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Jailed for Jesus?

This year, the U.S. government prosecuted a man for following Jesus.

Dr. Scott Warren gave food and water to migrants traveling through the desert. He did this because Jesus commands us to feed the needy, give water to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25). The pro-life movement believes every human being has worth and the right to life — but Dr. Warren was arrested and is facing 20 years of jail for living out that belief.

Jeff Sessions, who started the prosecution of Christians for obeying Jesus, quoted the Bible to defend his actions. Romans 13:1 says, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities…” Sessions took this verse to mean that if the government creates a law, it must be obeyed — no matter how unjust or directly contradictory to Jesus’ teaching.

Christians must obey the law and respect authority, but the Bible is clear that our allegiance is to God and Christ’s teachings. Days after the first Christian sermon, government authorities rounded up Jesus’ disciples and told them not to preach in Jesus’ name. While this was the “law,” the disciples couldn’t obey it (Acts 4: 1-21; Acts 5: 17-18). A large portion of 1 Peter, especially chapter 4, deals with this issue — yes, we obey the law, but if a law stops us from obeying God and doing good to others, we must prepare to pay the consequence for loving God and His people.

Our founding fathers also believed personal conviction must temper man-made law. John Adams, the most conservative founding father, argued that in a system of checks and balances, individual people were the final check on government. He argued that if a person is arrested for breaking that law — and if that law is unjust — a jury must declare the accused “not guilty.” The very first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court agreed that juries must not condemn a person for breaking an unjust law.

This case of giving water to migrants is even more interesting from a Christian worldview. Jesus taught that His followers will be persecuted — and Jesus taught us what to do about that persecution. Jesus teaches, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another” (Matthew 10:23). In fact, God used persecution to move Christians around the world so that others could be introduced to Jesus (Acts 8:1). Many migrants coming here are doing so because they are following Jesus’ words — leaving persecution and moving to a new place. When we make laws to trap the religiously persecuted in their hometowns, and then make laws to punish those who give them water, we break Jesus’ teachings twice.

In contrast to Jesus’ teaching, Alabama law allows churches to form their own militias. Yet Jesus was clear with his disciples that they were not to use violence to bring about God’s kingdom. During Jesus’ arrest, Peter cut off the ear of one of the arrestors with a sword. Jesus scolded Peter to put his sword away, and said violence leads to more violence. Throughout the book of Acts and early church history, Christians fearlessly showed Jesus’ love to others and never resorted to violence.

To us, Jesus’ commands against violence don’t make sense. Defending oneself is a human right. Yet, when even non-Christians simply obey Jesus’ teaching, they get results. Gandhi followed Jesus’ words literally and won independence for India. Today, if we look at the church versus the LGBT movement, which one has been more willing to be vocal about their issues, yet reach out to the ostracized, and to engage their opposition without talk of weapons or violence? Which of these groups is making a greater impact with the youth of our country?

Jesus never allows us to ignore evil. We are commanded to love our enemy and to work for justice. We can arm our churches, close our borders and prosecute those who show love — but all we will accomplish is showing that we are scared and unable to trust the God we say we serve. If we deny others the rights God gave them, who will be left to defend the rights of speech and religion that the Constitution gives us?

Ross Reitz has been a Suffolk resident since 2009. Prior to that, he taught the Bible in Africa for two years and spent six years as a teacher at a Christian school in Philadelphia, Pa.