30 March 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 2: The Legality Argument

Nicaraguan women at their village well 
This is part 2 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This second part analyzes the "legality" argument and critiques it Biblically/theologically.

Read part one here

Argument One – Undocumented Immigrants are Breaking the Law

We deport. We decide. Get in line like my grandparents. Period.” [1]

One main argument against undocumented immigrants is based on the status of their legality. Since undocumented immigrants have trespassed on U.S. soil, they are in violation of breaking U.S. law. They should therefore be viewed and tried as criminals. In response to a Yahoo news article on the subject of immigration, one reader replied that “[…] anyone that breaks the law should be punished […] I believe that people that steal, rob, murder, drink and drive and break other laws should be punished. I also believe that people that hire illegal immigrants should be punished, as well as people harboring other law-breakers (of all laws and types). I believe in the rule of law.”

Many people who hold this perspective wonder why it is that Hispanics do not simply come to the U.S. the legal way. Other immigrants are capable of receiving proper documentation and obtaining citizenship. Those who come here illegally should just “get in line” and come the legal way. At a debate about immigration policies in 2006, U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner commented that “American citizenship is priceless and it ought to be done the legal way just like my ancestors did.”[3] Americans across the country have echoed similar responses.

The problem with this reasoning is that immigration policies have radically changed since many of our ancestors immigrated to the U.S. over 100 years ago. For our American ancestors, however, there was no illegal way. There were no visas, no green cards, no U.S. consulates. You literally boarded a ship and traveled to the United States in order to build a new life. It would probably have been more difficult to come illegally than it would have been to come legally!

This all changed when the Chinese Exclusion Act was instated in 1882. Immigrants from Asia were excluded from entering the U.S. because they were seen as inferior. Females were especially seen as “suspicious” because they could bear children that would gain citizenship under the 14th Amendment. Ironically, the Chinese Exclusion Act paved the way for Hispanic immigration. Since there was a higher labor demand, employers hired undocumented Hispanics who were seeking safety from the Mexican Revolution in 1910-1917. In the 1920s, the Quota Act and the Johnson-Reed Act were instated to bar certain European ethnicities from entering the United States. The Irish and Italians were seen as educationally and culturally inferior, as well as a drain on the economy. Plus, a majority of them were Catholic, which was thought to be a threat to the American ethos.Over the next four decades, immigration laws gradually excluded more people groups, such as the poor, the sick, the uneducated, and those suspected of holding controversial ideologies (particularly Communism). This exclusion continued until 1965, when President Johnson signed a new law that enabled people to immigrate based on their employability and family ties, not based on race or ethnicity.

However, the employment-based immigration system does not offer as many visas as there are “low-skilled” jobs available. We can tell people to wait their turn to immigrate legally, but if someone does not already have a relative living here legally they will never get a turn, not if they wait 10 years, 30 years, or even 50 years. This, in short, is why people who are living in poverty have chosen to immigrate illegally. Telling them that they should simply immigrate the “legal way” is an oversimplification of the issue.
Another problem with the legality perspective is that it tends to idolize the law. In this perception, the United States’ law is viewed as flawless and absolute. Those who hold this perspective do not question the legitimacy or truthfulness of the law. To them, the issue is simple and “black and white”: the law says coming here without documentation is wrong, so it is wrong.

[A comic I created summarizing the history of immigration]

This argument for the supremacy of the law is particularly one of the most frequent arguments that Christians raise against the issue. Drawing from Romans 13:1-7, they argue that God put the government in place and it is the responsibility for Christians to obey it. We are not to question the laws that our country creates, because the governing officials are given authority from God. This logic is very dangerous for many reasons, not just for the immigration debate.

Unfortunately, this is a poor interpretation of this Scripture passage. As with all Scripture, passages are meant to be read within its larger context. Verses are not isolated segments, meant to be read independently of the passages that precede and follow it. In chapter 12, Paul discusses just how it is that the Roman Christians he is addressing can discern God’s will. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world,” he writes, “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). After our minds are transformed, we can understand God’s will. Unfortunately, many English translations do not accurately encompass the meaning of the latter half of 12:2. The NIV, for instance, translates the adjectives “good, pleasing, and perfect” as modifiers of “God’s will.” A better translation from the Greek reads as follows: “[…] so that you may be able to prove what God’s will is – that which is good, pleasing, and perfect.”

English translations (NIV, KJV, ASV, etc)
“God’s will is good, pleasing, and perfect.”
“God’s will is that which is good, pleasing, and perfect.”

Although these translation differences may be subtle, they make a significant difference in how we should understand the nature of God’s will. Are things “good” because God declares that they are “good?” Or can things be “good” in themselves, and God affirms and delights in their “goodness?”[4] In light of Romans 12:2, the latter is the best understanding of God’s will. We can know that things are within God’s will for humankind and creation because they are in accordance with his goodness and perfection.It should not be assumed, then, that the various laws governing immigration are in accordance with God’s will. Although they may be given authority by God, governments are fallible and often make laws that stand in opposition to God’s character. Theologian John Yoder writes the following concerning Romans 13:

The Christian who accepts his subjection to government retains his moral independence and judgment. The authority of government is not self-justifying. Whatever government exists is ordered by God; but the text does not say that whatever the government does or asks of its citizens is good.[5]

Relying on the law as an absolute entity can be an excuse not to strive to discern God’s will. It is much easier to accept all laws as “good” than it is to do the hard work of probing deeper into the nature of God and his plan for the world. It we want to understand and do God’s will, though, we have to open to the idea that the current laws concerning immigration are not “good, pleasing, and perfect.” Human laws are not the source of our allegiance; God’s will is. Ultimately, we are to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Continue to Part 3: The Economic Argument

[1] A response to a news article articulating why undocumented immigrants are not welcome in the U.S. http://news.yahoo.com/why-gop-demonizes-illegals-055000771.html
[2] http://news.yahoo.com/why-gop-demonizes-illegals-055000771.html
[3] qtd. in Soerens, Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger , pg. 64
[4] This follows suit with Aquinas’ philosophical conundrum about how we should understand the “goodness” of natural law.
[5] The Politics of Jesus, p. 207.

Loving The Strangers Among Us - Part 1

A young girl outside her home in La Carbonara, Nicaragua
This is part 1 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. Immigrants have long been a people group that I am very passionate about. This first part explains why immigration is important to me and why Christians should be thinking Biblically about this issue. The subsequent parts delve into the American perceptions that govern the issue and discuss 1) if they are accurate, 2) if they are Biblical.

"I'm going to cut it open."

The first person who had the audacity to say such a thing changed the course of medical history forever. It was one thing to observe the external symptoms of the body, but to actually cut an incision and take a look at the internal composition of a human? What a brave idea! For thousands of years people had wondered what it was that lay beneath the skin. Many speculated about the inner workings of the body, but it was not until the Renaissance period that physicians began to cut open human bodies for examination on a regular basis. This revolution in medical practice dispelled misconceptions about the human anatomy and created the foundation for future medicinal discovery.

The current issues about undocumented immigration within the United States are topics that are frequently discussed, but few have had the courage to really “cut them open.” It is a very complex issue, and it is much easier to parrot what the politicians and the media are saying about it than to carefully analyze the various perceptions surrounding the issue. ‎John Dewey correctly noted that the “ability to repeat catch-phrases, cant terms, familiar propositions, gives the conceit of learning and coats the mind with varnish, waterproof to new ideas."[1] In order to understand the immigration issue, then, we must refrain from reductionistic tendencies and be open to reasoning that transcends the external, basic presuppositions. This calls for an analysis that is both deeply theological and deeply consistent with higher critical skills.

Let’s cut it open.

Why the Issue Matters

I did not know too much about immigration until I was exposed to it in a context outside my own country. At the age of 16, I traveled to Costa Rica, where my home church sought to experience, understand, and address the increased immigration of Nicaraguans to San Jose. We visited a slum in the capital where impoverished Nicaraguans had flocked. I was surprised at the very negative attitudes that the majority of the Costa Ricans had toward the Nicaraguan immigrants. They blamed them for taking their resources and lowering their standard of living. This was my first exposure to such an intense form of poverty and my heart was broken. These living conditions were better than the home they had left behind? How could the dominant culture have no compassion for them?

In response, my home church began sponsoring a small community in Nicaragua through child sponsorships, micro loans and building projects. I had the honor of traveling to the little village to meet the people so we could learn how we could assist them better. I witnessed with my own eyes the reasons why they were traveling to Costa Rica for a “better” life. I also learned why it was so attractive for them to come to the United States undocumented. The U.S. government does not grant visas to people who come from impoverished countries because there is a strong chance that they will overstay their visa. This is the most common way that people come to the U.S. illegally. The desperate Nicaraguans could try to come to the U.S. the legal way, but they knew they would be rejected and would still have to pay the expensive fee of about $100 for applying. For families that only make $1 a day, risking their lives to cross a border illegally is a much better option than trying the legal way, which leads to inevitable rejection and penalization.

I write all this not as an anecdote to my argument, but as an effort to place a human face on the issue. The immigration debate is not an impersonal issue; neither is it an issue that affects only U.S. citizens. This issue affects countless families living inside and outside the U.S. As we participate in the debate, we must seek to love both God and our neighbors as ourselves.

Perceptions are powerful. Perceptions are behind our every single conviction, action, and word. They are what make us say the things we say, do the things we do, consciously and subconsciously. Most of the time we do not even realize it. The perceptions that underlie the immigration issue in the U.S. are pervasive. It may seem like the reasons people have for being opposed to undocumented immigrants are just as they appear. For the most part, there are powerful ideas behind these reasons that dictate these responses. Instead of taking the rationales at face value, the various perceptions that underlie them must be analyzed and addressed. Although there are many complaints against undocumented immigration, the majority of complaints fall into one of three categories: legality, economy, or American identity. Each of these areas will be discussed, focusing on the specific perceptions that govern them. The legitimacy of each argument will be scrutinized. Finally, and most importantly, theological implications will be probed. It will be demonstrated that all of the categories in some way idolize a certain value, whether it be the law, money, or nationalism.

For the sake of this series, I will be focusing primarily on Hispanic undocumented immigrants. Not only do they make up the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., but they are the demographic with the most negative perceptions attached to them. It is estimated that the Hispanic population within the U.S. has increased to over 40 million, accounting for about half of the growth since 2000.[2] Although Hispanics make up over 14% of the population, it is unknown how many of these Hispanics are undocumented. Estimates range between 12-20 million.[3]

For semantic reasons, I will be referring to those who are here in the U.S. without proper legal documentation as “undocumented immigrants.” Different words, such as “illegal” and “aliens,” connote different meanings. The most common designation for immigrants without paperwork is “illegal immigrants.” The problem with this label is that it groups immigrants into a category with other crimes, such as stealing and murder. By avoiding this name, I am not implying that undocumented immigrants are here “legally,” as they have obviously broken U.S. law. This does, however, provide a safeguard from associating Hispanic immigrants with other crimes which further adds stigma and fear. Similarly, the term “alien” conjectures up thoughts of immigrants as being strange or otherworldly. Like the term “illegal,” the name “alien” creates a perception that is neither constructive nor accurate. Thus, “undocumented immigrants” will be the name of choice, as it is reflective of what the people in discussion are – immigrants who do not have proper documentation of U.S. citizenship.

Continue to Part 2: The Legality Argument

[1] Dewey, John, How We Think, pg. 177.
[2] Carroll M., Christians at the Border, 40.
[3] Ibid., 40.

08 March 2012

Why Everything Does NOT Happen for a Reason

<----- See this saying over here?

It is a lie.

A very popular lie.

And a very dangerous one at that.

It seems to be rampant everywhere. It appears on T-shirts and wall art, Justin Bieber says it, and American idol stars cite it when they get knocked out of the competition.

Problem is, if we really do believe it, it has serious consequences about how we think about God. If everything happens for a reason, suddenly God caused the tsunami to occur in Japan and robs children of food to eat in war-torn Somalia because "he has a reason" to do it. That is neither the God I know nor worship.

I think that we wish that this cliche was true. It gives us reassurance that there is a "reason" for our sufferings. It makes sense of why we endure evil. However, this reassurance is superficial. While it may make us feel better about suffering, it completely strips away God's goodness. Why should we be comforted by a reason for evil if it completely distorts God's holiness and goodness?

Bad things happen as a result of a sinful world, not because God makes them happen. ALL of creation is marred from God's original intent, from human relationships to catastrophic weather patterns. It is a major flaw in reformed theology's view of God's sovereignty to think that God causes every bad thing for a purpose. Just because God can do anything does not mean that He chooses to do it. Is God capable of micromanaging every situation, including the tornadoes that recently rampaged my area? Yes. But that doesn't mean that he chooses to. God has freedom of choice as well.

This cliche is a gross misunderstanding of what Paul was talking about in Romans 8:28. "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him," he writes, "who have been called according to his purpose." This does not mean that God causes bad things to happen. This means that God is a master redeemer and he can transform the fallenness of our world into something beautiful.
Further, Romans 8:28 needs to be read in light of the context of the chapter. The "and we know" is a cue that this is a continuation of what Paul was talking about. The "and we know" parallels the "we know" in v. 22, where Paul talks about God's plan to redeem creation. Thus, just as God wants to redeem creation and bring it under his control, so he also wants to redeem our lives. Romans 8:28 is not about God turning our "lemons into lemonade" but is about God changing us to reflect Christ's image. God loves us the way we are, but he loves us so much that he does not want us to stay that way. He will even use ALL situations (good and bad) to make us into the person he created us to be!

Sometimes, there simply is no soveriegn "reason" for bad things. Some of my friend's parents are going through a divorce. There is no reason for broken relationships to happen. Period. The tornadoes that hit my area did not occur for a divine reason. Period. Bad things just happen as a result of our sin. It's not God's fault; it's my fault.

But the separated couple can be shaped into the image and likeness of God if they respond to his redemptive activity. The people who lost their homes in the tornadoes can be shaped into grateful, humble, and compassionate people. God may not have caused these horrific situations, but he can use them to bring about good. That's the beauty of the God we serve. He is so holy that He is incredibly separate from evil and does not cause evil, yet He is so gracious that He chooses to interact with evil to bring about good.

We should not be confident in the face of evil because there is a "reason" for it. We should be confident in the face of evil because God is faithful and will make us more like Christ, but only if we allow Him to.

Photo credit: "Everything Happens for a Reason" by TheLoveShop

02 March 2012

Joy in the Mundane

"Hi, how are you?"
"Good. How are you?"
"I'm having a great time, thanks for asking."

The postal worker replied with such enthusiasm that I couldn't resist retracing my steps to the seminary's post office window. A small campus has its arbitrary "how are you" greeting, but this exuberant response? Especially from the UPS man?

The man explained that he tried to enjoy his job, even when he woke up in the morning and monotonously delivering packages was the last thing on his wish list. "See, you can either go through life complaining about all the things you dislike, or you can find happiness in even the mundane. Life is what you make of it."

Since then, I've seen the UPS man delivering packages down my street on two more occasions. He smiles and waves, and I'm convinced that the joy he has is genuine.

I have to suppress the urge to cheer him on as he places boxes on my neighbor's door. His joy is contagious.

I have great difficulty in finding joy in the "mundane." I'm currently taking two different Hebrew language classes, and the overexposure to textual criticism has been enough to pull my hair out. I am joyless. I am not joyful enough to exult in monotony. "But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony," G.K. Chesterton writes. Children say "do it again," but we adults grow weary. He continues:
"It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be absolute necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we."
(Orthodoxy, 1943).
I want to learn how to approach life with the same kind of hopeful expectation that God can bring joy from the mundane.

Be filled with joy to the point of overflowing, so that every person you encounter has to retrace their steps to hear more.

Photo credit: "Blazes of Brass" by ElectricRomance