When ‘Wanting to Do the Right Thing’ Might Get You in Trouble

Haiti, Volunteerism, and a Desire to Help

Commentary by Albert B. Collver III and Daniel Mattson

The earthquake in Haiti has shaken the entire world and refocused attention on the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. People from around the globe have poured out help to this island nation. In particular, the United States has responded to the needs of her neighbor in the Caribbean. The American people have sent aid to Haiti through the U.S. military and a variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the American Red Cross and a multitude of church groups, including The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. In fact, so many NGOs operate in Haiti (about 3,000 according to some estimates), that some have called Haiti a Republic of NGOs. In a country filled with such need and limited capacity, these NGOs provide valuable assistance to people in need. The need in Haiti will continue for many years, perhaps even decades.

There is another side to providing aid and assistance to people in need. As non-governmental organizations and church groups rushed into Haiti, it became clear that the desire to help and do good to one’s neighbor is not the same as actually providing the help that is needed. The first rule of relief work is to not become part of the problem, that is, to not cause more problems than the people in need already have, nor to put yourself in a situation where you need to be rescued yourself.

In some cases, well-intentioned medical professionals arrived in Haiti without being prepared for the devastation and the suffering they would see. In other cases, well-intentioned organizations and church groups (and sometimes reporters) arrived in the Dominican Republic with no means to enter Haiti and without a place to stay once there. In this regard, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod was blessed to have the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Haiti as a partner. In fact, other groups and organizations requested to “embed” with our teams as they entered Haiti.

Perhaps the most prominent example of a well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful group was that of the 10 Baptist missionaries from America arrested for child trafficking. The details of this case have been reported extensively. No doubt some details will never be known. Some of the reported details are confusing, and others approach the bizarre, such as the group’s former attorney being wanted for crimes in Latin America and indicted in the United States on immigrant smuggling.

The undisputed fact is that 10 Americans affiliated with a Baptist congregation in Idaho were arrested when they attempted to take 33 Haitian children across the border into the Dominican Republic. The group of American Baptists saw a need, desired to help children in Haiti, but did so without having the appropriate government paperwork and without passports for the children. It appears that some of these Baptist missionaries are unfortunate victims of their group leaders’ lack of attention to the Haitian legal requirements for child adoption. Also, it would not be surprising if these well-meaning people had received bad or ill-informed advice from desperate earthquake survivors in Haiti.

At the heart of this particular example is the Lutheran two-kingdom doctrine. The right-hand kingdom is the realm of the Church where the Church lives in the Gospel. The left-hand kingdom is the realm of government and civil law. Both realms belong to the Lord, but the Church, while enlivened by Gospel, in this world is subjected to the government and civil law. In this world, the Church abides by the laws of the land she lives in, or of the land she is operating in, unless that law violates the Lord’s Law. (By the grace of God, the Church is in a position to distinguish between what God wills and what man wishes. Ignoring the Lord’s Law is not an option, as Peter and the apostles point out in Acts 5:29.)

In the case of child adoption, this means the Church must abide by the legitimate laws of the land or not be involved in the adoption of children. Even for conscience’ sake, or when the Church must obey the Law of God rather than the law of man, the Church must still be prepared to face the consequences of human law and must think carefully about the way in which she fulfills its responsibilities.

Because the Church has been enlivened by the Gospel, she must show Christ’s mercy to people in need. Christians forgiven by Christ not only share and proclaim the Gospel with others, but also share Christ’s love with people in need through acts of mercy. Nevertheless, when the people of God show mercy to people in need, they must abide by the laws of the land they are operating in. The Church must show mercy in a wise and responsible way, being aware of cultural and legal sensitivities. As a servant, the Church goes to people in need, most especially to our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and says to them, “We want to help you. Tell us how we can best help you in your need.” In the process of helping those in need, opportunities will arise not only to show the love we have for others because of Christ but also to share His comforting Word.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus sent His disciples out for the first time with the instructions, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16 ESV). Especially in times when the need is overwhelming and people are desperate, the people of God must be truly wise as they try to help. Superficial expressions of care and concern are not enough. We must make every effort to understand the needs of our neighbors in need in Haiti and respond responsibly with glad and open hearts for Jesus’ sake.

When Civil Law and God’s Law Collide

Commentary by Albert B Collver III

In many ways, the experience of the Baptist missionaries in Haiti seems to offer a classic example of Christians caught between a desire to do good as an expression of their faith and the rules of temporal society.

As Saint Paul writes in Romans 13, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (ESV).

So even when the civil laws of a land are imperfect, the Church is obligated to abide by those laws unless the law imposed by the state violates the Law of God in such a way that a Christian cannot obey it in good conscience.

Even if a civil law could be better or is even unjust, the Christian is obligated to obey it unless it causes him to sin, then the Christian must obey the Law of God rather than man. Many times whether a law is just or is unjust is a matter we could discus with “learned, reasonable people or among ourselves” (Smalcald Articles III).

When a Christian for the sake of conscience obeys the Lord rather than civil law, there are consequences in this world that he or she will face. In the case of child adoption, this means the Church must abide by the laws of the land or not be involved in the adoption of children. If the Church disregards the civil laws about adoption, the state will not allow the church to sponsor adoptions for very long.

In the United States, where some states have passed laws allowing the adoption of children by homosexuals, for the sake of conscience, the Roman Catholic Church no longer sponsors adoptions in those jurisdictions. While corruption might be rampant in Haiti, and while we might even consider some Haitian laws unjust, it does not seem that the adoption laws in Haiti are a case in which it is better to obey God rather than man. In these very complex situations, the Church must consider how to best operate so as to help and do no harm either to those in need, themselves, or other agencies trying to assist.

How to Help

by Albert B. Collver III and Daniel Mattson

LCMS congregations and members who want to be involved in relief efforts in Haiti can contact Dr. Al Collver in LCMS World Relief and Human Care. His phone number is 800-248-1930, ext. 1637. His email address is albert.collver@lcms.org.

LCMS World Mission and LCMS World Relief have combined their efforts into one operation that works with the Lutheran church in Haiti and people known to that church body as well as with Lutheran World Relief (Baltimore), the cooperative Lutheran agency that specializes in major disaster relief and development.

Contributions to LCMS World Relief are tax deductible, and gifts to support work in Haiti are tracked carefully. To help immediately, go to www.lcms.org to see current efforts and a button to “Donate Now” at the top of the page.

To volunteer for LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s Mercy Medical Teams, please register on the World Relief and Human Care’s volunteer database at www.lcms.org/mercyteams and also send an email to mercymedical@lcms.org with a copy to maggie.karner@lcms.org and jacob.fiene@lcms.org advising of your availability for service, what your specialty is, and any previous experience in overseas situations. Please include your contact telephone and experience in your email notification for availability.

For information about short-term volunteer service in LCMS partner churches and mission fields, contact Jennifer Mustard at jennifer.mustard@lcms.org. Her phone number is 800-433-3954, ext. 1311.

Information about current service opportunities can be found on the web at www.lcms.org?389.

About the Authors:

Rev. Albert B. Collver, Ph.D. (abc3miscellany.blogspot.com), is executive pastoral assistant for LCMS World Relief and Human Care.

Rev. Daniel Mattson, Ph.D., is associate executive director for LCMS World Mission.

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