Laws and Ideas

By Dr. Mark Poindexter 

Recently I was asked to be part of a conversation with our U.S. Congressman concerning the matter of immigration reform.  Our Congressman, who is a first term Representative, was traveling around all the counties he represents and meeting with anyone who had called in to his office and prearranged a conversation that would last about fifteen minutes.  The discussion could cover any topic the constituent wanted to talk about.  An immigration lawyer heard about this opportunity and scheduled such a conversation about immigration reform.  She asked a 21 year old undocumented college student who was brought to the States when she was 9 years old to share her story.  It was powerful.  She had asked a local business owner who had become a US citizen to tell about his experience.  Another moving story.  I was the only other person asked to be a part of this conversation.  I had no compelling immigration narrative to share, but I was a local clergy person who was perceived to be someone who would be interested in this matter since it is ultimately about human dignity and equality.  I am glad to be perceived in that way and agreed to go to the meeting. 

After the brief and moving stories by the college student and the business owner, I was given a couple of minutes to introduce myself and tell why I was there.  I actually had no idea what I would say and didn’t know for certain what would come out of my mouth.  But after I introduced myself this is what I said, “I’ve come to understand America not to be ultimately about geographical boundaries but about the high ideas of freedom and justice and equality for all.  And I think anyone who is willing to partner with us as we seek to move toward the fulfillment of these ideas ought to be allowed to call themselves a citizen of the United States of America.” The congressman thanked us all for our being there and then began sharing his perspective on the matter and the difficult political position it put him and many of his colleagues in. To the congressman’s credit he seemed to be genuinely listening and especially sympathetic to the college student’s situation.  He also seemed to have a very strong working knowledge of the matter of immigration reform.  But the longer I listened to him, the more obvious it became that he and I worked out of two different perspectives.  He was working in the world of laws and legislation and I was working in the world of ideas and principles. Neither way is necessarily right or wrong, but they are different and sometimes that difference can make the conversation, and any positive movement forward, very difficult. 

We often hear America referred to as a land of laws and that it is. But I prefer to think of America as a place of ideas.  No matter how imperfectly we may live them out, the ideas of freedom and justice and equality for all are behind the American experiment.  Laws are, of course, a necessity in any ordered society.   But I understand the primary purpose of laws to be that of helping a society live out the ideas that give it meaning and purpose.  Thus, the ideas precede the laws and the laws are in service to the fulfillment of the ideas.  Sadly, however, sometimes those in power make laws that keep others from sharing in the fulfillment of the ideas.  Think of the “Jim Crow” laws that were part of American culture in the middle part of the 20th century. Instead of enhancing and expanding the ideas of freedom and equality, they narrowed the scope of who those ideas were for.    

The difference between laws and ideas plays a role in the current religious landscape of America and the entire world as well.  I think behind the religious impulse is the idea of experiencing the Sacredness of life.  It involves the idea that there is Something more than this material world, that there are realities woven into the very fabric of the universe that give life meaning and purpose.  Such things as love and hope and joy and beauty.  In the presence of these non-material realities we experience the Sacred.  This, I believe, is the idea behind the religious impulse. 

 Where religious faith sometimes gets off track is when we want to make rules and regulations (laws) about how those realities are to be experienced.  I heard the story of a wise man who went off into the wilderness to have an experience with God.  And indeed, he had such an experience.  When he returned from the wilderness the town leaders asked him what happened and he told them about his experience of God.  The town leaders appointed a committee and based upon the wise man’s story came up with a document that was titled “Ten Steps to Experiencing God.”   All the steps were based upon the wise man’s experience.  The bottom of the document read “No other experiences of God are valid.”  When the wise man saw that line he cried and wished he had never shared his experience.

Especially in this day and time, I think the church needs to have a great grasp on the ideas that are at the heart of religious faith – love, grace, hope, joy, equality, dignity, compassion, peace.  And our goal is to expand and enhance these realities wherever possible.  We are not to say that they can only be experienced as we have experienced them, known only as we know them, lived as only we live them.  The God we claim to worship is much larger than only our own experience . . . . and for that we should be grateful.