Terrance Heath

Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk

Filed By Terrance Heath | November 24, 2009 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Catholic bishops, civil disobedience, Martin Luther King Jr., WWMLKD

I just have one thing to say about this.

Forget WWJD. The new question is apparently What Would MLK Do? A coalition of politically and theologically conservative Christian leaders, including nine Roman Catholic bishops, who have just signed a declaration saying they will not comply with laws that could require them to recognize same-sex unions or allow their institutions to support abortions are arguing that the move is of a piece with King’s call for civil disobedience during the civil rights movement.

The declaration reads, in part: “We will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other antilife act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent.”

Instead of debating whether these causes belong in the same category as providing equal rights and treatment to racial minorities, the better question may be: Why now?After all, most people agree with the first part of the statement and believe religious institutions and individuals should be protected by conscience provisions that protect them from being compelled to participate in acts like abortion that they believe are murder. And, in fact, they are.

Fine. But if you’re gonna talk that talk, you gotta walk that walk.

I don’t have a problem with people practicing civil disobedience. It’s one of the many ways so much progress has been made in this country and in the world.

It’s been practiced by many people I respect and admire.

Just one thing.

One of the most widely accepted tenets of civil disobedience is accepting the consequences of your civil disobedience.

A further difference between civil disobedience and common crimes pertains to the willingness of the offender to accept the legal consequences. The willingness of disobedients to accept punishment is taken not only as a mark of (general) fidelity to the law, but also as an assertion that they differ from ordinary offenders. Accepting punishment also can have great strategic value, as Martin Luther King Jr observes: 'If you confront a man who has been cruelly misusing you, and say "Punish me, if you will; I do not deserve it, but I will accept it, so that the world will know I am right and you are wrong," then you wield a powerful and just weapon.' (Washington, 1991, 348). Moreover, like non-violence, a willingness to accept the legal consequences normally is preferable, and often has a positive impact upon the disobedient’s cause. This willingness may make the majority realise that what is for them a matter of indifference is for disobedients a matter of great importance (Singer, 1973, 84). Similarly, it may demonstrate the purity or selflessness of the disobedient’s motives or serve as a means to mobilise more broad-based support (Raz, 1979, 265). And yet, punishment can also be detrimental to dissenters’ efforts by compromising future attempts to assist others through protest (Greenawalt, 1987, 239). Furthermore, the link between a willingness to accept punishment and respect for law can be pulled apart. A revolutionary like Gandhi was happy to go to jail for his offences, but felt no fidelity toward the particular legal system in which he acted.

Now, in Washington D.C. Catholic Bishops seem not to understand the distinction above.

They lead a church that claims to stand on the side of the sick and the poor, the meek who shall inherit the earth. But in the course of a single week, the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church proclaimed themselves willing to see health-care denied to millions of uninsured Americans, and to yank the social-service rug out from under the feet of tens of thousands of urban poor in the nation’s capital — all to serve the bishops’ obsession with the sex lives and reproductive organs of others.

The church’s week of shame began with the bishops’ role in creating the monster that is the Stupak amendment to the health-care reform bill passed last weekend by the House of Representatives, when the bishops refused to bless a compromise made between pro-choice and anti-abortion Democrats in the language of the bill. (Without the bishops’ blessing, anti-choice Democrats vowed to vote against the bill, so Speaker Nancy Pelosi was strong-armed into allowing Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., to bring an anti-choice amendment to the floor.) Finishing off the week with a brutal bang, the church threatened to sever its social service contracts with the District of Columbia if the city council of Washington, D.C., passes a measure legalizing same-sex marriage — a move that would throw services to 68,000 of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the nation’s capital into chaos.

But they should understand one thing clearly, now that D.C. city councilman David Catania (a gay, Republican council member) spelled it out for them.

Catania, who said he has been the biggest supporter of Catholic Charities on the council, said he is baffled by the church’s stance. From 2006 through 2008, Catania said, Catholic Charities received about $8.2 million in city contracts, as well as several hundred thousand dollars’ worth this year through his committee.

“If they find living under our laws so oppressive that they can no longer take city resources, the city will have to find an alternative partner to step in to fill the shoes,” Catania said. He also said Catholic Charities was involved in only six of the 102 city-sponsored adoptions last year.

Civil disobedience doesn’t involve holding people hostage. At least not anywhere that I’m aware of.

If the Catholic Bishops are going to engage in civil disobedience, they’ll have to accept the consequences. When they refuse to comply with state or municipal laws that prohibit discrimination, etc., they should -- at the very least -- forfeit any government funding they receive to deliver services, especially if they refuse to deliver services until the laws they object to are changed. I’d probably add to that any and all free use of publicly-owned spaces. The city can find someone who will deliver the services needed, and the church can find $8.2 million elsewhere.

That isn’t civil disobedience, if you ask me. Civil disobedience doesn’t involve making threats, and certainly not threatening to leave people in need to suffer. Civil disobedience seeks to change policy through changing hearts and minds. It requires faith in the humanity of your opponent, that he can be brought to see your point of view. It requires empathy, not extortion.

And I think perhaps the Bishops should ask themselves “What Would Jesus Do?” Would Jesus refuse to feed, cloth and house the poor because D.C. let two guys get married? Would he refuse to heal the sick because the District let two women get hitched?

It’s been a long time since I taught Sunday school or considered myself a Christian. But what I remember from those days tells me he probably wouldn’t.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but I recall the woman that Jesus healed on the Sabbath, despite the Pharisee’s admonitions about the law forbidding it. Like I said, it’s not a perfect analogy, but the story suggests to me that it’s unlikely Jesus would let a law -- any law -- stop him from carrying out what he believed was God’s work and his duty here on earth.

Most likely he would have healed the sick, fed the poor, and continued to express his opposition to th law. He wouldn’t tell a sick person to come back on one of the other seven days. And he probably wouldn’t tell a hungry or destitute person to come back when the was changed to his liking.

It sounds like that’s what the Bishops are doing. It doesn’t sound Christ-like to me, but I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject. If they refuse to accept the consequences of refusing to abide the the laws where they operate, they can’t really call it civil disobedience.


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