The language we use when we talk about people sure is powerful. It shapes human relationships, geopolitical relationships, theological relationships, perhaps even all relationships.
Words like “citizen,” “refugee” and “immigrant” are powerful shapers of how we talk about, how we define, and how we understand ourselves and others. The stroke of a world leader’s pen, the battlefield along a national border, the economic drivers that seek out cheap labor, the xenophobic tendencies of a governing body — all of these things and more determine how each of us understands and defines ourselves, whether we care to admit it or not. We are either “citizens” in the land in which we reside or “immigrants” in the land that may or may not claim us. We are either “from here” or “not from here.” We are either “legal” or “illegal.”
Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ seems to press our language in a different direction, one that we don’t talk about much in America because our passport power has pacified us quite a lot over the last few hundred years. (Well, some of us, that is — particularly those of us who are white.) We haven’t had to think much about where our citizenship really lies, or what it means to renounce imperial powers and embrace the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ which overturns human-made borders and boundaries.
We don’t very often read our Scriptures through the lens of the immigrant experience. We don’t talk about Father Abraham and Mother Sarai as immigrants (I would even argue “illegal” ones — see Genesis 12:10-20) or Ruth as a refugee, or Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as slaves of the empire.
American Christians don’t talk about our holy book this way because we don’t have to.
When Paul tells us in Philippians that our “citizenship is in heaven,” it’s easy enough for American Christians to think this means that our one individual life has been granted an eternal “golden ticket” to the afterlife, not much unlike the “golden” passports granted to us in this life. It’s easy enough to conflate the salvation that comes in Christ with the salvation that comes in our red-white-and-blue status.
But an ancient Near Eastern Christian community would have known better. They would have understood the political weight this proclamation carried. They would have understood where Paul was pressing them. As they sat in homes, their eyes meeting across the Agape Meal and the cloud of persecution hovering close by, these words of Paul would have nailed them to the cross and brought them out of the tomb all at once.
As they gathered, slave and free, male and female, Jew and Greek, citizen and immigrant, Roman-passport-holder and landless refugee, they would have known that Jesus was calling them to a community much different from the one that the world around them touted and extolled. They would have remembered that their citizenship did not rely on the pen strokes of an empire, the acquisition of borders, or the shifting sands of world dominance. Together, across lines of great difference, that sacred Table, that bread and wine, that body and blood, was binding them together for a different kind of citizenship — one that could only be crafted by the liberating power of God.
Recently, Dr. David Gushee shared his rationale for why the sixth commitment of the Sanctuary Movement is one he cannot accept: hosting within the sanctuary’s walls undocumented immigrants facing the threat of deportation. Though I’m no ethicist, the best I can tell is that his reasoning is this decision would involve clergy and congregants breaking the law. While he does acknowledge that acts of civil disobedience can be moral even if unlawful, Gushee argues that while our immigration laws may need serious editing and amending, at their heart they are not unlawful or unjust. And because securing borders is a justifiable act on the part of any sovereign nation, addressing illegal entry into those borders is not, in and of itself, unlawful or unjust. So as I mentally dig for my Logic 101 notes, I think the question at hand is this: “Are the laws and policies seeking to secure America’s borders unjust?”
As the pastor of a congregation that has made a very different choice than Gushee’s, it has become increasingly clear to us that the answer to that question is a resounding “yes.” As we have learned more about the disproportionate targeting of black and brown immigrants, the rampant economic exploitation of immigrant laborers, and the immorality of unnecessarily tearing families apart, offering hospitality and sanctuary to people who find themselves buried under the rubble of the tangled mess we call “immigration law” is an act of civil disobedience in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ. While there is much more to say about how we got here, I would challenge Gushee and other clergy like him to press more deeply in several places:
1. Listen directly and deeply to stories of undocumented people. I don’t mean read articles about them or their experiences. I mean very specifically, talk with them, both to learn their stories and their experiences navigating our immigration system. (This, of course, requires one’s faith community to offer a level of hospitality that would make undocumented people feel safe enough to share their stories.)
2. In reference to my first point, if no one like that exists in your life, a re-evaluation regarding what relationships you do and do not have is well worth deeper reflection, particularly if you seek to make claims of your own social justice commitments as a pastor.
3. Spend time actually evaluating the immigration system and with each new thing you learn, ask yourself, “What would I do if faced with this dilemma?” And, as a follow-up, “How would it feel to me if others narrated my nearly impossible decision as illegal?” Finally, “Are the choices people are forced to make to come to this country truly reflective of an immigration system built on justice?”
4. After asking these micro-questions, ask these macro-questions, too. “In what ways does calling people ‘illegal’ serve the purposes of empire?” And, as a follow-up, “What would Jesus have to say about any language that serves the purposes of empire?”
In Acts 16, we find the Apostle Paul driving out a demon plaguing a slave girl. And soon after, we find Paul and Silas locked up in a prison cell.
Why were the slave girl’s owners so angry about this oppressive spirit being removed from her? Well, the text makes it pretty clear for us as readers. “But when their owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace.” There, the angry mob called them, in effect, “illegal.” But, Paul and Silas’ illegality was rooted in their disruption of economic exploitation and violence.
This story is a powerful reminder to me that language can put just about anybody in prison. It is a powerful reminder to me that language criminalizes people far sooner than laws ever do. Finally, it is a powerful reminder to me that before I call anyone “illegal,” I better think long and hard about it.
The Sunday before I read Gushee’s piece, our church hosted a “know-your-rights” training for the congregation and wider D.C. community. As we sifted through bullet point after bullet point, I could sense anxiety levels rising. How could they not? We were talking about establishing guardianship should deportation result in separation between parents and children. We were talking about ICE raids and detention centers. We were talking about the power of our words to unjustly detain and incarcerate whole swaths of people.
And at one point, I had about all I could stand as I thought about my passport tucked away safely in my house, ensuring that I never have to spend time anxiously flipping through a “know-your-rights” training, wondering if any wrong turn I make would result in my imprisonment. I tossed my notepad down on the floor, covered in ink blotches from my furious, frenzied notes. And in Spanish, I heard my spirit say out loud to this roomful of fellow brothers and sisters, “This whole system is built on ensuring that you understand yourselves as criminals. That you duck in and out of the shadows. That you never see yourselves as citizens of a particular place. But you are not criminals. You are not illegal. You are citizens of the kingdom of God. And no matter what anyone tells you, your citizenship is in heaven. And as a community of faith, we will do everything in our power to renounce this language of criminality, together.” The anxious tears that had been held tightly inside eyelids were flowing now, perhaps a bit more freely. Together, we prayed for God’s kingdom to reign on earth instead of the kingdoms we build on sand.
In case you were wondering, Acts 16 doesn’t end with Paul chained in a prison cell. As the story goes, “Suddenly, there was a violent earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.”
This reminds me that the God of liberation isn’t playing around. The God of liberation means to unfasten the chains and break the yoke, one way or another. We can choose to be participants in this unfastening, or we can choose to be prison guards of an empire that criminalizes people by calling them “illegal” whenever it benefits them economically or politically.
It’s worth noting that upon seeing those chains fall off of Paul and Silas’ hands, this stunned prison guard couldn’t help but ask, “What must I do to be saved?” Upon seeing those chains come off, this keeper of the guard couldn’t help but long for a different kind of citizenship, a different kind of salvation, a different kind of heaven. May it be so with us.