Chicago’s “Sanctuary” Church Strikes Again

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As part of an orchestrated strategy to protest immigration policy, Mexican immigrant Flor Crisostomo, 28, has defied a deportation order and has found sanctuary in Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago.

The church’s pastor, Rev. Walter Coleman, has defended his recurring choice to provide shelter for illegal immigrants running from the law: “I fear God more than Homeland Security.”

Ms. Crisostomo says she is “taking up the torch” from her friend Elvira Arellano, who, for over a year, evaded law enforcement by hunkering down in the same church. Ms. Arellano’s use of holy grounds to play a blatant cat and mouse game with immigration officials elevated her profile as the martyr leader of the immigrants’ rights movement. In August of 2007, Ms. Arellano announced she would be leaving her safe haven in order to lead a rally in Los Angeles. She was arrested at the rally and immediately deported to Mexico.

The most salient element of this story is the political and moral quandary of a church providing material and moral sanctuary to illegal immigrants who are refusing deportation orders from the United States.

Is this Chicago church justified in bucking the law and harboring Elvira Arellano and now Flor Crisostomo?

The answer is unequivocally “no.” In fact, the Adalberto United Methodist Church, and Rev. Coleman are doing a disservice to all migrant workers — legal and illegal — and to the long and harrowed traditions of appropriate civil disobedience and political sanctuary. As a church, they are confusing political activism and subversive tactics with humanitarian aid and social justice.

I will explain.

As in many of the cases we examine in this column, we can assume the Chicago church’s mistake is not one of ill will, but rather of skewed ethical thinking, of bad moral logic. When you listen to the pastor speak, his sincerity is evident:

"It's unfortunate we have to do this. This church has other priorities, like helping the poor in this neighborhood, but God didn't give us a choice. When God says do this, we say, 'Yes, sir!'"

It is understandable that Rev. Coleman would come to the conclusion that God wants him to help these women in this way, if you accept his line of moral reasoning. Rev. Coleman argues that because God’s laws are superior to man’s laws, in the case of unjust law, we have the right to disobey civil authorities. Applying this logic to his own case, he says that because immigration policy in the United States is unfair, these women are doing the right thing in snubbing the law. He goes even further, suggesting he himself has a moral obligation to support them in their display of “civil disobedience.”

But Rev. Coleman’s logic has gaping holes. Yes, the moral law (God’s law) is prior and superior to civil law, but this does not give citizens the right to disobey every unjust law. If, for example, Rev. Coleman were convinced government tax policy unfairly burdens the rich, or the poor, or the middle class, would he be morally justified in not paying his taxes?

Acts of civil disobedience must be evaluated in the same way we assess the right to “conscientious objection.” We have the right, and even obligation, to disobey legitimate authority when we are commanded to do moral evil. But the principle of conscientious objection does not give us a license to be our own moral legislators, picking and choosing the laws we will follow based on their varying degree of moral perfection. As long as a law does not oblige us to do evil, our responsibility to respect legitimate authorities prevails over other concerns.

I can think of no better example to illuminate this point than the Gospel story in which the disciples ask Jesus about the necessity of paying taxes to the unscrupulous Roman authorities. Jesus’ response left no wiggle room for creative interpretation: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” He then handed the disciples a coin and pointed them in the direction of the local IRS office. This is a perennial invitation by the greatest social reformer of all times to work for justice and redemption within the context of the law.

My critical analysis of this particular case in Chicago should not be mistaken as a sign of my satisfaction with our immigration status in the United States. Indeed, our de facto system is hypocritical and unjust. We make immigration processes slow, complicated, and expensive. Then, to compensate for the market’s apparent demands for more manual workers, the government turns a blind eye to a porous and dangerous border, then rewarding illegal crossing with massive quantities of irregular employment. Finally, the government gets tough, and plays catch and release, and then catch and release again, and again, and again.

The apparent winners in this hypocritical system are companies that depend on cheap labor and all of us consumers of their inexpensive produce and services.

The first of many losers, on the other hand, are immigrants who live in constant fear of unpredictable crackdowns, while all the time being subject to inhumane living conditions. And the list of other losers goes on and on… border states, public health and education systems, skilled laborers, border patrol agents, etc.

So what do we do?

As concerned citizens we must convince Congress and the new president to fix a broken system. Satisfactory solutions will take into account the right of every human being to leave his homeland (emigrate) in search of a better life. But they will also necessarily respect the right and obligation of every sovereign state to regulate this immigration at sustainable and safe levels. Success depends on statesmen rising to the challenge of balancing these two principles. In practice, this requires mobilizing groups of conflicting interests to sacrifice in the short term for the common good of our country.

But our zeal for reform must never admit turning a church into a public hideout for people running from the law. It is a crusade of lawlessness that tarnishes the good reputation of the millions of honest and hard-working Mexican and Latino people to whom the United States of America is deeply indebted.

As a pastor, and as a good neighbor, I would give food, water, clothing and medical aid to anyone who came knocking at my door, and I certainly wouldn’t ask for any government documentation. But what’s going on these days in a church in Chicago is quite another thing.

God bless, Father Jonathan

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