A Prayer for Immigrants in the New Year

What the future might hold for the millions of undocumented in this country with the incoming administration is full of uncertainty. A large percentage of these immigrants have been here for over a decade, working and raising a family and becoming part of their communities, churches, and economy.

Many undocumented immigrants have had children born here. These children are U.S. citizens. About 750,000 other young people, who came into the country years ago with their undocumented parents and so also are undocumented, have qualified for short-term legal status (renewable every two years) under Obama’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. No one knows whether President-elect Trump will continue that program. If he does not, all of these young people will be left in a precarious situation.

In other words, immigrant families throughout the country have members of different legal status. To deport one or more undocumented parents would bring incredible hardship literally upon millions of children.

The following is a prayer for refugees adapted for these immigrants:

Lord Jesus Christ, our Refuge and Deliverer, as a child you sought refuge in Egypt while fleeing from those who would persecute and harm you. Remember those today who come seeking a new life, and who now find themselves in foreign and strange lands, granting them your Presence, your protection, and your provision. Illuminate us to be a shining light upon a hill amidst the dark evil in our world, that we may do our part with hospitality and resources; and that all who are immigrants might be led to the brightness of Your redemptive love made present by your glorious Incarnation; You, who live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Four Keys to Changing Views on Immigration: Lessons from Bryan Stevenson

Last night Bryan Stevenson gave a lecture at Wheaton College on the sensitive, yet very important, topic of the death sentence. He is the author of the award-winning and New York Times bestseller Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Rebellion (Spiegel and Grau, 2015). The venue was packed with perhaps 500 students and faculty. His message was powerful, yet encouraging; startling, yet winsome. He structured his talk around four points. As I listened to them, it struck me that they could also be applied to debates about immigration reform. Here they are with this new subject:

  1. Get proximate. In other words, get close to immigrants. As one comes into relationship with immigrants at parent meetings and school activities, at work, or at the store, they become human with names and faces… not a strange, faceless “other” or “problem.” They, too, are moms, dads, and kids dealing with the challenges or being a family, although for them these things are more of a challenge because they have to be navigated in a new country and in a different culture and language. Christians, above all people, should strive to see—and be with—the stranger as one loved by God and created in his image.
  2. Change the national narrative. We need to change how the stories of immigrants and immigration are told. It is not uncommon for the media to use narratives of fear and anger and link immigrants (and refugees) to terrorism. By doing so, immigrants are perceived as a dangerous threat. These feelings then can become a motivation for treating them poorly and for passing punitive legislation that is unreasonable and unconstructive for a sensible way forward for the 10-11 million undocumented (many millions of whom have been here for over a decade). A different narrative, that does respect the law (even as work to reform an outdated and inadequate immigration legislation), while showing compassion and thinking through how best to get past the national impasse. Citizens need to go back and remember the immigrant stories of their own families and of the periods of rapid migration into this country over the last 250 years.
  3. Stay hopeful. It is easy for those who have worked hard for years to facilitate a genuine transformation of attitudes toward immigrants and to encourage the formulation of new immigrant laws to get discouraged. Attitudes and legislation are hard to move in a different direction. But, if one realizes that hope is the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1), and one knows in the heart of hearts that this is a just cause, then one can continue to work toward a different kind of country that is more welcoming to the stranger.
  4. Be willing to do inconvenient things. Everyone longs for a quiet and comfort-able life. But social change does not come by default. It does happen easily and without effort. It is not uncommon for those who are comfortable to be committed to the status quo and thus to following established procedures (no matter how outdated or imbalanced) rather than pursuing fairness and equity. For things to change requires our participation, and that means we get pushed into doing things that perhaps we have never done before, meeting new people, and going places to which we normally would not go.

Get proximate, change the national narrative, stay hopeful, and be willing to do inconvenient things – all wise advice as we continue to work toward immigration reform. Thank you, Bryan Stevenson!

September 7, 2016

Engaging the Public Square as Christians: A Challenge and a Conundrum

The sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18—2:5 today in church triggered a lot of thoughts about how Christians should interact with and behave in the public square.

This is an ugly election season. Neither major candidate is a model of moral integrity, and the behaviors of both in the public square in their exercise of power (whether financial or political) leave much to be desired. Sadly, some Christians are lining up behind each candidate and defend that person in ways similar to those employed by secular political pundits and strategies:

  • Excuse or minimize unethical actions or words. Instead of admitting the ethical shortcomings of their candidate, these Christians will say that the bad things about their candidate are misreported or that what has been said and done is not really that bad (especially in comparison with the other candidate!!).
  • Deflect criticism. This tactic attempts to shift attention away from the candidate by changing conversation to another topic. It is not about the manipulation of power to gain a presidential nomination, it is about the Russians hacking emails! It is not about saying outlandish things on a whole series of topics, it is about the media that distort everything!
  • Ignore other input. The two major news services are blatantly partisan and one-sided, but Christians on either side of the divide will only read the input that confirms their prejudices and political choices (because the other news outlet is always false or twisted in its agenda!).
  • Demonize the opponent. Both sides are now demonizing the other candidate in their speeches, commercials, and biased news services.
  • Make apocalyptic predictions. The candidates and the media are full of apocalyptic rhetoric, so typical of an election cycle. The other candidate will lead the country to inevitable ruin from which there will be no return.

The Bible tells us throughout its pages, both in the Old and New Testaments, that the character of leaders matters. As I listen to some fellow Christians, this is not taken seriously enough for both candidates. The character discussion tends to be about the other candidate, who is viewed as the enemy. Thus, it is possible to fall into mirroring the dominant cultural political narratives, tactics, and attitudes in ways that can override biblical mandates. The Apostle Paul in this passage is calling us to a very striking counter-cultural way, a life of testimony to the Crucified and Resurrected Christ in humility and service.

This is the challenge. Is it possible to get involved in such a sordid political climate without being consumed by the cultural mindset and way of doing things, even if one is convinced it is for a worthy cause? If involvement is the option, to what extent and why? How do we live a life of humility and powerlessness before a sinful world? Are we willing to plead for God’s mercy for both, deeply flawed candidates, either of whose election might not bode well for the country and perhaps the church?

The conundrum is that the people of God also are called to have a prophetic voice in the world. How to do this with a 1 Corinthians 1-2 perspective and set of commitments? How to work for change (not power!) without compromising the cross and our faith?

I can offer no solutions. Perhaps we simply must live with the tension between the challenge and the conundrum, ever mindful of both. How can we be truly Christian at such a time as this?

August 13, 2016

Brexit: Thoughts for Immigration Reform in the U.S.

This last week witnessed an historic vote in Britain. 52% of the voters said that they wanted to leave the European Union (EU). It is no secret that a significant motivation of many was the surge in unwanted immigration – a surge that was felt to be dangerous to the nation’s safety and destructive of its cultural heritage. Quickly, those working on this side of the Atlantic for immigration reform raised a call of alarm that those same sentiments would be used in this country’s buildup to the November elections.

I do not doubt that this is true, but I would like to make some observations that could be helpful in any interchange with those who are against immigration reform.

  • First, it is clear to anyone who is aware of Britain’s tenure in the EU that it has never been without its problems, whether due to historical, financial, political, or military priorities and convictions. In other words, there is a longer history at work here. To reduce the issues behind Brexit to this particular moment in immigration is to misrepresent nationalist forces that have been stewing for years. Undoubtedly, immigration was an important trigger, but not the only one. It reinforced deep-seeded feelings long held by many. It was a key motivation, not the only reason for the vote.
  • Second, immigration into the U.S. has been quite different than that into the UK. This country has received millions from Latin America, which shares a broad religious connection and value system through different Christian expressions (largely Roman Catholic). Many others, such as Asians, Africans and Middle-Easterners and the like have come on study and short-term worker visas. This is quite different than what the British see and perceive, where there are those who have come in to settle do not share some sort of Christian heritage and where there have been significant cases of religious and cultural leaders that radicalize youth. The overwhelming numbers of those fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and problems in Africa also are stretching the social services across Europe at historic levels. Many thousands are seeking entry, with refugee camps and facilities being set up within national borders. Nothing that stark and immeditate is visible here. The immigration realities are different.
  • Third, opponents to immigration reform in the UK bring up legitimate questions. One may not agree with their analyses or the solutions, but questions about the health-care service, schools, national security, etc. are necessary ones. Value commitments cannot evade the pragmatic.
  • Fourth and last, the experiences on the ground in Britain are emotion-packed. It will not do to ignore that there are significant challenges that Britain faces at many levels—political, economic, and cultural. Their country is indeed changing, and that is not easy. It also will not do to try to explain away too flippantly the extremism of some of the immigrants and their descendants and not empathize with the bombings that the UK has experienced (and thwarted). There are very real emotions that should be allowed to have a voice in order to engage those people who disagree with immigration reform. To deny or demonize them (both those people and their feelings) is to fall into the scapegoating that all should condemn.

In other words, I am calling for wisdom – wisdom with how to engage a tense time in history in order to make conversation possible and constructive. Those who advocate for reform IN THIS COUNTRY should appreciate the historical complexities of the moment; we should not make simplistic parallels between Europe and the U.S.; we need to think through the pragmatic ramifications of reform to make our case; and, last, we should allow those who disagree with us the freedom to express their frustrations, fears, and anger (especially those who may have lost loved ones or have lost jobs to immigrants).

My experience has been that those who have disagreed with me just want to be able to give their point of view and to share their experiences without being dismissed or condemned. It is too easy for both sides to make everything a zero-sum, all or nothing battle to win. We should be willing to listen and engage in meaningful dialogue for the good of all. We need to work for national consensus, even as we labor on our projects for transformation.

June 27, 2016

Beginning with Creation: Does It Impact How We View the Government’s Role?

Many who argue against a more open immigration policy begin with Romans 13:1–7 and other similar passages from the New Testament (e.g., 1 Peter 3:13–17). The argument is that these passages teach that God has established the authorities and that citizens and outsiders are to submit to its laws. Unauthorized entry and residence in this country contravene this and, therefore, cannot be tolerated.

This is a very limited view of human government. Theologically, the idea of the government wielding the sword (Romans 13:4; 1 Peter 3:14) harks back to Genesis 9:1–7. In that context, God delegates the authority to control violence in a world where violence and death reign (Genesis chs. 3–9). God’s ideal is to protect and provide for life (chs. 1–2; 9:1, 7). This point adds an important dimension to how the role of the government is to de understood theologically. Government is not to be about the business of solely maintaining order and policing the observance of its laws; it should also envision its calling as promoting human flourishing in its fullness—and provide laws toward those ends. Once more, as explained in the previous blog, the ultimate value within the divine paradigm is the worth and well-being of the human person.

To begin the discussion on immigration in Genesis 1–2 redirects the conversation by focusing on the value of immigrants as created in the image of God, their potential to contribute to society, and the physical needs that can be met within a land of that has many resources and opportunities. From this perspective, immigration policy is envisioned as helping the less fortunate as treasured creatures of God instead of placing it within a framework defined by a defensiveness toward outsiders; it is about welcoming and appreciating the one in need, not primarily about well-guarded boundaries and legislation of exclusion and qualifying those from elsewhere as threats.

Some will say: So, are you saying that anything goes? No, I am not, even though that is the caricature that is often proclaimed by the anti-immigrant media. Yes, the border needs to be organized better, and the nation does need appropriate legislation to handle the complex pragmatic challenges of the presence of many newcomers (health care, education, etc.). Immigrants also will need to act responsibly within a more just and sane system—the fact that they are made in the image of God presumes that they are responsible creatures. Starting the discussion and considering legislation from an “image of God” stance, however, can radically influence the goals of immigration policy, allows for a more civil tone of mutual respect, brings compassion into the equation, and suggests that the country might review its mission (and its history) as one of serving the vulnerable within the limitations of its possibilities.

Issues related to law are many. We will return to it periodically in the future in order to construct a more comprehensive biblical view of government, one that will be more constructive for the national debate.

The Proper Place to Begin: Creation and the Image of God

Discussions on immigration should begin with looking at those who come as people, as individuals who have left their family, home, nation, and culture to try to start a new life in a different, and often strange, place. This moving to a new place is common in the United States. Individuals and families are transferred all the time because of their work; others simply move to try life somewhere else. Immigrants are doing something similar, but in their case that is more complicated for a whole host of reasons!

If we see immigrants as people, we can begin to see them as God does. We must remember that God so loved the world that he sent his Son to live among us and to die for the sins of the world. God cares for humans; he loves humanity profoundly and with deep passion … and at great cost. What would it mean to see immigrants first and above all as humans in need? Can we love them as God has loved all of us? Both the Old and New Testaments call us to love God and neighbor—these two dimensions cannot be separated (Lev. 19:18, 33–34; Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37–40).

Genesis 1:26–28 tells us that humans are the culmination of the creation and are made in the image of God. Each person has value and unique dignity as a special creation of God: We have emotions, a will, a mind, a soul, and a body fashioned by God. As humans, we also have the privilege and responsibility, Genesis 1 tells us, to rule as God’s vice-regents over the rest of creation. That means that every personeven immigrants—has great potential as stewards and contributors to life and society.

Now this truth has a message for both sides. For the receiving culture: What if the United States began to think of those who have come as gifts from God to build into this country, even as they work for a better life? For the immigrant: What would it mean to believe in this potential and dignity and to think of work, lifestyle, worship, and children as means of blessing this country in responsible ways? There are all sorts of conversations that could begin with these and other constructive questions, which can be mutually respectful and sensitive!

Where Might We Begin the Conversation?

When we engage people on important and potentially hot topics, one of the key things is to try to establish an appropriate starting point. Where do we begin the discussion, so that there truly is a give-and-take, a conversation – not a monologue or one-directional lecture?

I would like to suggest that we begin the discussion on immigration at the beginning—that is, in Genesis 1, which talks about the creation of humanity. Ultimately, immigration is about people, both those who are on the move as well as those of the culture that receives them.

It is not uncommon for some to want to start any talk about immigration with the question of legality. For Christians, this usually means citing Romans 13 and the imperative to submit to the government authorities.

I would suggest, though, that this can be a conversation killer. Why? Well, the argument is short and sharp: Undocumented people have broken the law to get into this country; they have disobeyed the authorities established by God—end of discussion. A person either has proper documentation or not. In its most crass form, this sentiment can be expressed by saying something like, “What is there about ‘illegal’ that you don’t understand?!?”

We do have to get to issues of immigration legislation (and there are many!), but this is not the place to start a dialogue. We will need to build toward it, biblically and theologically. We must get to Romans 13, but let us look at the contributions of the hundreds of pages in our Bibles that precede that passage. Perhaps that background will guide us so as to read it better. Let me repeat: We need to get to legal matters, and we will, but we will not begin our wrestling with immigration there.

In our next entry, I would like us to turn to that opening chapter of Genesis and begin to think through how it might impact thinking about immigrants and immigration. Join me, won’t you!

Let’s Start a Conversation!

Immigration. It’s a word that generates all kinds of emotions—pity, anger, confusion. It also raises an assortment of questions. How did we get to the point where we are today? How many undocumented immigrants are in the country today? What is the difference between immigrants and refugees and asylees? What about assimilation to the “American way of life”?

In light of all of this, how might we begin to engage immigration from an explicitly Christian point of view? Does the Bible have anything to say about immigration? What difference would it make to think about it in this way?

Let’s begin that conversation! The goal of this blog is to get Christians (and anyone else who is interested!) talking about immigration very self-consciously from the resources of their faith. My hope is that this can be a civil exchange, even if there is significant disagreement. Let ‘iron sharpen iron’ with a strong dose of charity and patience.

I will be drawing from my book, Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (sec. ed.; Brazos, 2013), but I also will point readers to other resources, share ongoing experiences with immigrants, and raise other issues that are relevant to the debate.

Welcome to the conversation!