I’m a lifelong Republican working at a conservative evangelical university. I voted for Reagan, I voted for Bush, I voted for Dole, I voted for Bush again - twice. I voted for Mc… okay, so I didn’t vote for McCain, lets not go there. My issues are supposed to be low taxes, strong military and anti abortion. And that’s about it. Get those issues right and my vote is supposed to be bankable for Republicans.
But it’s not. Something strange happened in Birmingham, Alabama and now other issues have taken on increased importance. Voting is more complicated.
I was on a civil rights bus tour with a group of college students from my university. We were traveling across the south visiting sites and meeting people who were significant to the civil rights movement. On this particular day I had spent a couple of hours at 16th Street Baptist Church and then wandered over to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
I’m sure that at some point in my educational experience I must have been required to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” But back in high school I was a huge fan of Cliff Notes, taking as much “study hall” as possible, and “skimming” instead of reading. My awareness of the content of King’s letter was vague at best.
As I stood in front of an exhibit, surrounded by college students, reading the letter, King quit being just a distant historical political figure. Collectively we experienced him for the first time as our brother in Christ as he pleaded with fellow pastors, some of whom were moderate white evangelical pastors, to join his struggle for justice. As I read the letter I was surprised at the depth of its theological reflection. It wasn’t filled with “political stuff.” It was filled with “Bible stuff”— things that resonated deeply with my evangelical faith—references to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and to the Apostle Paul, quotations from Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
Some of the sentences that jive with my developing understanding of Christian community and Christian responsibility….
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
“I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”
“How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
“Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.”
King chided his fellow pastors for not recognizing that the lack of justice endured by their black brothers and sisters in Christ was a matter of spiritual and biblical significance. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality” is a description of the body of Christ. When one part hurts, we all hurt. Like Christ, we should be extremists for love, truth, and goodness.
This brings me to the topic of immigration. I look back on the civil rights movement and wonder, “How could they (most majority evangelicals) have missed it? Why did they sit on the sidelines when the moral imperatives now seem so obvious?” Twenty years from now will another generation of Christian college students be asking the same questions of us and our apathy about immigration (and other issues of justice)?
Here’s why I care about immigration, and why this issue will affect the way that I vote. First, immigration is a “bible issue.” There are over ninety biblical references to strangers, aliens, and sojourners. Verses like….
“The Lord watches over sojourners: he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” Psalm 146:9
“Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor and let none devise evil against another in his heart. “ Zech. 7:10
“…. I will be swift against the sorcerer, against adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those that oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourners, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.” Malachi 3:5
I have grown up in churches that take great pride in “preaching the Bible” but I haven’t heard a single sermon about my responsibility to care for the welfare of the strangers who have immigrated to the U.S., some of whom live in my own community.
Second, some of those affected by our current immigration policies aren’t just neighbors, they are my brothers and sisters in Christ; people like 18 year-old Bernard Pastor who was arrested while delivering Bibles for his father’s church. Bernard’s dream is to be an evangelical pastor. In a jail cell, facing deportation, Bernard reflected, “My life is in God’s hands, where it has always been. I am not praying for myself. It is better to pray for other people than oneself. I know I’m here for a purpose, even if I don’t know what it is. Not a leaf falls from a tree that God does not know about.” Bernard’s family came here from Guatemala to escape religious and military persecution.
In King’s case, some of the young children who were asking, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?” were from Christian families who worship the same Jesus that I do. In the case of immigration, the same is true for some of the moms or children who live in fear of deportation. It’s easy to be apathetic about immigration when it’s just some unknown group of people from a far off place. It’s harder when that person is someone with whom you’ve prayed or worshipped. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t care about issues of injustice that affect non-believers or people of other faiths. But again, when one part of the body hurts we all hurt, or at least we should.
A basic sense of fairness is a third reason why I care about the immigration issue. It just doesn’t seem right that we continue a policy of limiting the number of lower skilled workers coming North from Mexico to 5,000 per year when we have an economy that demands millions of these laborers. The groceries that I buy each week are cheaper because of the hard work of migrant workers. There are two mega dairy farms within 10 miles of my Midwestern home and all of the laborers at each dairy are from Mexico. I asked the manager of one of these farms (who happens to be from the Netherlands) about his employees and he noted that until he started hiring Mexican farm hands he couldn’t find employees willing to work the long hours for relatively low pay. I reap a benefit from this practice every time I buy a gallon of milk.
I grew up in the shadows of Detroit during times that were hard for the auto industry. Stories of reverse discrimination and people (from other places) “taking our jobs” were standard fare. These stories were powerful and they were accepted prima facie. As I learn more about how immigration works it’s getting much more complicated. I have been surprised to learn that conservative economists like Jason L. Riley of the Wall Street Journal, or social conservatives like Richard Land are such strong advocates for immigration reform.
Several prominent evangelicals have been thinking about this harder and longer than I have. Noting that our current national approach to immigration has created a moral, economic, and political crisis, they call evangelicals to unite around a set of core principles that they outline in a statement called An Evangelical Call for Bipartisan Immigration Reform. (Check it out online.)Signers include Michael Gerson, Richard Land, John Perkins, and Bill Hybels. They plead with Democrats and Republicans, and for that matter evangelical conservatives, moderates and progressives, to unite around a policy that:
· Respects the God-given dignity of every person
· Protects the unity of the immediate family
· Respects the rule of law
· Guarantees secure national borders
· Ensures fairness to taxpayers
· Establishes a path toward legal status and citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents
For Bernard’s sake, I hope that these are areas where we can agree.