“There is a need to draw a line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders.” Adolph Eichmann
“A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy.” Dr. Debora Bishop, District Superintendent, UMC.
As one of those who signed a letter charging Attorney General Jeff Sessions with violating the standards of the United Methodist Church, I never expected the charges to result in any significant censure of Mr. Sessions.
This is not because the charges were not serious. Sessions is implicated in the systematic abuse of thousands of children who were forcibly separated from their parents as they entered the United States. It’s hard to know exactly how many children were separated, because the administration did not keep accurate records. Separation was carried out without any plans for the reunification of families, and many children might never be reunited with their parents.
This policy is not only immoral, it is clearly incompatible with the standards of the United Methodist Church. In the words of Bishop Kenneth Carter, president of The United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops, the policy was, and is “incompatible with Scripture and Christian tradition.” (See also Here)
At the same time, I understand the realities of a Church that includes members who span the political spectrum. The first level of review for the charges would happen in Session’s home district and Annual Conference, in the Deep South where they have special reason not to alienate conservatives. And I also know that there has never been a case of charges against a mere member of The United Methodist Church that has risen to the level of revoking membership, or even a judicial review beyond the local level.
There are, within United Methodism release valves for the pressures that this kind of case raises. Bishops and District Superintendents are given a great deal of flexibility for dealing with charges in their own regions. They have the ability to reach “just resolutions” with those who have been charged. These agreements don’t even necessarily require any punishment. This provides a useful mechanism for situations where the Church wants to uphold its own rules while allowing for grace and the specifics around each case.
In the time since the family separation policy collapsed under criticism, Sessions has (dubiously) claimed that family separation was never the intent of the policy. A just resolution might have been achieved via an articulation of his “revised” position on the policy. Or it might have resulted in an agreement for Sessions to lead a Sunday School class on the concept of “the foreigner” in the Bible. Really, the possibilities are endless. And they don’t go half as far as the actions of Roman Catholic priests who in the past have denied communion to politicians who they see as having lost their way.
Sessions may have wished to avoid the press around any just resolutions process, even if the result was merely a request to teach Sunday school. But, if a Church is unable to stand for principle in the face of grave injustice perpetrated by its own members, even when standing for principle demands so little, it makes a mockery of the Church’s claim to moral authority.
Unfortunately, this is the position that The United Methodist Church now occupies. This is because, instead of even pursuing a just resolution to the charges, Dr. Debora Bishop, Session’s District Superintendent, dismissed the charges. In her letter explaining the situation, Dr. Bishop reports that she did this with the support of Bishop David Graves and the Cabinet of the Alabama-West Florida Annual conference.
The justification for the dismissal of charges is remarkable.
“A political action is not personal conduct when the political officer is carrying out official policy. In this matter, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was carrying out the official policy of the President and/or The United States Department of Justice. It was not an individual act. I believe that this type of conduct is not covered by the chargeable offense provisions of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016 for laypersons. Therefore, your complaint is dismissed.”
This statement represents a mischaracterization of Sessions’ role is relation to the government and policy, is morally problematic, and theologically confused.
SESSIONS WAS NOT SIMPLY CARRYING OUT POLICY
As Attorney General, by federal statutory law Sessions is the head of the Department of Justice. He does not simply carry out the policies of this Department, he SETS the policies of the department. Further, though the Attorney General is appointed and can be dismissed by the President, the oath of office does not bind the office to the policies of the present administration. Rather, like most public servants, the Attorney General promises to defend the Constitution of the United States. Indeed, we would not want an Attorney General who felt obligation to the President above all other standards. Part of the Attorney General’s job includes overseeing investigations of inappropriate conduct on the part of the executive. So the Attorney General should never be treated as a mere implementer of Presidential policy.
In the current case, far from simply implementing a policy that was given to him, Sessions was a vocal proponent of the policy. He called critics of the policy a “lunatic fringe” and suggested that they all (the United Methodist Bishops presumably included) lived in gated communities with their own walls to protect them. Opponents of the policy were, according to Sessions hypocrites. Nothing in Sessions’ appointed position required him to make such slanderous statements in defense of this unjust policy.
Nor did Sessions stop there. He went so far as to offer a theological justification for the policy. In the middle of June, Sessions cited “the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” In response theologians and Biblical scholars have pointed out that this use of Romans 13 takes the passage out of context and deploys it in the same way that it was used to justify unjust regimes from slavery in the United States to Apartheid in South Africa and the rule of the Hitler in Germany.
We can return to this theological point in a moment, but for present it is important to note that the claim that Sessions should have been, or was merely implementing a policy given to him by others is wrongheaded. This was a policy that Sessions advocated for, one he helped craft, and one he went to Machiavellian extremes to defend.
“ORDERS” DO NOT ENTIRELY ERASE INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY
At this point we have clarified that the Attorney General is not obligated by oath or law to carry out whatever policy he or she is given by the President or Justice department. But we should go further. Even if Sessions were simply implementing policy, this would not mean that there was nothing of the “individual” left in the act. There is a broader, and incredibly significant moral principle at stake in the proposed justification: the principle of basic human responsibility for one’s actions.
No doubt, there are situations where our moral responsibility is limited by our situation in relation to higher authorities. We follow instructions when we did not know the character or outcomes of the actions we were instructed to do. We trust in authorities and institutions that may mislead us. But regardless of our position in a ladder of authority we are never free to entirely set aside our moral responsibility for our actions.
When U.S. soldiers in Mỹ Lai Vietnam massacred innocent civilians, it did not morally excuse them if they had been ordered by their platoon leader to participate. When Nazi guards oversaw the holocaust, it did not excuse them that their superiors had ordered them to shepherd Jews into the gas chambers. As human beings, we can never be morally obligated to knowingly carry out injustice, no matter who commands it.
In other words, there can be no absolute distinction between “political acts” and “personal conduct” and at no point does our action become so subsumed under worldly authority that it ceases to be an “individual act.” And certainly “political officers” do not forfeit personal responsibility every time they carry out an official policy.
The principle applies as much to government officials as to soldiers on the ground, if not more so. Adolph Eichmann, who oversaw the logistics of the holocaust, attempted to defend himself with the claim that he was merely following Hitler’s orders. The defense was rightly rejected during his trial and in his later appeals for clemency.
But the justification for dismissing charges in the United Methodist Church against Jeff Sessions are almost an exact parallel of the Eichmann defense. Note: I am not comparing what Sessions did to what Eichmann did, or comparing the immigration policies of the Trump Administration with the policies of Hitler. I am pointing out that the justification for dismissing charges against Sessions is the same as the failed justification used by Eichmann and other Nazi officers after the war.
The implication is that if The United Methodist Church existed in Germany during the Holocaust, and if the Church’s justification for dismissing the charges against Sessions is viable, then it would have been impossible to challenge an Adolph Eichmann’s good standing as a member of the Church. Such a conclusion is pure fecklessness.
WE SHOULD REJECT A THEOLOGY OF ABSOLUTE SUBMISSION TO WORLDLY AUTHORITY
Finally, there are deep theological problems with Dr. Bishop’s response. That there is no explicit theology in her letter is unfortunately usual for the United Methodist tradition, but there is certainly an implicit theology, and it is exactly the kind of theology that Sessions was properly condemned for deploying himself.
When Sessions cited Romans 13, he did so in a way that wrote a blank check for authoritarian government. Particular governments, on his reading, are ordained by God. As such, challenging the government, breaking any law produced by proper legal procedure, is tantamount to rebellion against God.
Even as this reading of Romans is designed to give the state absolute power, it is also designed to excuse all individuals under the state from moral responsibility. If the particular government, and particular laws have the character of God’s commands, then the citizen is obligated to carry out those laws even if the individual recognizes them to be unjust or immoral. And, the individual can hardly be held accountable for doing something unjust if she or he was under divine command to do so. As long as the citizen keeps her or his head down and follows the current order, the individual is responsible for nothing.
At times, Lutheran theology has strayed dangerously close to this kind of view of government. With Luther’s dour view of the human conscience and his emphasis on worldly authority as executing God’s will in secular matters, there were points in some versions of Lutheranism where it became hard to think through to the possibility of resistance against worldly authorities. And, it made uniquely Lutheran sense for government representatives to claim that they were merely following the orders that they were given. It is no mistake that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrung his hands over Romans 13 before eventually joining a plot to kill Hitler. And it is no mistake that Eichmann found the “I was given orders” defense so compelling himself. Both were steeped in German Lutheranism.
But Wesleyanism, and particularly American Methodism, has never obligated itself to this heresy. Wesley agreed with Luther on the seriousness of original sin, but unlike Luther, Wesley emphasized that the overflowing grace of God returned to each person her or his own personal conscience. And, though Wesley himself was a Tory, American Methodism has been unremittingly democratic both in its own polity and in its expectations of secular government.
In 2004, the United Methodist Church adopted a Resolution that includes specific comments on the interpretation of Romans 13.
Romans 13 “in no way equates God and government, on the contrary there is no way to reconcile God’s purpose for government with a government that acts contrary to God’s will. There are many examples where governments pervert this God-given authority. It is in situations such as this where the prophetic voice of the church best honors its responsibility to the state, and its faithfulness to the gospel, by calling the state to accountability. Christians must become the conscience of government, in the best sense of the prophetic tradition.”
The justification for rejecting the charges against Sessions did not go as far as Sessions in endorsing the unquestioned authority of the established government. Sessions suggested that all citizens should be obedient to the established authority. The justification for dismissing charges concerns only “political officers.” But surely it is exactly these political officers who we need most to be able to “become the conscience of government” in times when the government embraces cruel and unjust policies.
In the present case, Sessions not only failed to manifest such conscience, but participated in crafting and defending the cruel and unjust policies.
The United Methodist Church failed to even signal that he should be held accountable.