way. A merciful way. We can debate what those solutions might be. But whatever they are, law and order arguments have a long, oppressive history and I cannot understand, given the Jesus story itself, how Christians continue to promote them. 

When people were suffering, Jesus prioritized people over concern for law and order. As followers of Jesus, we should be practicing the same. Jesus broke the law when those laws contradicted justice and compassion for people. And his refusal to go along with law and order when people were suffering was why he was arrested in the first place. 

“Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him . . .” (Luke 22:52, emphasis added.)


HeartGroup Application

Consider these four stories from our sacred text:

Acts 4:18-20
Acts 5:27-29
Daniel 3:13-18
Daniel 6:6-10

As a group, make a list of laws, either federal, state, or municipal that you believe are good and right.  Discuss why.

Now make a list of laws that you feel are unjust. Discuss why.

Thirdly, make a list of laws, just or unjust, that you feel could be used to discriminate and/or disenfranchise certain vulnerable sectors of our society. Discuss why.

What are some ways you can follow Jesus in putting people first by living in resistance to such laws? What does civil disobedience look like when we choose to put people who are hurt by certain laws first and foremost in our doing? Are there times when we need to be willing to risk arrest for breaking immoral laws in the course of following Jesus? Discus what that could look like? What does it look like to engage the work of changing immoral laws in our society? Consider each level of our civil systems? What does it look like on municipal, state and federal levels? And don’t forget your religious communities as well. Are their unjust laws in your religious communities that you choose to live in noncompliance with? Why?  Have you ever considered how noncompliance can be a spiritual discipline in following Jesus? 

This should give rich ground for discussion and action this week in your HeartGroup.

Thanks so much checking in with us this week. I’m so glad you’re here. 

Wherever you are, keep living in love, compassion, action and justice.

Another world is possible.

I love each you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.