Agonizing over Elián

Better to resolve this without political pressure from Castro

Issue: "Cuban conundrum," Feb. 5, 2000

By almost every standard of how God means for families to live together, the little Cuban boy Elián Gonzales ought to be reunited with his father. But that's not the same thing as saying that Elián ought to be returned to Cuba. For in this sinful world, not everything that ought to be can be-or even should be.

That's not double-talk. It's just being realistic about life, which is an unending tableau of things that ought to be, but aren't. Which made it a little too easy over the last few weeks for the National Council of Churches-deep in debt and on the brink of irrelevance-to discover a deft way to change the subject. By predictably siding with Fidel Castro in the complicated case, the NCC managed to lay claim to the mantle of "family values."

Nice trick, but while I'd join the argument that Elián, under normal circumstances, should be with his father, these are by no means normal circumstances. The NCC is dead wrong on several important counts:

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First, it's wrong in acting as if the issue of Elián Gonzales were easy. The NCC has displayed again its typical knee-jerk tendency to decide who's right and who's wrong in a terribly complex situation.

Second, the NCC has once again misused Scripture. The NCC's new general secretary, Robert Edgar, keeps reminding us through the news media that "the Bible says, 'a little child shall lead them.' Elián Gonzales could be the catalyst for a changed relationship between the peoples of Cuba and the U.S." But that is on its face a sentimental and self-serving use of the Bible's wonderful messianic passage in Isaiah 11.

Third, the NCC finds itself (as has been its habit for all its 50 years) in bed with the bad guys. For the first time in a decade or more, the NCC is finally making news-but it does so by ardently and publicly promoting the wishes of Fidel Castro.

So if the NCC is so far off base, isn't it untenable to suggest in any sense that it might be right for Elián to be back with his father? Not necessarily.

First, let's all stipulate-as the NCC has refused to do-that the case involves an agonizing choice. Elián's parents' divorce, his mother's death, and the terrible wickedness of the Castro regime for 40 years leave us in a situation where none of the options seems good. It would help if all the parties to the dispute would simply admit what is so obvious. And it also would help if parties on both sides would quit trying to make the issue the end-all and be-all of U.S.-Cuban relations. This is not, as the NCC has claimed repeatedly, about the "relationship between the peoples of Cuba and the U.S." It's about the Gonzales family and the best interests of a 6-year-old boy.

Second, after conceding the difficulty of the issue, let's also admit that we may not be as well prepared as we ought to apply a biblical ethic to the issue. We may be a little too much like the NCC, spouting some random verses here and there, but not having done the hard study needed to know God's perspective on so complicated a matter. The Bible from beginning to end has much to say about children's obligations to their parents. It is no incidental or trivial theme. Indeed, the Bible may have even more to say about children's parental duties than it does about political freedom. But whether you're ready to accept that claim or not, here's the point: Getting the Bible's perspective on Elián Gonzales takes serious study, not some quick proof-texting-from either point of view.

But finally, having got all those things straight-and perhaps even having concluded that a little boy in such a situation ought ideally to be with his natural father-we still must turn to a well-established set of procedures and legal practices before sentimentally deciding actually to return Elián to Cuba. In American courts, we refer to this as the "finding of facts"-and that's a process that has been virtually absent so far from little Elián's story. There are plenty of claims, of course, about Elián's father-but have they been verified? There has been some grandmotherly grandstanding. But if NCC officials really wanted to be helpful, why haven't they pled publicly with Fidel Castro to allow Elián's father to travel to the United States to resolve matters decently and in order? That's what courtrooms-and a free press-are for.

The pivotal issue here is that there's really no such thing as a courtroom, as we know it, in Cuba. There's no such thing in totalitarianism as the public pursuit of truth. There are no free media. So the role of the Castro government must be measured not just by the memory of Elián's mother, who died trying to flee the dictator's heavy-handed oppression, but by the memory as well of thousands of others who have drowned over the last four decades trying to do the same thing. Bending over backwards in their news releases to make life in Cuba appear an idyllic and pleasing experience, the NCC's leaders have been conspicuously silent on another front: Nothing at all has been said about all the family values buried through the years in liquid graves.


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