“We’re a Nation of Laws…”

I often hear the retort “we’re a nation of laws.” Usually, it is given by someone justifying the exclusion of immigrants and a lack of compassion for their very difficult, often mind-numbingly horrific circumstances.

But what these folks probably don’t realize is that they are saying more about who they are than about immigrants. When you say “we’re a nation of laws,” you are setting a standard for yourself–and a good one. It’s a standard you should be proud of, but you need to know what it means:

When you say, “we’re a nation of laws,” you are saying that you believe in an ordered, civilized, peaceful society–even when others are not that way to you.

You are saying that you believe in being calm and compassionate–even when others are not.

You are saying that law and order are the driving principles of society–not brutality, vigilantism or nastiness.

You are saying that you believe that violent, aggressive individuals can be treated with dignity and decency, once apprehended–even if they are not that way to you.

Why can all of this be said? It’s because we’re a nation of laws. We have high standards. We believe in those standards. Others cannot make us change–we are in control of what we do, not anyone else. Their behavior does not change our behavior.

We believe in living out our principles rather than resorting to our base fears and impulses. We are driven by laws, not mob mentality. We are driven by principles, not impulses.

When you say “we’re a nation of laws,” that does not mean that the letter of the law can be used to justify any kind of horrific treatment of someone who falls outside of those laws. In fact, it means the opposite, as due process for all–citizen and non-citizen–is an integral part of those laws. People are to be treated well while society processes their case humanely, calmly, fairly and in a timely fashion.

We believe that civilized, peaceful order will ultimately win the day, so we trust in that.

It’s not a bad thing to say “we’re a nation of laws,” but please know what it means when you say it. You are saying that you are the kind of person who believes in order and has standards of conduct. And that you’ll abide by those standards, even when emotions are high and when it is difficult to do so.

It means more than just upholding the letter of the law. After all, some laws are terrible and need to be changed pronto. It means you believe in a principled, orderly system.

When things are out of order, such as our immigration situation–we ought to take the time to get our laws right and figure out why the system is not working. We ought to reform the system so that it works for everyone. It does not give us license to be barbaric and cruel and force people to abide by laws that clearly violate human dignity. We need to hear from all those involved and find the best, most compassionate solution, all the while respecting the dignity of every person, maintaining order and staying true to our principles.

From a Christian perspective, we take it a step further: Behind those laws are principles, such as respect, ethics, honesty, integrity and compassion. This is where Jesus focused his attention. The law can be a clumsy way to try to live out those principles. So when the law runs roughshod over human dignity (which can certainly happen), we look to the underlying principles behind those laws for true guidance. This is why Jesus can say he “did not come to abolish the Law” but rather to “fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17).

This is what it means to be a “nation of laws.”

In closing, if we sat down and talked with immigrants about why many of them are breaking some immigration laws, we may find that they are decent, principled people, as well. Many are caught in an impossible situation and are doing the best they can to provide for their families. We should not use the law to punish them, because doing so would violate our very principles upon which that law is founded!”

Visit Frank Lesko’s website here.

Review & Commentary