By Alan Bean
Elation and outrage. President Obama’s executive decision on immigration sparked one reaction or the other in the American soul, if there is such a thing. Perhaps we must speak of two American souls.
All agree that the American immigration system is broken, but we can’t agree on the nature of the brokenness. Is the system broken because we have 11 million “illegals” dwelling among us who should immediately self-deport and get to the back of the immigration line? Or is the system broken because we have made it virtually impossible for most people to enter the United States legally?
How do we break this culture war standoff? Defending his executive order on immigration, the President appealed to Scripture: “Scripture tells us we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were once strangers, too.”
That’s a rough paraphrase of Exodus 23:9, but the president’s speech writers could have used dozens of similar passages.
Obama’s appeal to biblical authority has outraged Mike Huckabee and other right-leaning pundits. How can a man who defends late-term abortion quote Scripture?
Ever since the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians have had a hard time applying the Bible to public policy debates.
Quoted selectively, the Bible can be used to justify virtually any position. But even if the scriptures are handled in a balanced and responsible manner, is the Bible politically relevant?
Traditionally, Christians have transposed the Bible into the key of Jesus. If there appears to be tension between what Jesus said and what we read elsewhere in Scripture, we go with Jesus.
That’s not as simple as it sounds.
Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God. The gospel of the kingdom, he said, is good news to the poor, the outcast, the sick and the incarcerated. The gospel obliterates all us-them distinctions: Jew-Gentile, slave-free, male-female, rich poor, acceptable and unacceptable. In the kingdom Jesus envisioned, preference is given to the powerless, the stranger and the marginalized.
Christians are people who live as if the kingdom Jesus preached is a present reality.
Apply the religious vision of Jesus to the immigration crisis and you get a radical platform no sensible politician, Republican or Democrat, would touch.
So, what’s a good Christian to do?
One solution is to divide our lives into mutually exclusive religious and secular realms. In the religious realm (personal, family and church relations) we go with Jesus; in the secular arena (public policy) we go with common sense and self-interest.
Two-realm preachers ignore the messy and “unspiritual” world of public policy debate.
When Jesus said we can’t serve God and mammon, he ruled out this kind of two-realms ethic.
Okay, well, maybe the impractical kingdom ethic of Jesus should guide our inter-personal relationships while the hard realism of the Old Testament provides a better guide to political issues.
This is how many American Christians read their Bibles. It isn’t hard to quote texts in which Israel enjoys a favored status and those outside God’s covenant people are regarded as inferior. Antebellum slave owners appealed to this us-them biblical tradition when justifying the enslavement of social inferiors.
But the us-them tradition, while certainly a feature of certain sections of the Bible, cannot be reconciled with the kingdom ethic of Jesus. Moreover, as the president’s quotation from Exodus suggests, the Law of Moses, taken as a whole, comes down solidly on the side of the sojourner, the resident alien, the foreigner, and the outcast. Jesus took this inclusive tradition to its logical, and radical, conclusion.
Which leaves us cheek-to-jowl with some distressing realities.
Christians take their moral cues from Jesus; that’s why they are called “Christians.” We can say that Jesus was naïve, simplistic, impractical and short-sighted; but you don’t get to say these things and still call yourself a Christian.
The kingdom ethic of Jesus applies to all of life or it doesn’t apply at all.
If the kingdom ethic of Jesus is a bridge too far for American religious consumers, we stick with the old, old story of Jesus and his radical, all-encompassing love. There are plenty of un-Christian entrees available on the American religious smorgasbord.
If we can’t create financially viable churches around the kingdom ethic of Jesus, we must find faithful new ways to be church.
And if we can’t build a viable political constituency around the kingdom ethic of Jesus, we must, like the first generation of Christians, adopt a prophetic, outside-the-camp, political posture.
Watering down the vision so the church gets to claim a measure of political relevance is not an option.
Regarding the immigration debate as a “worldly” distraction from the true business of the church is a form of sanctified cowardice.
We all know where Jesus is going. Do we have the courage to follow?