May 11, 2013

Wrestling with Alienation

I woke this morning thinking of immigration. I don't remember how or why.

When I grew up my small hometown was a textbook example of homogenized culture. If there was an ethnicity other than northern European, it was likely the semester's transfer student.

Life here has changed, and I am thankful for that. I am glad that my kids can grow up hearing a different language than their own and learn about different cultures and families.

Integration, like any change, comes with a cost. It is common to hear frustration over change, especially if the speaker LIKED where they were and didn't see a need for change. There are many in my area who are conservative Christians. Many exchanges about the topic of immigration include Romans 13:1 – Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. This verse is often cited in support of ejecting every immigrant who is here illegally back to their home country. I used to be more swayed by this argument than I am now. When I woke this morning, I was thinking of the reasons my thoughts have changed.
  1. All verses are to be taken in context. In Romans 13, Paul is writing to a house church of Christians in the city of Rome. He wrote to encourage them that in a godless setting like Rome, even the emperors sat on the throne by God's permission. Not all rulers are good. Paul does not tell the house church each rule given by the government is on a par with Scripture and should be obeyed and enforced as such. Roman law required prayer to the emperor as God. I cannot make myself believe Paul is saying to do this; he tells the church to recognize that they are subject to these authorities and to behave in a responsible manner toward those authorities.
  2. The words immediately before this are full of calls to sacrifice. Twenty-one verses contain phrases of (in the Message rendering), “practice playing second fiddle”, “don't quit in hard times”, “love from the center of who you are; don't fake it”, “don't hit back”, “discover beauty in everyone”, “don't insist on getting even”. The last two verses are this (in the NIV): “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” After challenging his readers for twenty verses to live a life of self-sacrifice and overcome evil with good, I cannot use Paul's words about authority (addressed to MY response to authority) as iron-clad reason for someone's else's position with authority to exempt my personal sacrifice.
  3. The parable of the tax collector and pharisee is notable to me because reading it is so likely to prompt the internal thought, “Thank you that I'm not like the Pharisee, God!” – which is EXACTLY the Pharisee's attitude toward the tax collector. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows me two examples of people who followed the law and failed, and someone who set aside what was expected to see the person in front of him. Jesus held up the Samaritan, not the priest or Levite, as the example of how to live. Using Romans 13:1 as the reason I don't have to pay a cost feels uncomfortably like following a law so I don't have to change.
  4. Romans 13:1 also needs to be held along the forty-seven verses from the Pentateuch alone using the word 'alien' that are commandments on how to live. (I didn't even look at the verses for 'aliens', 'alien's', 'stranger', 'foreigner', or 'neighbor'!) Laws are to be the same, whether for alien or native-born. Harvest gatherings are to be left on purpose for the alien. We are called to remember times in our own lives when we have been the stranger, the alien, and reach out to others. If I'm operating from a law standpoint, reading “[God] defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing” in Deuteronomy packs a wallop of a punch. There's no qualification of the alien following all of God's law for Israel before God gives him food and clothing or shows him love. Why is it so easy to look past all of these verses to lean on the one that means I get to do nothing?
  5. The ultimate in selfish motive is revealed in me when my main reason (immigrants aren't obeying the law and shouldn't be here, so I don't have to sacrifice for them) is threatened. Immigration reform is gaining momentum. I am appalled by how many who claim to be in support of law fight SO hard to prevent the law being changed. The arguments are there (loss of jobs, increase in benefits cost, no room/resources for more), but the core issue is all the same: Because I don't want to give up something that's been mine for someone else.
There are other things I've learned (being here illegally is the same class of violation as speeding while driving, which I do so often; realizing I've never asked an immigrant if they're here legally or not before I wrestle with how to respond; being a mom and asking how I'd feel to be taken from my children because I was 10 when I came to the country but they were born here). There is a wealth of national history on this issue. There was a political party oriented around not wanting to ask about immigration status. Asian nationals were barred from entering the U.S. at all for decades. African-Americans had to register, be subject to whites in degrading ways, and were considered by someone as revered as Thomas Jefferson to be less than human. Irish and Italians were considered the dregs of society in the early 1900s. Eastern Europeans were shunned in the 1910s and 1920s as being "less-thans". Civil rights in the 1960s was another years'-long battle about worth and value between different groups of people. This is not new. I think there will come a day when our "us" vs. "them" seems as odd to my descendants as my ancestors' divisions seem to me.

In order to change, I have to be willing to acknowledge that my heart has been wrong. This is hard to do, but necessary. I want to look for God and see who he is, not who I want him to be.

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