It is wrong to make an idol out of the law. The Ten Commandments
stipulate, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
Obedience to law is very important, but such obedience should
be penultimate, not ultimate. Our ultimate allegiance must be
to God, not to human laws.
This is seen most clearly in the case of unjust laws. But what
if a particular law in itself is not "unjust"? How can
I justify breaking a "neutral" law?
Because he sometimes broke such neutral laws, Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. had to give this some thought. He said that there's nothing
wrong with the law saying you must stop at a red traffic light.
When a fire is raging, however, a fire engine goes through the
light. When someone is bleeding to death, an ambulance goes through
at top speed. In other words, following a higher purpose, such
as saving life, can justify breaking a neutral law.
One biblical example, perhaps, is relevant here. When the Jewish
people were threatened with destruction, Mordecai urged Queen
Esther to appeal to the king for help. She protested that, if
anyone goes to the king without being summoned, they shall be
put to death. "That is the law," she said (Esther 4:11).
But she summoned her courage, broke this neutral law, appealed
to the king, and saved her people. Jews today still celebrate
this act of civil disobedience in the Festival of Purim.
Richard K. Taylor was parish services coordinator for St. Vincent
de Paul Church in Philadelphia and a Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared.