Faith in the Public Square
June 17, 2007
Immigration reform is again the subject of debate in the nation's barber shops, pubs, grocery aisles, and break rooms. It's being discussed in blogs, opinion pages, chat rooms, and by e-mail. It's one of those issues that simply won't go away, even though no one seems to agree on a solution.
A bipartisan Senate immigration bill was recently pulled off the table because it became bogged down by amendments and because senators were lobbied hard by opponents on the left and the right. Although there's common agreement that something must be done, and that the proposed bill was less than perfect, the question is, can anything get passed in the present environment.
Politics always makes dealing with contentious issues difficult, and with an unpopular president and a fairly evenly split Congress, compromise is difficult, especially with a presidential election cycle heating up. The debate will continue, even if reform waits to be enacted.
The facts in this debate are quite simple: Twelve million people are living in this country illegally, and every day that number increases. Most are here in search of the “American Dream” of a better life and a hopeful future. This is why immigrants have always come here. Of course there are those who come with malicious intent, but they're the minority. As it always has been, immigrant life is difficult - usually families are separated, immigrants live in cramped quarters, and most try to live under the radar lest they be sent home.
Although this is a political issue, it's also a moral one. It is, in fact, a debate over how we treat the stranger living in our midst. As the politicians debate, they hear a multitude of voices, all with different interests - the business community, agricultural interests, schools, health-care providers, labor unions, and law enforcement. The proposed answers to the current dilemma range from the draconian to the lenient, from immediate deportation to providing a path to citizenship. When we listen to the myriad voices that are seeking our attention, we discover that there's really no consensus, no common will. But, doing nothing won't make the problem go away.
There's another voice - it's actually many different voices - that seeks our attention. That voice is the religious community, and like every segment of the population, it is not of one mind.
I can only speak for myself, but what I say reflects the teachings of my tradition. When I read the Hebrew Bible I find a stream of statements talking about how we should treat the alien. Most of these voices call on us to treat the stranger with respect and dignity. Don't oppress the alien in your midst, Jeremiah says on behalf of God, and I will be with you (Jeremiah 7:5-7). The law encourages equal treatment of the stranger, and encourages farmers to leave out gleanings from the harvest for the poor and the alien dwelling in the country (Leviticus 23:22). Why should they do this? The answer given is simple: “Love the stranger because once you were the stranger in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
What then should I do as an American who is also a person of faith? The answer I seem to hear is this: You were once a stranger, so welcome the stranger who lives in your midst. Baptist theologian David Gushee writes:
“Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He then makes clear that our ‘neighbors' include not just family, friends and folk like us, but also strangers and enemies. Every person is my neighbor, whom I am called to love. The ‘undocumented worker' or ‘illegal alien' is my neighbor.”
Now border security is necessary, but that's not the real issue. The real issue relates to those already here - and their families who haven't yet joined them. For now they live in the shadows and are easily used and abused.
If I listen to my faith, I hear a call to invite the stranger into the light of day so that they might live with dignity. They are, after all, my neighbor and are loved by God. If, as the polls suggest, we‘re a nation of the faithful, then surely we must consider carefully this voice and seek a way forward that's humane and compassionate. These are our brothers and our sisters and members of a common human family, created in the image of God.
Dr. Bob Cornwall [was] pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org). He blogs at http://pastorbobcornwall.blogspot.com/.