Remarks for Postville Vigil. By Steve Clemens. May 12, 2009
I was asked to share a few remarks about why I chose to join the act of Civil Disobedience last Wednesday at the Immigration and Custom Enforcement Office (ICE) in Bloomington. Most of the 30 who were arrested for blocking the entrances and (hopefully) preventing or delaying the deportation of individuals from this country that day were close to half my age.
I came to political consciousness about the plight of immigrants in the U.S. during the early 1980’s as many families and individuals were fleeing U.S. sponsored or supported wars in Central America. At the time, I lived in southwest Georgia and was part of a sister community to Jubilee Partners, an intentional Christian Community in northeast Georgia who ran a program called Ano de Jubileo. This program attempted to help Central Americans seeking safety and political asylum from those wars to come to Georgia for 6 weeks of language study and orientation to North American customs before driving them to political asylum in Canada. [The US denied political asylum to 95-98% of those who applied from El Salvador or Guatemala.]
Besides helping to drive their bus loaded with 30 refugees at a time, our community also hosted a couple of families during this period as well. In learning of their stories and needs, it was natural to act on my values of Christian compassion and seek to work in solidarity for their needs. In so doing, I was driven to learn more of the Biblical tradition of “welcoming the stranger or sojourner in the land” – for, as the Bible says, “in so doing, we have often entertained angels or the divine.”
The call from my own faith tradition comes primarily from Matthew’s Gospel, the 25th chapter where Jesus reminds us “what we do to the least of those who are marginalized in our society, we do to him.”
Some fellow citizens would argue today that many immigrants are not true “political refugees” but rather migrating here for economic reasons. That may be true but does that make their suffering and needs significantly different? Does that mean we are excused from the Biblical call to compassion? Economic refugees are not just created by drought or other natural forces. Many are created as the result of a globalized economic system that allows capital and material resources to cross borders but not people. When profits come before people, our faith and values must take precedence over our greed and our demands for “low prices”.
In the Christian scriptures, the faithful are called to live as “strangers in a strange land”. For a Christian to identify with a nation-state over the fictive kinships we have with one another is to confuse our own identities.
My friend, Ched Myers observes: All social groups establish boundaries—whether physical impediments, such as fences or borders, or symbolic and cultural lines, such as language or dietary laws. Such boundaries can be a good thing, especially when they help protect weaker people from domination by stronger people. More often, however, boundaries function in the opposite manner: to shore up the privileges of the strong against the needs of the weak. It is this latter kind of boundary that characterizes the current U.S. immigration debate and that the Bible consistently challenges. …
To be sure, issues related to the continuing and often involuntary migration of peoples, and to the geopolitical definition of human communities, are complex in the modern world and deserve our careful reflection and deliberation. But these are finally theological and pastoral issues for Christians, and we must seek to know immigrants and refugees not as statistics but as human beings who endure extraordinary hardship and trauma in their struggle to survive.
And for U.S. citizens, these are issues of national identity. Israel’s ethic of compassion toward outsiders was shaped by its own history of pain: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). We, too, are a nation of immigrants. Amidst the current culture wars that marginalize immigrants and refugees, then, our churches must choose which America we embrace.