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Deuteronomy 10:12-13, 17-19
I’m not going to pretend that issues related to immigration are not complex. And I want to be clear that, in my view, at least, good and reasonable people can hold different views on some of the complicated aspects of immigration policy.
It is not my place to tell you what to think or not think about a border wall, sanctuary or asylum, DACA, or whether law-abiding individuals who crossed our border without permission or overstayed a visa should be given a path to citizenship. And while I will criticize those who demonize immigrants, I will not demonize them in turn; nor will I portray Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and Customs and Border Patrol Agents as some kind of monsters.
In fact, last week I walked into a closet-sized room in the ICE offices in Hartford, faced a two-way mirror and sat across a small desk from the officer now in charge of the case of Lucio Perez. Margaret Sawyer and I told him something of Lucio’s story and talked about Lucio’s separation from his family and how, at every step of our government’s attempts to monitor his whereabouts and force him out of our country, he has prayerfully weighed his commitment to his family against his natural inclination to follow the rules.
Brian, the ICE officer, gave us the government line. He called Lucio a fugitive. And he seemed like a nice guy. Every day since our unofficial meeting, I have prayed for him, and I have asked others to pray for him daily. According to the responses to my Facebook post about this, at least 37 other people are praying for Brian the ICE officer, as well as Lucio and his family, and our church.
At the same time, human rights are really not so complex. They include the basics of life and liberty, work and education, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of expression, food and shelter and health care—all of them regardless of race or sexuality or gender identity, nationality or citizenship, documents or not, physical or mental ability, economics or age or family status.
And . . . our shared responsibility for the safety and welfare of children is not complicated at all.
Equally clear, but often challenging, is Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
And while it is not my job to talk politics or immigration law or foreign policy, it is my calling to preach the gospel. The gospel we proclaim is one of extravagant love, wholeness and peace and oneness with God by grace, and a realm of and well-being and dignity for all, of beloved community and justice and mercy and compassion far beyond what any of us deserves, and which all of us are responsible for building as the church.
And so, yes, I’m going to speak today (again) about what is happening on our southern border and beyond. I’m going to speak not in terms of policies or politics but about the role of the church in responding to and preventing the further escalation of a shameful and dangerous humanitarian crisis.
Because our government is still taking children away from their parents and guardians. Because, having been ordered by the courts to reunify separated families, it turns out the government doesn’t know where many children and some parents are. Because the Trump administration has argued in court that migrant children being held for weeks and months on end in severely overcrowded detention centers needn’t be provided with soap or toothbrushes or beds or blankets or exercise.
Because Óscar Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, should not have needed to leave their home in El Salvador to have a decent life—but they, like millions of Central Americans, lived in conditions of chronic poverty, brutal violence, and instability, seeded, at least in part, by decades of U.S. colonialism and military and diplomatic intervention designed to support corrupt regimes and death squads. Because our government should have heard the Ramirez’s legal request for asylum instead of sending them back to the Mexican side of the border bridge. Because the violence and oppression that awaited them in Mexico apparently seemed worse than the strong current of the Rio Grande.
Because, while Congress members are not allowed inside the privately-managed and extremely profitable migrant detention centers to witness for themselves the unsanitary conditions in which children and adults are living, none of us can un-see the photo of a drowned little girl’s arm around her dead father’s neck.
Because, when it came to the genocide and oppression of African slaves in the United States, as well as centuries of institutional racism and white supremacy, the church was complicit for far too long and continues to be silent far too often.
Likewise, Germany’s so-called Confessing Church offered too little resistance too late to Hitler’s Nazi militarism and anti-Semitic rhetoric and policies, which would become a massive Jewish genocide. Here in our own country, American churches did not actively oppose FDR’s policy of rounding up Japanese Americans and putting them in internment camps.
So, say what you will about immigration laws and border security.
But the church must speak out against the mass incarceration of poor people of color who have left everything they know in search of safety and work that will support their families—both in this country and back in their home countries. The church must resist the characterization of terrified migrants as criminals and terrorists.
They are our neighbors.
After all, we, or our ancestors, were also once strangers in this land.
The church must speak up for thousands of innocent children, including infants, who have been separated from their families and are being held in unsafe and inhumane conditions. They are children of God; they are our siblings. More than that: Jesus tells us they are the Christ, and that whatever we do or do not do for them, we do to him.
How we respond to this crisis, how we treat these neighbors, is not primarily a matter of politics. It is a matter of Christian faith and love, as well as a matter of respect for our shared humanity and a question of the state of our own humanity. It is a question of the church’s witness and responsibility. It is not primarily a matter of politics, but it is a matter of our shared political, humanitarian, environmental, economic, and spiritual futures.
We have spoken many times in the past three years or so of our spiritual obligations to our neighbors. We have referenced and even read in worship many of the 36 or so different commands in the Hebrew Bible to welcome and care for the stranger, also to love the stranger as God does. We have prayed and discerned and acted together to become an immigrant-welcoming church, and then again to welcome our brother Lucio into sanctuary here, becoming a de facto sanctuary church without ever having talked through and prayed about that together, much less knowing what it would involve. Many of us have given generously of our time and our money to support Lucio and his family; some of us have attended numerous prayer vigils and protests and demonstrations on behalf of Lucio and other undocumented immigrants; I was even arrested on Lucio’s behalf as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.
But we have not spoken openly about some of our different views on sanctuary and immigration policy. We have not spoken honestly and lovingly, with understanding and respect, about why welcoming the stranger is sometimes so hard for us and others to do.
In Jesus’ parable of a vineyard economy that includes a wealthy-enough landowner and lots of laborers in need of work, he invites us to see who God is, what God wants for us, how we are to be like God—and at least some of the reasons why we are not. Where God’s generosity is universal, unrestricted, and unmerited, we tend to be concerned with what we think we deserve, with rules that help us and perhaps leave others out, with our own ideas of what it fair.
In the analysis of Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, “the parable does not promote egalitarianism” so much as encourage householders to support” all laborers. “More than just aiding those at the doorstep, those who have should seek out those who need. If the householder can afford it, he should continue to put others on the payroll, pay them a living wage (even if they cannot put in a full day’s work), and so allow them to feed their families while keeping their dignity intact. The point is practical, it is edgy, and it [is] a greater challenge to the church then and today than the entirely unsurprising idea that God’s concern is that we enter, not when.” 1
How much of the opposition to immigration we hear, how much of our own opposition or indifference, is framed in terms of privileged ideas about fairness and divisive ideas about fear? My people came here legally. I worked for what I have. There’s not enough for all those people to come in. They need to stay where they are—never considering all that our country has taken from theirs.
Jesus exposes all those feelings and tries to help us see that there is enough to go around, that we’re all better off when everyone’s humanity is respected and their needs are met.
“Jesus is neither a Marxist nor a capitalist,” Levine says. “Rather he is both an idealist and a pragmatist. His focus is often less directly on ‘good news for the poor’ than on ‘responsibility of the rich.’ … Jesus is not an individualist.” Rather, he shows that “the righteousness of one person or group benefits not only that group, but others as well. Each group needs the other.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Nazi resister, theologian and martyr, spoke of three gospel-based positions the church can take in relation to unjust actions by the state. First, it must make the state responsible for what it does. Second, it must minister to the victims of the state’s unjust actions. And third, it must act “not just to bind up the wounds of the victims beneath the wheel but to seize the wheel itself.”
Friends, on our southern border and beyond, there are millions of victims lying beneath the wheel of our nation’s policies. Some of them are languishing in unsafe detention centers; children are being traumatized; entire families are suffering violence and hunger in Mexico while they wait for their asylum cases to be heard; some children and adults are dying.
What will we do, as a church? How will we respond?
The options are many, ranging from raising money for bond fees, supporting churches and agencies in the region who are providing shelter and legal aid, traveling to the region to volunteer, to supporting restored and increased foreign aid and working to change policies that oppress and endanger our neighbors.
What will we do, as First Church Amherst?
“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said when his disciples tried to send them away. And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.