The Religious Duty to Care about the Welfare of All Human Beings

As a Unitarian-Universalist, it is my duty to care about the welfare of every human being. The first of the “The 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism” is “The inherent worth and dignity of every person”—and the second is like it: “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” There are no limitations of color, gender, ancestry, place of birth or citizenship to this these two principles.

Unitarian-Universalists are also expected to wrestle to figure out their own beliefs, both in relation to the supernatural and in relation to what is the highest good. When I had newly started attending the Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, back in 2000, I took a small class taught by the minister then, Ken Phifer (see his guest post “Kenneth W. Phifer: The Faith of a Humanist”). It was called “Building Your Own Theology.” Someday I’ll post the “Credo” (the “I believe”) that I developed in that class. But I have a somewhat more developed expression of my core religious beliefs in “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life.” One way of putting that core belief is that a nascent God is working through us to bring God fully into being. Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person is a step toward bringing God fully into being.

Jesus said “I must be about my Father’s business.” My belief is that doing our best to make earth as close as possible to what we think heaven would be like is the business we must be about. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a key part of making earth more like heaven.

What follows, and the quotations below, comes from the Wall Street Journal article flagged above. Nine individuals associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson have been charged with misdemeanor trespassing for trekking into the Sonoran desert to provide food—and more importantly, water—to people who otherwise might die of thirst there. They did not get the required permits to enter the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, because they intended to save lives in the desert in a way forbidden by law:

The defendants say they didn’t get permission to enter the refuge because of new rules adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forbidding Cabeza Prieta visitors from leaving behind food, water bottles, blankets, medical supplies or other personal possessions. 

Why would saving lives in this way be forbidden? Plausibly, in the pursuance of what I consider another injustice: laws that restrict legal immigration so much that people wanting a better life, in desperation, turn to illegal immigration.

Defense lawyers assert that the restriction on relief supplies—adopted by the Trump administration in July 2017—is part of a crackdown on border relief efforts. A defense motion quotes a text message from a Border Patrol agent referring to the volunteers as “bean droppers.”

This case raises interesting legal questions:

A central question in the case is whether the defendants are protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Clinton in 1993.

… Under the statute, the federal government may not hinder a person from exercising sincerely held religious beliefs without a compelling and unavoidable reason.

Department of Justice lawyers argue that the government has a compelling and unavoidable reason to inhibit this activity in order to use the possibility of dying of thirst in the Sonoran desert as part of the deterrence for illegal immigration, and that the provision of relief may result in the wilderness getting hurt or becoming less of a wilderness.

Prosecutors have also questioned whether the defendants’ relief missions are truly religious in nature, suggesting the defendants were motivated by political or “purely secular” philosophical concerns.

I suspect that, by implication, the prosecutors are questioning the religiousness of what I consider my religious beliefs as well. What would strike at the core of Unitarian-Universalism is a government rule that a a conviction can be religious only if it is based on the belief in something supernatural. Some Unitarian-Universalists believe in the supernatural, some don’t. They are all alike Unitarian-Universalists. Saying that

  1. those who believe in the supernatural have the protection of the religion clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution and of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but

  2. those who, like me, believe that God can be brought forth within the natural world studied by physics,

would be unfair. Not as unfair as letting people die in the Sonoran desert, but unfair nevertheless.

My own activities on behalf of immigrants to the United States are all protected by the “freedom of speech” clause of the First Amendment, my religious beliefs are not legally pivotal for what I am doing. But I feel a lot of solidarity with those nine who felt that death of thirst was a cruel punishment for trying to become part of the miracle of nature and history that is the United States.

Don’t miss "The Hunger Games" Is Hardly Our Future--It's Already Here,” which pulls together many of my thoughts on immigration and provides links to other pieces I have written about immigration.