Recently (February, 2013) submitted by invitation to Tikkun, a progressive Jewish magazine who requested a distinctly Christian perspective on immigration reform.
I am a lifelong conservative evangelical Christian, the kind who typically votes Republican and who doesn’t have a great history of engaging issues of social justice. For much of my life, opposition to abortion was the only issue where the political opinions of those around me seemed to be informed by their faith and commitment to the sanctity of life. I grew up with good and generous people who were willing to devote time and money to caring for the poor, but who were either disengaged, or actually opposed to addressing some of the systemic issues behind poverty and racism.
Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (Divided by Faith, 2000) have suggested that this disconnect is due to a strong strain of individualism that runs through the core of evangelical faith. The very center of our faith is a belief that each individual is responsible to respond to God’s expression of love for us, to recognize our sin, and to make a conscious decision to accept forgiveness that is available through Jesus Christ’s atoning death. We believe that each individual must personally respond with faith, repentance, and belief. According to Emerson and Smith, this focus on individual responsibility has caused evangelicals to be less committed to collective issues of social justice than those of Jewish, or even Catholic faith. They suggest that due to some our most basic presuppositions about faith many Evangelicals have a blind spot when it comes to our responsibility to address systemic issues that place groups of people at a disadvantage.
All of this changed for me in Birmingham, Alabama. In my previous role as a university administrator at an evangelical school in Ohio, I had arranged to trace the life of Martin Luther King with a busload of college students, faculty, and staff. We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. And in Birmingham, we sat in the sanctuary of 16th Street Baptist church listening to an elderly black Sunday school teacher talk about the day that a bomb claimed the lives of four young girls. As we traveled across the south we pondered the question, “If we had lived then would we have marched with our black brothers and sisters, would we have remained silent, or would we have thrown rocks and hurled insults.”
I would like to think that my faith in Christ would have motivated me to follow Jesus’s example of reaching out to the poor, the marginalized, and the socially outcast; people like many of those currently caught in our nation’s broken and racially biased immigration system. In the classic parable of the good Samaritan, would I be the brave and generous Samaritan who used his wealth and resources to assist a victim in need, or would I “pass by the on the other side” like the priests and religious leaders of the day
It was in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church, where my views on immigration and other issues of social justice began to change. What struck me first was that the letter was not addressed to politicians, nor was it an attack on white supremacy groups like the Ku Klux Klan. It was a letter to white Christians, urging us to use our positions of power and privilege to address an issue of injustice that was affecting our black brothers and sisters in Christ, and people of other faiths who are portrayed in scripture as image bearers of God.
King wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” As a politically conservative white evangelical, I am an advocate for comprehensive immigration reform because there is injustice here. Our current system is broken, tainted with racial bias, gross inefficiency, and economic repression. We enjoy and profit from immigrant labor, but even though nearly all of us are descendants of immigrants ourselves, we deny citizenship or legal residency to those who have followed in our footsteps and are serving us in countless ways. People who like us dream the American dream.
I belong to a group called the Evangelical Immigration Table, a loosely connected group of evangelical Christians who are advocating an approach to immigration that is rooted in Judeo-Christian principles like respect for the dignity of life, the rule of law, and the importance of family. We are asking fellow evangelicals, and people of other faiths to advocate comprehensive immigration reform adhering to the following six principles;
- Respect for the God-given dignity of every person.
- Protection for the unity of the immediate family.
- Respect the rule of law
- Guarantee of secure national borders
- Fairness to taxpayers
- Establishment of a path toward legal status and/ or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.
Like King, we believe that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And like King, we agree with Thomas Aquinas’s notion that human law should be rooted in eternal and natural law. King argued that, “law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Like King, we long to live in a world that looks a little bit more like heaven.
My core beliefs about Christianity have not changed, but my sense of how I should live out my faith has. My faith is no longer just about having my personal sins forgiven, but also about working to soften the effects that sin has on others. Christian faith sometimes looks like Billy Graham, who proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ, calling people to personal repentance and faith. But other times it looks like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose faith in Christ demanded that he stand up to Nazi atrocities at the cost of his life. And sometimes it echoes the words of Martin Luther King who wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly….Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
Emerson, M & Smith, C, 2000, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Faith and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford University Press, New York.