16 April 2012

Loving the Strangers Among Us - Part 5: A Call for Biblical Human Rights

Two Somali boys I tutored in Columbus, Ohio

This is part 5 of a 5 part series that theologically critiques the perceptions that underlie the U.S. immigration issue. This final part explains the Biblical roots of human rights and explains why civil rights should not trump human rights.
Read part one here
Read part two here
Read part three here
Read part four here


Looking Forward: A Call for Biblical Human Rights

Thus far we have delved deeper into three different perceptions on the immigration issue in the United States, exposing their mythic structures and addressing them in light of Scripture. What if, however, some of these perceptions were true? What if in a few years we discover statistics that undocumented immigrants are taking from our economic resources, or that the majority of Hispanics living in the U.S. are negatively affecting our American identity? Should this affect how we treat them Biblically?

The answer is an emphatic “no.” Undocumented immigrants are human beings created in the image of God, and for this reason alone they have intrinsic value. Their impact on our society has little to do with how we should love them and show hospitality toward them. We have this idea in the U.S. that all people are equal, yet we fail to treat undocumented immigrants with the same kind of equality we treat other people who are here legally. One of the famous lines from the
Constitution is that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Somewhere along the way, however, we've agreed that these "unalienable rights" are for citizens of the United States only and not for "all men." In the cartoon series The Simpsons, the writers satirize this concept by placing the words “Liberty and Justice for Most” above the U.S. insignia in the town’s courthouse. We as Christians need to restore justice so that it is “for all” and not merely for "most." By rooting our understanding of human rights within the Christian tradition, we can assure that citizen/legal rights do not trump human rights. 

Natural rights, or what we frequently call “human rights” are given to people simply because they are part of the human race. In Western tradition, human equality does not typically need to be defended. It is the starting point in the issue of human rights, not the conclusion.[1] Westerners, then, fail to realize just how much our current understandings of human rights are rooted in Biblical principles. Even the German philosopher Nietzsche remarks, "the poison of the doctrine of 'equal rights for all' - it was Christianity that spread if most fundamentally [...] Christianity has waged war unto death against all sense of respect and feeling of distance between man and man."
[2] Similarly, Michael Perry, an American law professor, notes that “the conviction that human beings are sacred is inescapably religious.”[3]

It is easy to think about “rights” as being simply political privileges granted to citizens, such as the “right” to free speech, the “right” to carry arms, etc. Human rights are more than this political “right.” If we are to take human rights seriously, we need to realize that a human right is a claim. It is an “ought-ness.” Ramachandra so rightly concludes the following concerning human rights: “When we use the language of human rights we are not appealing to the generosity of governments, civil institutions, or other individuals. Rather, we are making a claim as a matter of justice: to receive what is owed to us. We do not beg for rights, we claim them.”[4]

Therefore, human rights involve more than solely being “left alone,” or infringed upon. All humans, regardless of their social or legal status, have the right to receive certain things, such as food, shelter, and medical care. When we withhold these things from people, even undocumented immigrants, we are withholding justice from them. 
Ronald Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action summarizes this best by saying the following: 
The goal of justice is not only the recovery of the integrity of the legal system. It is also the restoration of the community as a place where all live together in wholeness. Opportunity for everyone to have access to the material resources necessary for life in community is basic to the biblical concept of justice.[5]
Water companies in Alabama should not refuse to supply undocumented immigrants with basic necessities.[6] This is something that all humans are entitled to, not just legal residents. When human rights are debated, the debate is really about who should have the power and authority to “interpret the community’s traditions and culture.”[7] This is usually because people are vying for political and economic power. When we value law, money, or our nationalistic identity to an idolatrous state, we withhold Biblical human rights from undocumented immigrants. As followers of Christ, we are called to actively seek this kind of justice in our communities by welcoming and loving the “strangers” among us.

One summer when I was in college, I learned much about loving the "strangers" who were in my own neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. I worked extensively with an Ethiopian woman named Hawa who had just immigrated to the U.S. There was one particularly stressful day where I multi-tasked between helping the husband fill out applications for jobs and sifting through the utility bills, trying to explain the process to Hawa. I remember looking into Hawa's worried brown eyes. Much shorter than I, she tottered back and forth, trying to balance the baby in her womb who was due very soon. Her husband spoke very little English, and I knew that she felt burdened trying to understand the American lifestyle solo. 

To my surprise, I looked at her and said, "Let's pray about all of this." Hawa immediately agreed. I don't know if I was more astounded by my bold suggestion or by this Muslim woman's eager reply. We prayed right there in the little apartment that God would take care of them. I prayed silently that others would see not a foreigner who was "taking advantage" of the free natal clinics, but a fragile human being who was very much in need.
I called the water company afterward and begged the person on the other line not to turn off their water just yet -- the check was on its way. Praise God that they were understanding of the situation!

From working with people like Hawa and many others (Fadumah, Omar, Mohammad, Hayu, Lisbeth...) I've seen just how alone and often neglected legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants can be. The immigration laws in our country are broken and they definitely need to be fixed. But more than that, as followers of Christ we need to start thinking Biblically about the human rights that undocumented immigrants already living in this country are entitled to. If we are serious about loving God with all of our hearts, souls, and minds, we will be intentional about treating immigrants as human beings created in the image of God.

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