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When a Good Samaritan is prosecuted

21 June 2019


Scott Warren

Scott Warren

TWICE is maybe getting to be a habit: The Guardian reports that “The Roman Catholic Church is opening the door to a change in its centuries-old requirement that priests must be celibate in a document suggesting older married men may be ordained in remote areas of the Amazon.”

The story is 17 paragraphs long online, and it is paragraph 17 which contains the information: “Eastern Catholic Churches have continued to allow priests to marry before their ordination, and the Roman Catholic Church allowed married Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism after disagreements over the ordination of women to continue their ministry.”

When I think of all the words we typed about the Ordinariate at the time, and how immensely significant it all seemed once, the utter disappearance of that story is salutary.

AFTER the first Lambeth Conference I attended, in 1988, when I worked for three weeks as hard and as well as ever in my life, I suffered a reactive crash that made me almost unable to move for three days. The precipitating factor was wondering, on the train back to London, whether any of it, in fact, had mattered at all.

I had thought that I was writing the first draft of history, as we used to think of journalism, even if only of a tiny fragment of it. Perhaps, though, there would be no history, and it would never have mattered what schemes Robert Runcie produced to hold the Anglican Communion together.

Perhaps, too, what I had taken to be a devotion to the truth was merely a delayed and bloated vanity: the thought that, some day, someone would care enough to look up what I had written in some rustling archive and understand how things had seemed.

And yet it did all matter — just not in the way that we thought it did at the time. The huge social, sexual, and religious changes of the past 40 years have been real. They have not only changed the lives of those who lived through them, but shaped the choices of those who did not. They meant something, even if they didn’t mean what we thought at the time.

I have known journalists who have burned out and decided that there is nothing that matters in the larger patterns, and only individual lives are real — but this is wrong. There is such a thing as society, and we all move within it. More common, of course, is not seeing the individual lives at all, and only the movements of ideas, or fashion, whirling us all along. The real difficulty is that we fail to understand what these really are, and which are significant.

IN THIS light, consider The Economist’s little story about a trial in Arizona, where Scott Warren, a Universalist Unitarian, was facing 20 years in prison for giving food and water to two migrants in the desert.

The case appears to have been briefly mentioned in The Guardian in January, and there was a comment piece drawing attention to the more general persecution of those who help refugees, which contained a memorable sentence: “A French mountain guide was charged last year with aiding and abetting illegal immigration after he rescued a Nigerian woman about to give birth in the snow and drove her to the hospital. He got lucky after prosecutors later dropped the charges, citing ‘humanitarian immunity’. She delivered her baby that night.”

The Economist set the case in the context of American law, and especially the respect for religious freedom. “Although not formally religious himself, Mr Warren has much to say about the numinous nature of the desert and the rituals he performs when (as has happened 18 times) he discovers a dead body. On June 5th robed representatives of more conventional faiths, including a rabbi and an imam, as well as many Protestant churches, came to the courthouse in Tucson to show their solidarity.

“Jim Wallis, a prolific writer who is one of the best-known figures on America’s religious left, says the case was crystal-clear: ‘He is being prosecuted for following the command of Jesus, which is to feed the hungry, refresh the thirsty and invite in the stranger.’ The case was so simple that it should not be a matter of political contention, he thought.”

The trouble is that religious liberty has meant many things in the United States in the past 40 years. The most recent law protecting it was introduced partly to protect the rights of Native Americans to use peyote (a hallucinogenic drug prepared from the peyote cactus) sacramentally. The concept has also been used in recent times by campaigners against vaccination. Most of all, it has been used by the Right to justify restrictions on the supply of contraception, which has helped to make the term toxic to the Left.

So, it is a potentially important twist in the story that it be used to justify the rescue of dying people in the desert. This appears to be also what Pope Francis is preaching, and attempting to encourage, with his attitude to refugees crossing the Mediterranean. It is also what his opponents in Italy are using most against him. I think that this will be one of the great religious divides of the next decades.

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