When doing the right thing is wrong

photo by The Independent

Perhaps you may have read this week about the group of American Baptist volunteers arrested in Haiti for trying to take 33 Haitian children out of the country (a longer article here).

I confess that I’m of several minds about this, and don’t really know what to say. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Mine are scattered:

First, I am inclined to believe that the group is speaking the truth– I think they were trying to do the right thing, trying to get children to a place where they could offer them medical attention. They were frustrated with the system and so tried to circumvent it, and that was in a word, stupid. But traffickers in children are a little more organized and sneaky than church volunteers in a minibus. I think they saw children in pain, and they had means to try to help, and they were frustrated by the slow progress of the Haitian government and relief volunteers to do anything about it. So they thought hey, why not do something ourselves?

Because doing something themselves was illegal. It is in fact a crime to transport someone else’s child, particularly across national boundaries, without permission. Even for medical attention. I had to sign a form at my kid’s day care so they can take her 3 miles to the hospital should she need medical attention. They have to have that form on record to move her anywhere. Duh. Some of the 33 children had living parents and other relatives. Maybe the volunteers tried to determine that and were hindered; maybe they didn’t. Doesn’t matter, because what they did was wrong. They took already devastated children away from their families and diminished the possibility of those families finding them.

It’s one of the frustrating truths that helping others, even in lifesaving ways, can often get bogged down in red tape. And while we rage and scream and rant against bureaucracies, especially ones buried under rubble, they exist for a reason. Sometimes those reasons seem foolish, like the survival of their own institutionalism, but sometimes those reasons are dreadfully important, like trying to keep families torn apart by disaster together. For those who want to help, it is vitally important to work with the systems in place as best we can because, as in this case, our well-intensioned muddling might do great harm.

Of small but not irrelevant note to me are the thousands upon thousands of families in the US, probably millions around the world, who have gone through process after process, home visit after home visit, hoping to fill their hearts and their homes with an adopted child, just waiting to hear back from an agency somewhere. For these parents-at-heart, who have raged against the red tape for so long, the careless actions of 10 volunteers in Haiti wound them too, making it that much harder to trust those who want to adopt or foster the children orphaned by this disaster or any other circumstance around the world.

And yet, all that said, I doubt a bit.

What if some of those 33 children die, waiting for the care that the volunteers were able to provide?

I myself was tempted, during my trips in Ecuador, to bring home some of the children I saw there, even jokingly packing the 3-year-old into my duffel bag to take home with me, while we all laughed and cried at my impending departure. I know what it is to love a child you’ve never seen before, and if that child is hurting, is starving?

Taking this to the hypothetical, I ask myself: if I were in a place where no help was coming, or was very slow in coming, and if there was a child that I believed was orphaned, and I observed was hungry if not starving and in need of medical care, and I had the resources to help, but not the means to move those resources to the child, would I take the child to the resources? And depending on the severity and immediacy of the need in my hypothetical scenario, I can imagine that I would. I would do so knowing that I was breaking the law, several of them in fact. But I would perhaps judge a law that condemns a child to death unnecessarily to be an unjust law. I would willingly go to prison for the crime, and if it saved the child’s life, I would consider it worth the price.

What this group did was wrong– well-intentioned maybe, but foolish, uniformed, and wrong. But I wonder. Did they save lives, even by bringing these children to the attention of the authorities? Because some times the wrong thing is right. And some times the right thing is wrong.

How do you wrestle with this moral dilemma?

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