Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Criminalizing the Teaching of Non-Violence

In June 2010 the Supreme Court ruled that a portion of the US Patriot Act prohibiting the provision of “material support” to designated terrorist organizations includes training in non-violence by humanitarian aid workers.  The specific case which prompted the ruling was Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (HLP).  HLP had sought to provide training in human rights advocacy and peacemaking to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Turkey, a small group which the US government has listed as a terrorist organization.
This ruling is, in effect if not in intent, profoundly anti-Christian.  First, it criminalizes the speech and actions of those who attempt to follow Jesus’ clear examples and teachings about how we are to relate to our enemies.  And second, it denies the possibility of repentance and conversion on the part of those to whom such training would be provided.  Ironically, two of the three dissenting justices are the two non-Christians now seated on the Supreme Court.  It appears that some of our Jewish brothers and sisters have a better understanding of “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42) than do most of the Christian members of our highest court.
A number of humanitarian groups had joined the HLP in seeking relief from the onerous provisions of the law.  Among them were the Constitution Project, Human Rights Watch, and the Carter Center.  After the ruling, former President Jimmy Carter, founder of the Carter Center, stated, “We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has upheld a law that inhibits the work of human rights and conflict resolution groups. The ‘material support law’ – which is aimed at putting an end to terrorism – actually threatens our work and the work of many other peacemaking organizations that must interact directly with groups that have engaged in violence. The vague language of the law leaves us wondering if we will be prosecuted for our work to promote peace and freedom.”  Attorneys analyzing the decision have suggested that President Carter himself could be subject to prosecution because he has trained all parties in fair election practices in Lebanon.
Jesus’ clearest statement on the topic of treatment of enemies is recorded in Luke 6:27-31: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.  If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  He also preached, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”  (Matthew 5:9)
And Jesus was not just talk but also action.  His preaching and healing ministry frequently extended to those who were considered “the enemy” by society.  He healed a Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Mark 7:24-30), a Roman centurion’s slave (Matthew 8:5-13), and a royal official’s son (John 4:46-53).  To a Samaritan woman of questionable virtue he offered the living water of salvation (John 4:1-30).  And in one of his most-quoted parables, he depicted a Samaritan as the compassionate helper and temple authorities as uncaring and indifferent to human suffering.
For decades peacemaking organizations, both those which are motivated by Christian belief and those which operate from secular humanitarian concerns, have labored around the world to bring warring parties together in non-violent negotiation.  They understand that opposition forces frequently resort to terrorist violence when they perceive that they have no other way of making their voices heard.  Training of terrorist leaders in democratic and non-violent methods of dissent can help to relieve the suffering of millions caught in unending violence.  Supporters of the HLP position note that such training and assistance helped to end decades of violence in Northern Ireland and in South Africa, where the IRA and the ANC respectively were designated terrorist organizations.
Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project was argued primarily on grounds of free speech and free association.  I would maintain that it also impacts free exercise of religion.  Jesus said that peacemakers are blessed.  The Supreme Court has interpreted the Patriot Act to say that peacemakers are criminals.  Those who choose to follow the teaching of Christ in their work of international peacemaking are going to need full measure of our prayer and support.

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