Van Ens: Determine what’s right by what helps the helpless |

Van Ens: Determine what’s right by what helps the helpless


What’s the highest ethic? Protect people’s liberties when enemies menace them? Or, promote “law and order” to protect those in political power? Winston Churchill defended the first option at the beginning of World War II in 1939.

Guardians of Norway’s sovereignty accused Churchill of meddling in their country’s affairs. He advocated mining with explosives the Norwegian port of Narvik. This British military intervention would protect Norwegians’ “humanity,” as Churchill expressed it, from Hitler’s army poised to dominate Norway. Many Norwegian leaders demanded Churchill shut up and respect Norway’s sovereignty, based on the principle of international law and order.

As World War II spread into Scandinavia, Norway shipped from Narvik to Germany rich iron-ore deposits that Hitler used to manufacture armaments. Churchill wanted to cut the supply of iron ore shipped from the port of Narvik to the Third Reich in winter when ice jams clogged alternate shipping lanes. 

The British parliament sided with Norway’s “law and order” protocols because it held neutral status as a sovereign nation. Churchill disagreed by appealing to a moral ethic trumping mere legality. Guard Norwegians’ dignity from Nazi slavery, he demanded, even if such policy weakened “law and order” as pillars supporting Norway’s sovereignty.

Churchill believed Britain’s highest tribunal judging right military strategy is “our own conscience” that “protects the liberty” of a small nation, such as Norway. “Small nations must not tie our hands when we are fighting for their rights and freedom. The letter of the law must not in supreme emergency obstruct those who are charged with its protection and enforcement … Humanity, rather than legality, must be our guide,” declared Churchill.

Today, politicians sounding like Churchill’s critics run aground any ship of state that raises human dignity above entrenched “law and order” as the rudder steering political agendas.

President Trump’s border policy favors existing immigration laws over refugees’ plight. He won the presidency in 2016 by vowing to crack down on illegal immigration, aimed, for instance, at a Guatemalan mother with her child seeking refuge in the United States. The president speaks of these immigrants as economic misfits who don’t make America great. He ridicules them as drifters and cheats who defy laws by sneaking through the southern border.

President Trump’s immigration restrictions are based on a “law and order” ethic. He is unconcerned that the Guatemalan mother and child flee from famine because scorched fields lack rain. Theirs is a life-or-death verdict. Either starve or seek shelter in the U.S. This humanitarian impulse drives a compassionate ethic towards illegal immigrants.

After his landslide 1972 presidential victory endorsing the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon castigated protesters as draft dodgers who defied U.S. law and order. Republican commentator Peggy Noonan reminds us how Time magazine’s Lance Morrow described the GOP’s “law and order” pro-war agenda in his October 1972 essay, “The Two Americas.”

“In Nixon’s America … there was ‘the sense of system.’ The free enterprise system, the law and order system, even the ‘family unit system.’ They [the GOP] were protective of it, grateful to it. And the antonym to their idea of system wasn’t utopia; it was chaos. … They wanted evolution, not revolution.”

Anti-war protesters advocated a humanitarian ethic to expose how the U.S. government issued bogus American death counts to make it seem as if Agent Orange produced victory in Vietnam. Pro-war Nixon law and order supporters castigated as subversive shaggy-haired “radicals” in protest marches.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus got on the wrong side of the “law and order” religious establishment. Organized religion had calcified into a list proscribed ritual. If an action isn’t defined in religion manuals, you can’t do it, said “law and order” enthusiasts who despised Jesus.

“You have heard that it was said [in “law and order” religious rule books],” countered Jesus, “but I say to you….” (Matthew 5). For Christ, compassion towards destitute people pre-empted bloodless right rules.

Tensions erupting over harsh and cruel U.S. immigration laws at the southern border echoes Churchill’s Narvik firestorm, the raging debate over Vietnam and the kind of compassionate religion Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.

Will Churchill’s humanitarian ethic prevail over “law and order” edicts in the border war of words? Will the plight of desperate people who desire a better life prevail over broken immigration principles that aren’t working?

The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt CREATIVE GROWTH Ministries, ( which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.

Support Local Journalism