Sunday, May 29, 2011

Across the Water

Immigration is a bit more complex than the scripture verses people toss back and forth at one another - usually Romans 13 and various Hebraic codes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. With any contemporary application of scripture, we have to remember that none of the writers of the Bible could ever have conceived of the issues with which we deal in our present time. There will always be a bit of interpretation. No verse is going to tell us specifically how to act.

I am not concerned with how the government handles immigration. I believe every government is free to make any law it sees fit. That is the benefit of power - the ability to control that over which you have power. It's exactly what Romans 13 is all about. I am concerned, however, about how Christians handle immigration and how we respond to laws of the land.

First, I don't think a Christian can, in good conscience, actively help undocumented immigrants cross a national border in violation of law. Now there is a big exception to that, specifically when the life and safety of people is concerned. Most nations do a poor job of recognizing and facilitating the immigration of asylum seekers and refugees. Christians should have a strong presence among these groups, treating them as valued and worthy people as opposed to the inconvenience they become to most nations.

Second, Christians have a responsibility to care about the problems and injustices which perpetuate immigration. Generally, people want to stay at home. If the opportunities (for safety, work, nutrition, love, and healthcare) available in the new country were available at home, there would be few immigrants. In most wealthy nations, peaceful foreign aid is a political tool and not a priority. Again there is great slack here which Christians can pick up and carry.

Third, and most controversially, is a Christian attitude towards immigrants in your own country. Most nations have a legal process of immigration and most immigrants who come through these processes are treated as any other resident of the nation. There are some problems with those who wish to retain the identity they've left behind, but if there is mutual respect and communication, these problems are not insurmountable.

Great contention arises for those immigrants who are unable to move through the proscribed process - those who immigrate in violation of law. God has always been clear about our treatment of others - we are to love. God specifically instructed Israel to treat foreigners in their midst exactly as they treat citizens. This is the crux of those Torah instructions so often quoted. Every person is God's creation and every person deserves the same treatment, no matter their place of birth.

What then, do we do with the seeming contradiction with Romans 13 - which tells us that God established the authorities over us and instructs us to submit and not rebel? What it means is that every authority is answerable to God for its execution of authority. We do not have a right to rebel, to overthrow, or undermine our government. Vigilantes, who take border enforcement into their own hands - whether fishing boats in the Mediterranean or militia groups in the Mojave - are not submitting to governing authorities.

This passage does not mean that civil authority is equivalent to moral authority. Breaking the law is not sin - not when it violates the authority of God's design for life in creation. Every Christian would violate the law if it outlawed worship of YHWH. Most would violate the law if it prevented them from feeding the hungry or clothing the exposed because of immigration status. Many would violate the law if it meant denying an undocumented immigrant the chance to work for a living. They do so because of their belief that every person is equal in God's eyes - and thus in ours as well. An argument from legality has no standing for Christians in light of an argument from morality.

I am not saying every Christian will understand their responsibility towards undocumented immigrants the same way - nor should we. There are different lines drawn based on conscience - but they must be drawn with grace. It pains me to see Christians assert their perspective as the correct view or to engage in "us and them" language. There may be more creative ways to supply jobs and education and we must work for them. Remember, treating the foreigner as you treat your own is secondary to the foreigner having their needs met at home. We must remember to do the first until the second is a reality.

Ultimately, however, I do not think our contention about immigration has much to do with immigration or law. It has everything to do with individual rights and liberty. Most opposition to immigration comes from those who feel it will cost them something - lower standard of living, lost employment, increased taxation, etc. These are legitimate human fears. They require a Christian response.

Christ challenged us to "deny ourselves" and to "take up our cross and follow" him. This means that the Christian is willing to give whatever is necessary to show love to others, even if it means our very lives. At times, following Romans 13 means sacrifice. Submitting to authorities often means willingly embracing the punishment required for disobedience. At times, following the Torah teaching on the treatment of foreigners means sacrifice.

Christians are told to thank God for the privilege of suffering for the gospel. It is rarely easy, but it is our ideal. As Saint Juniper put it as he met a beggar, "I have nothing to give you except my robe and my superior has told me under obedience not to give it or part of it to anyone. But if you pull it off my back, I certainly will not prevent you.”

For Christians, liberty is found only as we are enslaved to the God of love; rights are useful only to be given away. If our words and actions do not reflect unconditional love and self-sacrifice, they do not reflect Christ.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I just finished Week 40 of my quest to read the bible from start to finish in a year. I've taken to reading the designated section weekly; it takes about an hour. Week 40, incidently, is the week when we move from Zechariah in the Hebrew Scriptures, to Matthew in the New Testament. I have intellectually understood the transition, but experienced it for the first time today. Many of us are familiar with the narrative - creation, covenant, Torah, monarchy, exile - however a large part of the Hebrew Scriptures are comprised of prophecy, of the people dealing with exile and God's promise of restoration. Isaiah through Malachi is eleven weeks, 20% of the year, with page after page of emotional pleading. Pleading with God to remember the covenant and restore the nation, and pleading with Israel to remember the covenant and return to obedience. Through the whole narrative is God's promise of redemption and restoration, but the overwhelming sense is yearning. Yearning for a world made right, a world as God intended it to be.

With that in mind, I finished Malachi and began reading Matthew. My anticipation was unbelievable. I knew that the time was upon us to see the promised redemption. I can only imagine how difficult it was for God's people to wait 400 years. Even as I am reading Matthew (this week ends following chapter 9), I know the ending, but I am now noticing that Matthew works up to his revelation. He calls Jesus Messiah in verse one, but the narrative clues people in slowly - probably because Jesus' details were a far cry from what the people expected.

I wonder how often we miss the sense of longing - as we live in a world being made right, but one still tremendously at odds with God's created purpose. Do we experience Christ as a joyous gift or as a past event? Everything in the Hebrew scriptures is about renewal and return, and Jesus is completely about resurrection and redemption. Have we given up on seeing our world transformed? Have we given up on the great hope Messiah brings?

I think it is important to find ourselves within the story and not at the end of it. Just because the narrative happened in the past does not mean it is finished. We relive these stories every day and its imperative to discover each twist and turn anew as we live them out in our various contexts. The story of God's work in the world is still unfolding - and we must embrace it recklessly.

Monday, May 02, 2011


I am a terrorist.

Fear is the most efficient motivator known to man. We like fear, love it, in fact - except of course when we're the ones afraid. Once we begin down the pathway of fear it's exponentially more difficult to stop, let alone change course.

This isn't strictly about violence, although it seems we're most afraid of pain, and threats of pain work out most efficiently. I say pain and not death because I don't actually think too many people are afraid of death, so long as it comes quickly and quietly. Death used to be humanity's ultimate fear.

Death was top dog because life was full of pain. Today we've mostly insulated ourselves from pain - by outsourcing our manual labor, by surrounding ourselves with mindless entertainment, by feasting on painkillers. We've created a world where the end of life has very little difference from the living of it.

Nuclear war is only terrifying for the people who live outside the blast zone, those who might have to suffer through the terror of cancer, deformities, and disease. Economic collapse means, for most of us, nothing but a lower standard of living - in other words, a more painful life.

I am a terrorist because I fear pain and I am willing to inflict it on others to avoid it in my own life. I keep a reserve account in a bank vault "in case" something inconvenient happens in my life, instead of giving that money to people who already suffer. I buy the cheapest products to maximize the amount I can spend on luxuries or minimize the amount I have to work - regardless of the suffering of those who make the products.

I am a terrorist, but I have outsourced my terror to strangers in far away places. If there's a murder on my street, its a breakdown of order; two is an epidemic. If there's ten murders downtown, I just stay in the suburbs. I pay my government to train one group of people to think they're super-human, so they can fly around the world and do brave things that insulate me from pain - at the same time I pay them to train another group of people to think they're sub-human, so they can be locked up and forgotten without any mark on my conscience.

I readily support the battle between "us" and "them," so long as I'm "us." When I become "them," the war is immoral.

Too often I participate in a story where the hero is Power and the villain is voiceless - which means the hero always wins. Too often I embrace the suicide of individualism for the promise of immediate gratification. I live in a world where pleasure comes only with the absence of pain. It works well for those who survive, but it seems like there should be some other way.

I am a terrorist.

What do I deserve?


It has apparently taken me two and a half years to be affected enough to write another blog post, but Osama bin Laden was killed last night. I have a lot of thoughts. It is a rare situation when people feel open to be completely honest. This is one of those. I appreciate the honesty of people to say, "I'm glad he's dead," and frankly I'd expect nothing less. I am also touched by those who've expressed their conflicted feelings about being happy. That sort of honesty takes courage. It only seems fair to be equally honest.

My first response to the news was awe that it actually happened. I, like a lot of people, felt bin Laden was going to die of old age. My second response was nervousness.

This death does indeed bring some closure to an unsettling experience that began with a terrible tragedy almost a decade ago. I am one of those whose life perspective has been shaped by dealing with 9/11 and its repercussions.

I was beginning my Junior year of college at ENC, just south of Boston. The planes took off from Boston. There were guys on my floor who, for a while, were worried their father was on one of them. A fellow student lost a father as he responded from his fire house to help evacuate the buildings. I was not disconnected from this tragedy. It was real. It felt personal.

Two years later God changed my life. The result was a shift, from preparation for a career in politics to enrolling in seminary and the process of preparing for ministry. My encounter with scripture profoundly changed my perspective on life. I found a gospel that demanded my full allegiance. It meant a departure from the story my culture was writing for me to participation in a story God has been writing since the beginning of time.

News I would have cheered in 2001 brings sorrow in 2011.

I say this with no affinity for Osama bin Laden. He dedicated his life and his considerable wealth to increasing fear in our world. Fear, which is directly counter to a gospel of love. In this case, I cannot think of a more appropriate word to describe his legacy than: evil.

That being said, Osama bin Laden was a beloved creation of God's and every death is tragic. We do not have the right to kill anyone, no matter how evil. Judgement belongs to the Lord.

There has been much talk of justice, when people really mean revenge. Justice would have been for bin Laden to express real remorse and for the victims of his aggression to express real forgiveness; justice would have been for us to create a society in which George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden could live in peace.

I am not so deluded as to think this is possible, short of a miraculous work of God. Yet that miraculous work is the vision of the future laid out in scripture. What else do the wolf and the lamb, the bear and calf, the child and the serpent represent than sworn enemies living in harmony?

The real issue today is not how we handle death and killing (you can read my previous blog entry for that), but how we respond to them. I take Jesus seriously when he says an "eye for an eye" no longer applies, but instead we're called to love our enemies. Even if one feels that killing is necessary at some point, it should be done with repentance and regret - never celebration.

I am sorrowful because I believe that celebrating death is destructive to people. We cannot control the emotions life brings out in us, but we must control our responses. Revenge feels good; we've made someone suffer in the way we've suffered. But revenge can never bring healing. It can never bring restoration. That comes from loving those who don't deserve to be loved. It comes from remembering that we are all, simultaneously, undeserving of the love we're shown and profoundly deserving of love.

God weeps for Osama bin Laden. I'm not sure I can muster that response, but I do weep for people who rejoice in death and I apologize for any arrogance that may communicate.