Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On the Methodist Complaint against U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on an Immigration Policy

Assessing whether a Christian denomination’s formal discipline is being used for religious or politically-ideological purposes is fraught with difficulty. Certain governmental policies, such as genocide, clearly violate Christian teaching, such that government officials charged with implementing such policies could legitimately be sanctioned on religious grounds without it being thought that a political or partisan difference is the actual basis of protest. As the harm to others in a given policy lessens, the specter of ideological opposition as the actual motivator increases as a possibility. In 2018, 640 United Methodists filed a complaint to their church charging U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions with having violated the Church’s Book of Discipline, its code of laws and social principles, on account of the alleged “child abuse, immorality, racial discrimination, and ‘dissemination of doctrines contrary’ to those of the United Methodist Church.”[1] Sessions had been tasked with implementing the U.S. immigration policy of separating children from their parents at the border. At the time of the complaint, over 2,000 children of illegal aliens were being held by the U.S. Government as their parents were being prosecuted.
From a political standpoint, the separation may have served as a deterrent to potential illegal immigrants as well as a practical means by which the adults could be prosecuted. The moral harm in the separations is clear. For Christians, the morality factor must be put up against Jesus’s teachings and example. It is highly unlikely he would have supported separating children from their parents. In fact, he pointed to the innocence of children as being like the Kingdom of God.
For his part, Jeff Sessions pointed to Paul’s dictum in Romans 13 to obey civil authorities. Jesus himself said to give what is Caesar’s to Caesar. Sessions’ defense is flawed, however, because obeying the authorities would apply to the illegal immigrants who are Christian, rather than to the authorities themselves. What would Jesus say to a Christian authority concerning harm to others through a government action or policy?
The answer may depend on the grievousness or extent of the harm to others. Surely Jesus would disown any of his followers involved in perpetuating the NAZI holocaust in Germany. Separating children from their respective parents involves less harm than would killing the parents or their children, but the harm is still very significant to both parties. Sessions could point out that the parents risked this harm by crossing the border illegally. Even so, the question for the Christian is where Jesus would stand on a civil official implementing a policy of such harm. I contend that Jesus would have rebuffed such an official. How Jesus rebuffed the rich man, who would not part with his wealth to follow Jesus, can be taken as a model or indication. You can keep your power or money, but you cannot follow me if you do.
In terms of money, Jesus’s stance toward the rich man is a very strict view, which would be modified in Christianity from the Commercial Revolution on.[2]  In particular, the good use of even just part of a fortune would come to justify being wealthy. Similarly, could the good use of political power be said to legitimate holding civil power by a Christian? The difficulty especially concerning governmental power is what counts as good, for partisans have different answers, even different ideals or stressed values. The 640 Methodists may have objected to the good that Sessions saw as coming from the policy. In his view, that good is the order that comes from a nation of laws; illegal immigration hampers or detracts from such good because of the lawlessness itself as well as the associated culture of disrespect for laws. Would illegal immigrants suddenly respect and obey traffic laws in Arizona after having presumed that the immigration laws do not apply?
In short, as soon as we drift away from “What would Jesus do?” to consider the good use of political power, we open up the problem of different political ideologies, each of which can be said to have some version of the good in mind even if harm to others is in the means. What would Jesus say to Jeff Sessions? This is what his pastor should focus on, rather than wading into political waters that can easily be twisted one way or the other, and can belie legitimate religious points. From the latter perspective, the harm in the action of the policy itself is at issue. Would Jesus accept one of his followers assuming a government post that involves separating children from their parents?

[2] Skip Worden, God’s Gold.  Available at Amazon