Criminally Christian

Obedience sometimes pulls in two directions

May 7, 2018 by

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Christianity was an illegal movement in its infancy. The first adult baptisms were punished by death in 1527. Christians, especially Anabaptists, have often faced the choice to obey God or the state.

Defying the empire’s power was a hallmark of the early church and early Anabaptism. In some corners, this principled disobedience continues today. Sanctuary — giving protection to peaceful people facing deportation from the United States — is the latest chapter.

In April, Rosa del Carmen Ortez-Cruz took sanctuary at Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship also meets. She fled her home in Honduras to escape threats on her life, and fears returning home. Immigration courts denied her application to remain in the U.S.

Some Christians say: Listen to Paul; submit to the authorities (Rom. 13:1). They understand this to rule out giving sanctuary to an undocumented person breaking the law. Others say: Listen to Paul; do not conform to the world (Rom. 12:2). Between these two statements are words about love, blessing persecutors and overcoming evil with good. Context matters.

Isaac Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, views his congregation’s involvement in giving sanctuary as bearing witness to the gospel. “We are following Jesus, because Christ comes to us in strangers who ask for hospitality,” he said. Strangers reveal Christ and “bear witness to the gospel.”

Villegas cites Acts 5:29, in which Peter and other apostles face the Sanhedrin for unacceptable preaching and reply, “We must obey God rather than human beings.”

“What comes first is our devotion to God,” said Villegas, “and that wholehearted devotion means that governments at times disagree with us, and we face the consequences of their rejection of our acts of faithfulness.”

While Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have stated they will not enter a church to arrest a person for deportation, obedience to God’s call has had consequences. Hutterite men died in captivity for refusing to wear a military uniform in World War I. War-tax resisters incur fines if they do not fully pay their income taxes. Ken Miller of Stuarts Draft, Va., returned home from prison on March 6 after being found guilty in 2012 of aiding an international kidnapping in a custody dispute involving a former lesbian who renounced her homosexual past. Greta Lindecrantz of Denver spent nearly two weeks this year in jail for refusing to testify in a death penalty appeal hearing because she feared her words would be used to abet an execution.

Each situation is different, but a common thread connects Christians who conclude God requires an act of mercy ruled illegal.

A challenge lies in divorcing political influence from discernment of God’s will. It probably isn’t a coincidence that Chapel Hill and the other Mennonite congregation offering sanctuary publicly — Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church — are liberal, LGBTQ-affirming congregations in college towns, taking action in the Trump era.

Will a conservative congregation offer sanctuary? Will a liberal church smuggle Bibles into a restrictive country? What are we willing to risk to extend God’s love?

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