Thursday, August 9, 2012

Mennonite on Trial for Kidnapping and Conscience

In case this story has been flying under your radar, here is what's happening:

Eleven women and three men were impaneled [Tuesday] to hear the case against Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller, accused of helping a woman flee the United States with her daughter rather than share custody of the child with her former lesbian partner.

Miller, 46, of Stuarts Draft, Va., is charged with aiding in international kidnapping. A conviction carries a maximum prison term of three years...

The judge said jurors will have to set aside their opinions and deal with the facts and the law in the case.

‘‘What is at issue here is whether Mr. Miller committed a crime,’’ U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions said.

The trial is expected to last six days.

Lisa Miller, no relation to the defendant, and Janet Jenkins of Fair Haven entered a civil union in Vermont in 2000. Lisa Miller gave birth to her daughter, Isabella, in 2002. The couple later broke up, and Lisa Miller returned to her native Virginia.

Kenneth Miller is accused of helping Lisa Miller and her daughter travel from Virginia to Canada, then to Nicaragua in September 2009 where they lived among Mennonites. The current whereabouts of the mother and her now-10-year-old child are unknown.

Now, I am typically a person of decided opinions, but I confess that I don't know what to do with this case. As a matter of navigating everyday life, I reject the judge's mindset that one must prioritize what is legal to what is moral. As the state has no legitimate authority, it has no power to coerce Christians to do violate their consciences regardless of the law. The instructions to the jury are appropriate, however, for the context in which they were given. They are in a courtroom and not an ethics seminar.

The beauty of the American legal system rests on the rule of law, single code for everyone, evenly applied. At the same time, the counterbalance to this potentially inhuman system is the court's dependence on the weighty roll given to a jury of peers to decide whether or not actions warrant penalty.

I do not think that the courts should be deciding issues of custody based on the sexuality of the parents. I also sympathize, to put it mildly, with the Christian convert who, following Biblical commandments, insists on raising up the child in the way it should go.

As I struggle with these tensions, I try to put myself into the pastor's shoes. We share, at least in theory, a common outlook on civil disobedience. Were I in his place, I might have done exactly what he did. I might even try to avoid legal penalty as he seems to be doing, although here I think this may not be the most Christian course. The biblical examples of civil disobedience, as well as those incidences of resistance which are lauded in modern times, have not tried to circumvent the law with impunity. When the time comes for a confrontation with the state, no excuses are made and no legal wrangling is attempted. Miller's attorney is claiming innocence via technicality, but when Peter confronts the state, his attitude is closer to, "I am innocent before God, even as I am guilty before you. What does that say about you?" Early Christians were imprisoned, flogged, and executed without resistance, a fact which has richly colored Mennonite history as well. Perhaps the truer course would have been to spirit the woman away and, when she was safely among the church, to accept whatever civil penalty the state imposes for right behavior.

But what do I know? Miller has already shown more courage than most of us will ever be called to show, made a more difficult decision than any of us will have to face. My purpose is not to judge him, but to take his extreme situation and use it to animate our common, extreme ethos. Whatever happens or should happen, my hope is that he will allow God to enrich him through the consequences of his actions.

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