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Jesus, the Bible and immigration reform

January 20, 2012

If you know anything about the history of immigration along the southern border in this country, then you probably were not surprised by the headline splashed across the front page of newspapers this week: “Border Patrol to crack down on immigrants caught crossing illegally.”

In case you missed it, the agency announced in a self-congratulatory flourish that it is moving to end a policy that sends undocumented people back to Mexico “without punishment.” Instead, a new strategy to be announced in a few weeks will include more prosecutions as well as options such as flying detainees as far away as Mexico City, where they would get a one-way bus ticket back to their hometowns.

Some of the penalties may be new, but in actuality, these are simply different verses to the same old song. When economic times are good, we recruit our southern neighbors for cheap labor, begging them to come to our country and perform the dirtiest jobs at the lowest pay. When times are bad, we conveniently forget all they have done for us and ask piously why they came here in the first place.

Lord, have mercy upon us.

What we need is a change in the conversation. And the people who are in the unique position of offering that change are those of us who claim to take the Bible seriously. Although the scriptures speak with many voices, the singleness of the message on the question of how to treat the stranger is overwhelming and breathtaking. And we all stand under judgment.

While Christians are among people of all religious faiths who have united around the need for a compassionate immigration policy, so far those voices have not been enough to resist the forces of fear that dominate the conversation and drive public policy. In a nation when so many of us say we are guided in our personal lives by the Bible, why aren’t more voices speaking out?

Announcements about tougher penalties for border crossers make politicians feel better as another election year approaches, but they are simply a part of the long-running ebb and flow of Mexican migration and its repeated consequences. That flow began in the 1900s with the first wave, coinciding with the growth of American railroads and serious labor shortages.

This history is characterized by exploitation of the poor at the hands of the rich, racism, arrogance and many deaths. In recent decades, declining economic conditions on the U.S. side have sparked a backlash leading to militarization of the border. Stepped up enforcement measures at some points have pushed crossings to areas where it is difficult to sustain human life. Yet those who are desperate keeping coming north — or they die trying.

Hundreds of people – each of whom, according to the Bible, bears the image of God — suffer and die every year along the U.S.-Mexico border – anywhere from 350 to 500 a year, depending on varying estimates. The Border Patrol reported 4,111 deaths in border areas from 1998-2008, not counting deaths that were first reported to local authorities, while others groups report the death toll during that same period to be as high as 5,600. Though border security measures have increased, deaths have risen steadily since the mid-1990s.

“Migrants have been driven into the desert as urban crossing points have been closed down, and border communities have suffered from the division and xenophobia that militarization has brought,” according to Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a civil rights organization. “Immigration policy has been a total failure and needs to be changed. It has not prevented people from attempting to cross the border but has put the lives of thousands of men, women, and children in serious danger. Their deaths are the direct result of U.S. policy.”

What is the Church called to do?  Those of us who are part of the branch of the Christian family known as the Reformed tradition rely on the Bible, which one of our best-known confessions of faith calls the rule for faith and life. There is not enough room here to begin to cover all the Bible has to say about treatment of an “outsider.”

Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, scripture strongly emphasizes hospitality to the stranger, the alien, running throughout the history of Israel, the people who were chosen by God to be a blessing to the nations (Isaiah 42:6; 49: 6-7, NRSV).

To honor the guest was to show one’s faithfulness to God. Abram, who was called by God to enter a new land, demonstrated this kind of hospitality as he sat in the mid-day heat by the entrance to his tent by the oaks of Mamre. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. He acted urgently to honor these strangers who at once became guests, insisting that they not pass him by before he had the opportunity to show his consideration for them (Genesis 18: 1-6).

God brought Jacob and his whole family to the land of Egypt, where they forged a history as an alien people (Genesis 46: 1-10).

Moses, part of a second generation of Israelites born in this foreign land, returned to it later in life to lead his people, at God’s command, out of Egyptian bondage. The memory of the experience of living as an alien people served as a guide for how God’s people were to respond when they are the ones who find aliens in their midst. The people are commanded to go well beyond simply accepting the presence of aliens but are to treat them as citizens, thus, equals, and to love the alien as themselves (Exodus 22:21, Leviticus 19: 33-34).

In the Gospels, Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God with all of one’s being and to love neighbors in a similar manner (Matthew 22: 36-40). In the well-known parable of the “Good Samaritan,” the one who embodied neighborly qualities by showing mercy to the critically injured traveler was not a highly religious person but a despised “other” (Luke 10: 29-37).

In another parable, the “Great Judgment,” the treatment of the stranger is a matter of such import that eternal destinations are assigned based on how well one extends hospitality. Those who “welcome the stranger” are among those counted as blessed and welcomed into to the realm of God that has been prepared for them since creation of the world. Those who would not welcome the stranger in this life join others who rejected the needs of the hungry and the poor and were eternally condemned (Matthew 25: 31-46).

Presbyterians understand that humans rebel against God by exploiting neighbors and in violating the image of God within ourselves and others. In our Brief Statement of Faith, we confess that the Spirit gives courage in a broken and fearful world to “hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”

Another of our confessional statements, The Scots Confession, names repression of tyranny, defense of the oppressed and repression of any acts to harm a neighbor as among those things which please God. To do contrary is to sin.

In the biblical tradition, the neighbor includes strangers, “aliens” and Samaritans.

Immigration is a complex issue with a long history and no easy solutions. But the overarching conversation that has guided the debate for decades has gotten us nowhere, just a repeated return to same starting place. And our neighbors keep suffering and dying.

The Church is called to begin a new conversation — and in fact, it is a matter of life and death.

Policymakers define the immigration issue using certain terms that tend to shape the national policy conversation. These are terms such as illegal, crackdown, economic, punishment. Jesus uses a completely different set of terms to characterize the world God has called for us to create in partnership with the divine. Some of those words are love, neighbor and welcome. It is time for those of us who claim to follow him to place those words into our hearts, and to respond with our mouths and with our feet.

A Christian perspective on immigration begins with a new starting point: by asking how lives can be saved, how families can be reunited, and how the poor can be given their rightful place at the table. Lord, help us.

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