A Matter of Conscience: When Laws Conflict
By Tom Gillem
Welcome a stranger. Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Do not kill. Go in peace. God is clear about what we should do. But when we see human-made laws conflicting with the laws of God, what do we actually do?
|Volunteers refill water tanks at one of 70 stations in the Arizona desert maintained by Humane Borders. Every year more than 300 people die of dehydration while attempting to cross the desert into the United States.|
|UMNS FILE/CATHY HOWARD|
The answer is clear for some United Methodists who choose openly to oppose government laws and policies to answer what they believe is God's higher call to action.
As they act, they walk a path as old as Christianity, a path that still today can bring persecution, long imprisonments and even death by murder or execution in some parts of the world.
United Methodist Christians in the United States follow those who in recent times were scorned and bloodied in struggles for equal rights for people of color and women.
Today they help undocumented immigrants, protest against abortion, stand in civil disobedience against nuclear weapons, demonstrate against war and refuse to pay income taxes to support the military, all to serve their God.
'I won't comply.'
In Phoenix, the Rev. Rosemary Anderson, pastor of the Hispanic congregation Primera Iglesia Metodista Unida, says her decision about whether or not to abide by the controversial new immigration statute in Arizona is simple: She will break the law.
After the Arizona Legislature passed the law, slated to go into effect by August, Anderson's 60-person congregation shrank by about half. Some families left the state; others simply refused to leave their homes. The pastor regularly helps her parishioners by giving them rides, particularly to deal with health issues.
"If I'm pulled over for some infraction of the law and they (the authorities) suspect that someone in my car is undocumented, they check for documents. If there are none, then I will be arrested as well," Anderson says. "For me personally, I just decided I'm not going to change the way I'm doing things. I won't comply with the law. I don't feel I morally can."
'I'd be out there'
For the past nine years, Paul T. Fuschini has volunteered to make the desert safer for the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who flood across the U.S.-Mexico border near his home in Tucson, Ariz. The organization he supports, Humane Borders Inc., maintains more than 100 water stations in the desert to help the travelers survive 100-plus degree desert temperatures.
"Once you see the faces of those people, you can't just say, No, there's nothing I can do,'" says Fuschini, 78, a retired Environmental Protection Agency employee and member of St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church in Tucson.
"I believe we're all children of God, and those people are no different than me or anyone else. If I was in Mexico and had four kids, I'd be out there walking in that desert trying to find some work."
|(From left) The Rev. Neal Christie of the General Board of Church and Society; actor and peace activist Martin Sheen; student Hi'ilani Waiwaiole of the California-Nevada Annual Conference; and JoAnn Fukumoto, a Peace with Justice educator, participate in a nonviolent witness against nuclear weapons testing in 2007 in Mercury, Nev.|
|UMNS FILE/COURTESY CALIFORNIA-NEVADA CONFERENCE|
The United Methodist Committee on Relief in 2006 provided a grant to buy two water trucks to service the stations. "UMCOR decided to grant the funds because it assessed that the struggles and suffering of immigrants crossing our southern border was comparable to the level of such naturally occurring human disasters as hurricanes or earthquakes," said Desert Southwest Bishop Minerva Carcao in a 2007 United Methodist News Service story on Humane Borders.
Other faith groups have also supported Humane Borders, which also produced warning posters with maps that indicate where people have died during their desert crossing, where the water stations are located and how far a person can walk in the desert in one, two or three days. But when the group asked the Mexican government to place the posters at emigrant gathering locations in Mexico, Fuschini says the U.S. Department of Homeland Security intervened to stop the distribution. Critics say the maps helped people entering the U.S. illegally to gain safe passage.
Fuschini disagrees. "What I was doing was humanitarian. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing wrong with that," he says. "If you can give somebody a glass of water to keep them from dying, you're not breaking any laws."
'Christ died ... even for the unborn'
The Rev. Paul Stallsworth has devoted much of his personal and professional life to opposing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal in the United States. The decision says a woman, with her doctor, can choose abortion in earlier months of pregnancy without restriction and in later months with restrictions.
However, Stallsworth who is pastor of St. Peter's United Methodist Church in Morehead City, N.C., believes God wants God's people to witness in favor of the protection of an unborn child and mother from abortion.
He joined other United Methodist clergy, laity and scholars in 1991 to issue the Durham Declaration, described as "a reference point on abortion as a theological and moral problem, not merely a political issue."
|The Rev. Paul Stallsworth|
Since 1987, Stallsworth has been president and editor of Lifewatch, a quarterly newsletter published by the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality, an unofficial movement of United Methodists. He writes and speaks on prolife issues and regularly participates in the March for Life each January in Washington.
Stallsworth says two biblical passages underpin his devotion to prolife issues — the first is that humans are created in the image of God. "That's where the dignity of the human person begins at creation," he says. "But also I think Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. Christ dying for the world — dying for the salvation of the world — means that Christ died for every person, even for the unborn."
'We are against war.'
Standing with others in civil disobedience against nuclear weapons is a clear act of faith for JoAnn Fukumoto. She has been arrested numerous times since the early 1990s while protesting at the U.S. government's Nevada Nuclear Test Site.
"For me, as a follower of Christ, as a Christian, as a United Methodist, it's very clear that my church feels that although we are not a pacifist church, we are against war," says Fukumoto, who is a peace with justice educator for the California-Pacific Annual Conference. "Clearly, we are against war. We have documents that say that in our Book of Resolutions, and also our Social Principles.
"I feel it is right for me to go out there and bear witness to say that this is wrong in the beautiful desert of Nevada — the testing and all that is involved," says Fukumoto, a lifelong church member who attends Trinity United Methodist Church in Pearl City, Hawaii. "I believe that war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ."
Celeste Zappala's long-held opposition to war turned into a personal passion on April 26, 2004 — the day her oldest son, Sherwood, became the first Pennsylvania National Guardsman to be killed in Iraq. A retired social worker in Philadelphia and member of First United Methodist Church in Germantown, Pa., Zappala is a founder of Gold Star Families Speak Out, an organization of people who are opposed to war and whose loved ones have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
|Celeste Zappala, whose son was killed in Iraq, marches in a Christian peace rally in Washington.|
|UMNS FILE/MELISSA LAUBER|
Zappala has appealed to members of Congress, to generals, and even to the president's staff at the White House about her opposition to the U.S. war policy. She has advocated peacefully against war in many states and in Turkey and Japan. Almost every month since 2006, she and others have participated in an antiwar protest in downtown Philadelphia. Although she has never been arrested for expressing her antiwar views, members of her family have.
"I believe we're all called to be peacemakers, and I think it's possible to love the world to peace," Zappala says. "That's what Jesus was asking of us, to turn our backs from violence and turn our backs from anger and hurting one another and to take on the world with open arms."
'Make a decision every time.'
As a personal protest of the U.S. military policy, the Rev. John Schwiebert and his wife, Pat, of Portland, Ore., have refused to pay what they consider the military portion of their federal income tax since 1977. Instead, they have given the money to nonprofit organizations and their local government.
"For the past seven years, we've been giving the money that we refused (as federal taxes) to pay to our county government," says Schwiebert. Officially retired, he now serves and lives "in community" with others in the Metanoia Peace Community United Methodist Church. "That made us feel more comfortable because we were never opposed to the payment of taxes per se, but we just felt like we could not, in good conscience, be a part of the mechanism for collecting money to take our nation to war or even military violence to maintain control of other countries."
At times, the Schwieberts have chosen to work for no pay rather than to be liable for taxes.
|The Rev. John and Pat Schwiebert|
|COURTESY JOHN SCHWIEBERT|
Over the years, there have been consequences to their actions. The Internal Revenue Service has taken their savings, garnished their wages and even attempted to sell their house to get the back taxes. Since he retired in 2001, a portion of his Social Security benefits is regularly taken, and, for a time, so was part of his church pension.
"I think Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's' has often been just quickly interpreted as there's the government side of things and then there's the religious side of things. I don't think that what Jesus said was that simple. I think that what He was saying is, You've got to make a decision every time you use money about whether that money is serving Caesar or whether it is serving God.'"
Tom Gillem, freelance writer and photographer, Brentwood, Tenn.
From The Social Principles
The Political Community: While our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state, we acknowledge the vital function of government as a principal vehicle for the ordering of society... (Para. 164, The Book of Discipline 2008).
Church and State Relations: The United Methodist Church has for many years supported the separation of church and state....Separation of church and state means no organic union of the two, but it does permit interaction....The rightful and vital separation of church and state ... should not be construed as the abolition of all religious expression from public life. (Para. 164C, The Book of Discipline 2008).
Civil Obedience and Civil Disobedience: Governments and laws should be servants of God and of human beings. Citizens have a duty to abide by laws duly adopted by orderly and just process of government. But governments, no less than individuals, are subject to the judgment of God. Therefore, we recognize the right of individuals to dissent when acting under the constraint of conscience and, after having exhausted all legal recourse, to resist or disobey laws that they deem to be unjust or that are discriminately enforced. Even then, respect for law should be shown by refraining from violence and by being willing to accept the costs of disobedience... [Para. 164(F) The Book of Discipline 2008).
Resources for discussion
The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church [Purchase a printed copy from Cokesbury.]
Faithlink - God and Country (Cokesbury)
The Declaration of Independence: A Christian Document? [The Thoughtful Christian, www.thoughtfulchristian.com, (800) 554-4694)]