A 2,000-year-old question asks: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would they have enough evidence for a conviction?

In Tucson, eight religious leaders are the latest believers to answer yes. A federal jury, responding to felony charges brought by the Reagan Justice Department, convicted two priests, a nun, a minister and four lay workers of smuggling or harboring illegal immigrants from Central America.

Christianity, a religion begun by a Hebrew rebel executed in his mid-thirties by the government, is behind the crime wave uncovered in Tucson and spreading elsewhere. More than 300 congregations in about 20 cities are caring for Central Americans in ways the government says are criminal. People are choosing to be good Christians rather than good Americans. One of the convicted smugglers, Sister Darlene Nicgorski, put it well: "If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of the Gospel."

The sister, uncomplainingly, will take her punishment, if it comes. The appeal may take two years. She will also be punished with the scorn of ridiculers who see her and the entire Sanctuary Movement as a band of the self-righteous putting themselves above the law and then griping when the law socks them.

That isn't the impression created by the statements made by the defendants after the trial. "When one has faith," said one of the priests, and "when one believes in God, you don't have reason to turn back or falter or to feel fear . . . The only consequence this trial will bring is the multiplication of the number of us who will continue working for the same ideals." Jim Corbett, a Quaker and retired rancher, said, "Whenever the federal government engineers a show trial of this kind, I think that we have to expect to go back to court as many times as is needed to inform the public enough so that no jury will convict."

A group of Salvadoran refugees -- the illegals who led the eight into their lives of crime -- also offered some thoughts at the end of the trial. "For us Central American refugees, it is significant that these brothers and sisters opted to remain faithful to their understanding of the Bible and have taken risks so that we could find safe haven in this country . . . They tried to find immediate solutions for refugees who are suffering the consequences of a 6-year-old war. And as long as the root cause of that war continues to exist, so then the exodus will continue."

These comments need to be recounted because, by order of an irascible judge, they weren't allowed in the court. Motives in other felony trials are allowed airings, but this one stayed roped to the technicalities of immigration law: Did the group smuggle aliens or didn't it? Of course it did, and of course the law was broken. But are all laws sacred? Martin Luther King Jr. didn't think so, even in constitutional democracies. He was jailed for lawbreaking. Henry Thoreau wrote that "unjust laws exist," and he was also jailed. The leaders of the abolitionist Underground Railroad broke the law, as did the organizers of the Boston Tea Party.

The argument against the Sanctuary Movement is the standard one always thrown at civil disobedience: If you don't like the law, change it through democratic channels. Otherwise, you invite anarchy.

The anarchy argument is overdrawn, especially in this case. Anarchy already prevails in El Salvador, from where refugees are fleeing death threats and violence that has seen 50,000 people killed in the past eight years. By one reliable count, more than 1,000 air and artillery attacks were waged against civilians in 1985.

The civil disobedience of the Sanctuary Movement is based on the rational view that unless the law is challenged by direct defiance, the delay in changing it through legislatures will mean more death and suffering. Would America's segregation laws have been changed as quickly if King had not broken them? Would the draft laws have been abandoned in the early 1970s if Vietnam war protesters had not defied the Selective Service?

The Sanctuary Movement, which is both religious and political, respects the law but not to the point of blindness. Nor is its eye closed to the other moral issue -- that the 50,000 killings occurred when Congress and the Reagan State Depatment were stating every six months, in a bludgeoning of truth, that human rights had been improving in El Salvador.

The Justice Department's zeal for prosecuting the Tucson group is impressive. With violent crime up 5 percent last year, here is the government in a massive case singling out the nonviolent, whose crime is to comfort the most frightened of the hemisphere's tormented. Something else: If only part of the zeal for prosecution were transferable to the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala, where most state murders have gone unprosecuted, perhaps the refugees would not have been fleeing all these years.