Church folk sure like going to court. Imagined injuries now make laws and policies. The Mosaic law allowed for redress for injuries. “When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox shall be stoned…If an ox has been accustomed to gore in the past, and its owner has been warned and not restrained it, and it kills a man or woman, the ox shall be stoned, and its owner shall also be put to death” (Exodus 21:28-29) For most people, justice means redress for injuries. However, satisfaction for potential or hypothetical injuries are not justified. Redress for what exactly?
“Could Have” Injuries
The books on the top shelf fell were flimsy and fell over when a customer removed one of them. I helped her pick them up. “That’s dangerous,” she said. “One of them could have hit me in the temple.” I was not impressed by her concern. She was upset when I, following company policy, did not offer an apology. “Could have” are words denoting fear. Sometimes the fear is justified. Many times it is not. But since there is no implied mortality from books hitting her foot, she claimed something that was unlikely “could have” happened as though she just got a lucky break.
The idea that potential, hypothetical, and imagined injuries comes from all the advice we receive regarding what could happen if we eat something that is a potential carcinogen, or could emotionally warp our children unless we buy the item or use the method that promises not to do that. It comes from having government officials who claim, “We don’t want the smoking gun evidence to be a mushroom cloud.” Terrible advice always comes with unlikely imagined dangers.
My devotional reading this morning included the story of St. Paul being brought before the court of Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia. The point of the story is made by the proconsul. “If it were a matter of crime or serious villainy, I would be justified in accepting the complaint…but since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves; I do not wish to be a judge of these matters.” (Acts 18:14b-15)
So, if a religious body is taken to court for causing injury to a person or a group of people, there should be evidence of injury. But suppose there is no injury. Where is the case? Churches are rightly held accountable for injuries to victims of sexual abuse by clergy or other leaders. They can also cause injury to their neighbors. Religious leaders try skirting the law or claiming some type of immunity for “deeply held beliefs.” Sin is covered by cross of Christ. Yet, churches act as though we are get to hide them there.
Suing Your Leaders
I wonder how a court would respond if I tried suing a church down the road for “stealing members.” I doubt it would be in my favor. In the same way, a congregation suing the denominational leadership by acting as though they have a potential injury should be greeted the same way Gallio responds to Paul’s accusers.
Yet, we are in a season where imagined and hypothetical injuries are somehow given reality when they fit an agenda. So it is no wonder congregations would think they could get redress for them. I wonder why potential injuries should be one-sided. Perhaps my claim to imagined injury is more persuasive than yours? This is why lawsuits against UMC conferences are being dismissed. But now the US Supreme Court has set a dangerous precedent. We shall see what comes of it.