By Wesley Spears
USA Today reported recently that Alabama churches were leading the charge against the state’s recently passed new immigration law. This should not be surprising, but it is. That is a testament to the church’s failure in the social arena in recent years, particularly the evangelical Protestant church.
The moment was particularly poignant in Birmingham, where the churches became notorious for failing to act on civil-rights issues in the 20th century. The Birmingham City Council, another body not too enthusiastic about desegregation during the civil-rights era, also unanimously called for the repeal of the immigration law.
The United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Lutheran Church and the Roman Catholic Church all had made statements condemning the law, or at least criticizing it. Conspicuously absent were the Alabama Baptists. While the Cooperative Baptists were involved, it was stunning how the mainstream Baptists of Alabama looked so different from their Christian brothers and sisters who opposed the legislation.
Out of anyone in Alabama churches, Baptists should have been the first to speak up.
Given our history and strong emphasis on the separation of church and state, I fail to understand why my fellow Baptists in Alabama were not (and are not!) chomping at the bit to combat the immigration law.
The substance of the Alabama law forbids even giving so much as a ride to someone who might be an illegal immigrant. It effectively prohibits ministry to the population of illegal immigrants in the state.
Bishop William Willimon of the United Methodists claimed that in the wake of the April storms and the passage of the bill, many were reluctant to seek aid because of the new law. No one and nothing should get in the way of Baptists performing the ministerial functions of the church, and especially not the state. When did the government get to decide to whom the church ministers?
Rev. Mike Shaw of First Baptist Church of Pelham reportedly said he thinks the law should be enforced. Specifically he said, “I think all laws need to be enforced.” All laws? Is there no unjust law? Is there no room for opposition to the injustice of the state in Shaw’s perspective? Does he mean that Christians should just acquiesce to any law regardless of its content?
Where would we be if Baptists had always done that? We would probably still have segregation and maybe even slavery. It is an abhorrent, devastating and dangerous position to just assume that every law should be enforced.
But what about Peter and Paul? Did not Paul say, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God”? Did not Peter also say, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.”?
Peter and Paul did not live in a democracy. They lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire. They had no say as to what laws were laws and what were not. We do.
Their instructions probably had more to do with discouraging open rebellion against the government, which was impractical and only resulted in violence and death (think what happened in 70 CE in Jerusalem). Paul’s exhortation to nonviolence in Romans 12 also forbids such an uprising, and that makes swallowing Romans 13 a little easier.
What would Paul say to our current situation? Obviously, I can’t speak for him, but he said something right before Romans 13:1 that people so love to quote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” To comply and assent to injustice is to be overcome by evil.
Baptists, if Baptists are to be the church, should join their Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) brothers and sisters in Alabama in standing up for the rights of members of their family the government has labeled as untouchable. For God knows no borders, no boundaries, no arbitrary demarcations of nations. No wall, no law, no government can stand between God and his people.