"Of Religion and Jack-Booted Thugs"

June 21, 2018

Do you remember Ruby Ridge? It was the site of an extended siege of the remote Weaver family Idaho residence in 1992. Due to Randy Weaver's failure to appear in court on a firearms charge, federal agents surrounded the property and the ensuing exchanges left US Marshal William Degan, the Weaver's son Samuel (14), the Weaver's family dog, and Vicki Weaver (42) dead. 

 

Or how about the 1993 Branch Davidian disaster in Waco, Texas?  Since I went to college in Waco, this tragedy has long been on my mind. Allegations of child abuse within the separatist religious community led by David Koresh prompted FBI and ATF intervention which went horribly wrong. A gun battle claimed the lives of four agents and six Branch Davidians. The siege went on 51 days before Attorney General Janet Reno ordered gassing and battering the compound to force an evacuation. Instead, a fire killed 79 people inside, including 22 children. From these and other incidents, federal agents began to be derisively called "jack-booted thugs" by libertarians and others who objected to such draconian measures. I might add that many religious leaders wished that federal agents had taken more seriously the counsel of nearby Baylor University theology professors who advised that the agents were playing directly into Koresh's apocalyptic visions. 

 

Both situations are now notorious examples of overreach by law enforcement agencies and, in the case of Waco, a complete misunderstanding of the religious viewpoint of those under siege. One cannot help but wonder in both cases, what would have happened if law enforcement had backed off and reconsidered their strategy?  Such action could have potentially saved many lives.  All too often, we human beings refuse to change course when that is exactly what is needed.

 

Could reflection on these historic missteps help us through the current crisis over the forced separation of undocumented immigrant families at the US border? Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck a painful nerve for religious leaders when he defended the policy by quoting Romans 13 where the Apostle Paul counsels Christians in Rome to obey the laws of the government as ordained by God. Sessions suggested that the immigrant parents were breaking the law (true) and that the Justice Department was biblically compelled to enforce the law. Two big problems are rather obvious here - the separation policy is a new one though the law did not change, and the Christians in Rome were practicing an illegal religion and defying the government at the very time Paul told them to otherwise practice good citizenship. Paul himself was executed by the Roman Empire for disobeying the government order to cease preaching Christ.

 

The religious response to this situation has been dramatic and almost completely unified. Evangelical leader Franklin Graham has called the policy "disgraceful." The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution  calling for immigration reform that maintains "the priority of family unity." The US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Mormon Church, the United Church of Christ and others have joined in the objections to the policy and to Sessions' use of scripture to defend it. In an almost unprecedented move, more than 600 United Methodist clergy and lay leaders have filed a formal denominational complaint against their Methodist brother, Mr. Sessions, charging him with immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination and "dissemination of doctrines contrary to the standards of doctrine of the United Methodist Church." 

 

I don't really like naming political figures in this blog or in my preaching. Yet, I have named two in this reflection - Reno and Sessions. You may note that they served under administrations of different political parties, yet fell into similar heavy- handed mistakes.  As religious communities, we are not in charge of law enforcement. That is not our specialty, but religious teaching and practice are our specialties, and expressing them is our right as citizens. And for Christian leaders, it is supremely important that Jesus' teachings be followed in substance, rather than just used as window dressing for government policies. Even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) shows that Jesus amplified on the existing Jewish care for widows, orphans and strangers in his concern for suffering people and even for enemies.  In Matthew 25, Jesus lists "the least of these brothers and sisters" who embody his presence - the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, those in prison. That is the Jesus whom Christians in Rome were trying to (illegally, mind you) follow. They paid for it. 

 

So, let us pray and advocate for repentance - a turning around, a change of course - on the part of Attorney General Sessions and the enforcers of this border policy which forcibly separates young children from their parents with no guarantee of reunification. And let us also pray and work for better immigration legislation and humane resolution of the DACA question. These are indeed complex problems - we should not gloss over that fact.  

 

This time, let's leave behind the "jack-booted thugs" language. Law enforcement officers have their own fears and struggles within this situation. What would it mean to have compassion for them?  (Remember, we are trying to do a Jesus thing here.)

 

Finally, two haunting questions: What are these families running from, or to, that they are willing to risk so much? And, how far back does their family lineage on this continent go, compared to mine?

 

Christ's Peace, Greg 

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