By Roger Olson
Yet another state, populated largely by people who consider themselves Christians, has apparently criminalized Christian behavior toward illegal immigrants. At least according to the Associated Press which says in an article published in my local newspaper June 10 that Alabama’s new immigration law makes it “a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride.”
Many Americans have developed very nasty attitudes toward illegal immigrants in recent years. Supposedly they are hurting the U.S. economy by taking jobs away from American citizens. Yet, by many accounts (and I have witnessed this first hand) many who despise illegal immigrants and blame them for high unemployment gladly hire them to do their yard work and repair their roofs and fences and pay them in cash. Many experts continue to argue that most of the jobs done by illegal immigrants are ones very few Americans want to do or will do.
Several states, mostly in the South, have recently passed laws criminalizing humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants. True, some of these laws (perhaps all of them) contain exceptions for government regulated humanitarian organizations and for emergency responders. However, where does that leave the average Christian who feels called by God to reach out and help an illegal immigrant in need?
Jesus said that insofar as people offer a cup of cold water to one of the least of these his brethren they have done it to him and insofar as they have refused to do it for the least they have refused it to him (Matthew 24). Does anyone really think Jesus didn’t mean illegal immigrants by “the least of these my brethren?”
I can see nothing in these attitudes and laws except a contemporary form of scapegoating — one of the oldest forms of sin in humanity. Theologians and philosophers such as Rene Girard have explored this phenomenon extensively and proved beyond doubt to me, at least, that we humans and especially Christians need to be attentive to its pervasive influence in all human societies.
Human societies seem always to have some group(s) the majority regard as the source and container for evil and they irrationally heap scorn, ridicule and rejection on them because, inexplicably and irrationally, it makes them feel better.
We Americans love to point out scapegoating in other countries — especially Christians in Muslim countries and elsewhere where they are in the minority. We read with justifiable horror about albinos in parts of Africa being singled out for bad treatment and sometimes even murder. Now we read about certain children in some African countries being identified as witches and ostracized, tormented and sometimes killed for absolutely no reason other than scapegoating.
The mechanism of scapegoating is relatively simple, even as it is irrational and therefore finally beyond explanation. People seem to need someone other than themselves to blame for their problems, so they choose people among them that seem alien, foreign, other, strange, and heap abuse and sometimes ritualistic killing on them. Such abusive treatment of the strange “others” somehow releases a pressure inside the scapegoaters and makes them feel better for a time.
What is especially tragic in the current flood of anti-illegal immigrant behavior and legislation in America is its complete lack of humanity toward illegal immigrants. States have now taken to fighting against them by making people, Christians and others, who would extend basic human help to them in their need criminals.
I can see nothing in these laws other than sheer scapegoating. These laws are expressions of hatred for the “others” among us and toward those who would dare to help them.
When we discover that it is no longer socially acceptable to scapegoat one group, we turn our scapegoating behavior toward a group it is acceptable to hate, demean, ridicule, marginalize and harm. It seems necessary for us to have such “others” and to act toward some of them so. It makes us feel better. We feel like we are solving problems we don’t know how to solve. But, of course, scapegoating doesn’t really solve anything.
Now, I am not opposed to laws regulating immigration or even to deporting illegal immigrants. What I am opposed to is criminalizing humanitarian aid to them while they are among us. That is simply unchristian.
What would Jesus do? Without any doubt at all he would give a ride to a tired, hot, foot weary illegal immigrant walking many miles to work in order to feed his family. Without any doubt at all he would give shelter to an illegal immigrant mother and her children. Without any doubt at all he would give food to a hungry illegal immigrant family. Yet, these supposedly “Christian” legislators and governors sign laws that criminalize Jesus’ behavior.