The NYT Magazine has a column called “The Ethicist.” A couple of experts respond to queries of all kinds. A few recent ones: What is I obligation when I am told that someone has gotten married simply for green card? Am I obliged to tell my friend if I find out her husband is cheating on her? What should I do if I witness a parent abusing a child in a public place? When a coworker sabotages a colleague at work?
We make ethical decisions all the time. At the moment, many of us will make judgment calls as we prepare our taxes – what income must be declared, what deductions we can claim.
And we face ethical decisions in the public sphere too. When we witness injustice, what is our obligation to respond? To protest? The assist and advocate for the injured? To try to get laws and policy changed?
The prophet Isaiah railed against the religious folk of his time, for maintaining all their religious fasts, but failing to act with righteousness in their worldly affairs. “Look…you oppress all your workers…you quarrel and fight…. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry….?” Isaiah declared that God wants righteousness – moral behavior – not just religious talk and ceremonies!
That’s still a problem for us. But sometimes, we get it right. There is a long history of the churches fighting injustice by fighting for political change. The church fought slavery and helped to end it in this country. The churches fought for civil rights, and against wars. Many churches lead in the environmental movement. Our neighbors in the Roman Catholic Church are adamant about fighting abortion and capital punishment as violating the sanctity of human life. We may or may not agree, but they have the right to fight for their beliefs in the political arena.
Many this last week are alarmed about the president’s directive to stop all refugees from entering the U.S., as well as other drastic travel restrictions on legal residents of our country. Our Episcopal Church leaders have led the way, with clear statements from Michael Curry, our presiding bishop, and Mariann Budde, our own bishop:
“All Christian Americans should be offended that President Trump has decided that some of the most vulnerable refugees on the planet are not welcome here because they are of the Muslim faith, but that Christians from the seven troubled countries that the President has named are to receive favored treatment. Such favoritism is an insult to Christians. I stand proudly with other Christians and interfaith leaders to protest this order, express solidarity with one another, and together call our nation to the highest of our common spiritual and civic values. Scripture could not be clearer: we are called to welcome the stranger.”
Why? Because we are all strangers ourselves…in Scripture, God reminds the Hebrews that they themselves were strangers in Egypt, so they’d better treat other strangers with respect. The United States is uniquely a land of strangers, of immigrants. Nobody can claim to be a native except native peoples – American Indians. All the rest of us are of immigrant stock – I myself am the progeny of Scotch-Irish horse thieves, as near as I can tell. We are all strangers; we all need a welcome in this world. What could be a more basic human aspiration than to find a home, a safe, secure place for our families?
St. Dunstan’s began a refugee ministry months ago, and we’ll continue it, adjusting for whatever realities come. We put up a banner, “Help us help refugees,” last week, to show our commitment to the strangers seeking safety on our shores. I got a call last week from a neighbor who said he was offended by that. He said that it was a blatant political act, considering the timing of the banner. He said he had not seen banners about other crises, such as the bombing of Aleppo. He also said he himself was an immigrant to the U.S. and appreciated the welcome he received here. Go figure.
While I don’t back down from St. Dunstan’s right to display banners, this man, who wouldn’t identify himself, did make me think. Many other humanitarian crises we have lamented, but let go by without taking a public stand. Why? What is our ethical obligation here? How do we choose which causes to fight for?
Christian ethicists have a number of criteria to apply to situations: What principles are at stake? What are our obligations to the parties involved? Do we have the capability to make a difference in the outcome?
Each of us must decide what to do, how to stand up for what we believe in. We all must make that choice, because doing nothing is a choice too, and we are responsible for that choice. As a congregation, we have responsibilities to live out what we say we believe about justice, equality, and the dignity of every human being. We claim that we seek Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself. Do we live that way? Jesus said we are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. Salt can sting; it’s not always comfortable. Light can reveal things we may rather keep hidden. Refugees and immigrants may remind us that we were once just like them.
I have a feeling that our Christian values will be challenged again and again in the world we live in today. Will we be salt and light, or will we hide in the shadows, hoping our comfortable lives are not too much disturbed? Isaiah, and Jesus, both call us to put our money, and our actions, where our mouths are. I hope in the end God will judge that we have let our light shine brightly in this troubled world, working for justice and compassion for all our fellow human beings. AMEN.