When loving our neighbors conflicts with the law

Congregations wrestle with questions of conscience in response to immigration issues

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By Hilary J. Scarsella

ELKHART, Ind. (Mennonite Church USA)—As congregations across Mennonite Church USA engage immigration issues and relate to people who are undocumented, some are confronting the question of whether God is calling them to break the law or to follow the law of the land.

“We all want to love our neighbors, and we all want to be law-abiding citizens,” says Anne Mitchell, pastor of a Mennonite congregation. “When a decision needs to be made between showing love to a person who is undocumented and upholding the law, some aren’t sure what do to.”

Some Mennonites believe that breaking the law is contrary to faithful living, adds Nelson Kraybill, who pastors the same congregation.

Mitchell shared that one of the congregation’s members who was previously undocumented was arrested and jailed last year.

“It was devastating for her family and for the rest of us,” she says. “She was taken out of town right away, and the church scrambled to support her. Thankfully, she was released from the state detention facility, which happened following a prayer vigil held by the congregation.”

“Her being arrested galvanized my convictions and the convictions of others,” says Kraybill. “When the laws demand that we act in ways that harm the vulnerable and the needy, then our first recourse is to seek change of law. We don’t just immediately go break the law.”

In the case of immigration, however, Kraybill believes laws may become more punitive. “At some point,” he continues, “our resisting that law becomes a prophetic witness on the order of Acts 5:28-32, in which the apostles say, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’ In unusual circumstances, we too need to do that.”

John D. Roth, professor of history at Goshen (Ind.) College and director of the Mennonite Historical Library, shares perspectives on the issue of breaking the law from Mennonite history.

“At the beginning of the movement in the 1500s, Anabaptists were accused of being terrorists whose refusal to follow the law [by not swearing oaths or baptizing infants] undermined all social order,” he says. From then on, Roth explains, Anabaptists have felt a strong need to convince society that they do, in fact, have respect for the law.

“At the same time, Anabaptists have maintained a strong tradition of continuing to be willing to break the law of the land in order to uphold principles of faith,” he says. “The fundamental principal that Christians—in discernment with each other and the church—may at times violate or publicly disobey a law as a matter of Christian conscience is a well-established pattern in the Anabaptist tradition.”

Kraybill continues to reflect, “It would be nice if [people who are undocumented] could have come here by legal means. That is the preferred way. But the waiting list is too long for following the legal process to be of any benefit. Their children would grow up hungry. And, however they got here, they’re here. They’re in our neighborhoods and churches, and they need work and food.”

Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, Ariz., wrestled with these questions in the 1980s as undocumented people fled to the area during the wars in Central America and were denied refugee status by the U.S. government.

Bryce Miller, Shalom’s pastor, explains that Shalom was one of a number of churches offering sanctuary to those individuals.

“There was a considerable disagreement over this in the church, and a fair number of people left,” he says. “The Shalom congregation that remained adopted a position of welcoming and shielding Latin American refugees.”

He notes that Shalom amended its bylaws to reflect this position and adds that the issue still is “very much present for us today as a church and as individuals.”

“The Arizona law that would make unauthorized presence a state crime—known as SB 1070—states that all people who assist the undocumented in any way are liable,” he says. “This raises primary issues of how we do church, and how we relate to our friends and neighbors. Are we to inquire about the immigration status of every person who comes to us for aid? Every person who wishes to attend services? Difficult discernment is ongoing for us, even more so for our Latino brothers and sisters without documents. We remain committed to being the church to those who are our neighbors.”

André Gingerich Stoner, director of Holistic Witness and Interchurch Relations for Mennonite Church USA, says, “When I think about this, I ask myself: ‘If your child is starving, is it okay to steal a loaf of bread?’ I can’t condone stealing in general, but in extreme circumstances, parents might do that to save their child. Immigration is a very complicated issue, but many of our brothers and sisters are crossing the border to be able to feed their children. I don’t think God condemns them for that.

“I think when Jesus meets people, his first question isn’t whether they are here legally. Jesus sees each person as someone created in the image of God to be treated with dignity and respect. As followers of Jesus, that should be our starting point, too.”

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