“I Was Just Following Orders!”

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Out In Jersey magazine's Editor Emeritus Toby Grace
Out In Jersey magazine's Editor Emeritus Toby Grace
Casting Aspersions – EXTRA 

Among the signal failings of the present administration is a woeful ignorance of history. The president has made that abundantly clear pretty much every time he has opened his mouth. By his own admission he has never read a book. We know his college career was mediocre and did not, in fact, result in an MBA as is often supposed. However, he is not the only one suffering this deficiency. Jeff Sessions has the problem too, as does the power structure of the Methodist Church.

Sessions himself brought religion into Department of Justice polices when in June he gave a speech in which he quoted St. Paul (Romans 13) as directing Christians to obey the laws of government, specifically as regards the ICE practice of tearing little children away from screaming mothers at immigration detention centers and, presumably, then losing some 400 of the kids in what must be one of the biggest administrative cluster-fucks in the annals of the United States.

Theologians were quick to point out the quotation was taken out of context and its use was discredited by having been employed to try to justify the actions of Nazi functionaries, apartheid administrators in South Africa and other reeking miscreants.

Apparently, the attorney general of the U.S. is unaware of one of the most important precedents of international law established in the 20th Century — very possibly THE most important precedent. Individual responsibility is not obviated by the orders or policy of superior officials. This rule was firmly and clearly established at the Nuremburg Trials following World War II and dozens of Nazi functionaries went to the gallows therefore. They all — every one of them — tried to weasel out of responsibility for their horrendous crimes by saying they were “following orders.”

The bottom line here — we are each responsible for what we do. If it is our own hand that pulls the trigger or empties the Zyklon B gas into the showers or tears that infant from the arms of its mother, it doesn’t matter one little bit if we did so on the orders of a superior officer. There is always a choice. Sometimes the options are not pretty, as in “follow orders or get shot yourself.” But it is still a choice and we are still responsible for the consequences of that choice. Sometimes life does not offer an easy way out but that’s just the way it is.

At least 640 members of the Methodist Church, clergy and lay persons, were very much alive to that legal and moral precedent when they signed a petition to charge fellow Methodist Jeff Sessions with a violation of church doctrine — including child abuse, by his implementation and defense of the policy of ripping apart immigrant families. The facts leading to the charge were not at issue. What was done by the government and Sessions’ defense thereof is a matter of public record.

As it turned out Sessions was not the only one who is apparently unaware of the utter hollowness of what has become known as “the Nuremburg defense.” Dr. Debora Bishop, Session’s church district superintendent, dismissed the charges. In her statement Dr. Bishop writes she did this with the support of Bishop David Graves and the Cabinet of the Alabama-West Florida Annual conference.

The statement read as follows:

“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.”

Wow! The ghost of Adolf Eichmann is no doubt lamenting he didn’t have Dr. Bishop and Bishop Graves on his defense team.

These church officials who might best be characterized, as frightened and cowardly weasels obviously couldn’t care less about the consequences of Session’s policies. What they are afraid of is stoking a controversy that could easily rip apart the Methodist Church. They decided to try to put a lid on it by declining to accept responsibility. Unfortunately for them, that just does not work. They should have learned that when they were kids and mom confronted them about a broken cookie jar. Failing that, they should have learned it in school when World War II was covered. They should certainly have learned from reading their very own rules.

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.”

Granted this philosophy leads to other problems, such as members of a religion deciding they alone know what God’s will is as regards government policy. But restricting ourselves to the issue at hand, it seems unlikely that the Christian deity would endorse terrorizing hundreds of little children. I could be wrong. I’m not a Methodist and am not privy to the innermost councils of that church. Maybe Bishop Graves has had a private memo from on high. After all, both the Pope and the head of the Mormons claim to speak with the direct authority of God. Why should Methodist bishops be left incommunicado? However, I do hope I won’t be stoned as an atheist if I say I doubt it. I just really doubt it.

Jeff Sessions is personally responsible for every tear shed by an anguished immigrant mother, for every nightmare of her lost child, for the possibly permanent harm done to those children — so is every agent of ICE who threw those people into a meat grinder of a system. We are each responsible for our own acts both of commission and of omission. “Just following orders” can never excuse us.

Out In Jersey magazine's Editor Emeritus Toby Grace
Out In Jersey magazine’s Editor Emeritus Toby Grace

Toby Grace is Out In Jersey magazine’s Editor Emeritus.