Monday, July 2, 2007

Finding our Right Mind on Immigration

I’ve been a student of the Bible since I got hooked reading it as a teenager. That was a long time ago, and still I get surprised by features I notice for the first time, especially in the four Gospels. Today, I can’t hear this story about hot-headed disciples wanting God to strike dead some cranky Samaritans without recalling the story Luke told us last Sunday about the man who lived in the country of the Gerasenes. He was severely tormented by demons, we’re told, wore no clothing, and had to be chained by his neighbors because he was violent. Jesus called him to his right mind, a dramatic healing that didn’t work out so well for that herd of pigs that got spooked by all this and rushed over a cliff into the sea.

So there we have a famously crazy man whose life is reordered by the Spirit of Christ. In the end, he asks Jesus if he may follow him and join the band of disciples. “No way,” answered Jesus. “I have enough crazy men as it is. You go home and tell your neighbors they can put their chains away. I put you in charge of homeland renewal right where you live.”

And today, on the heels of that story, we get a glimpse of how crazy the disciples of Christ can be.

But before we revisit that story, I hope you noticed that long list of what St. Paul calls “works of the flesh”. When he’s done listing them, he warns his hearers that people who do such things will find that they don’t fit the new created order that God is achieving through the death, resurrection, and Gospel authority of Jesus Christ. Fifteen destructive behaviors are listed, though some seem to be repeats. In that list, first to be heard, are fornication and impurity. That appears to match the fervor of some Christian disciples today, who are convinced that matters of sexual politics and purity are the most important agenda for the Church and the world to resolve. Farther along on the list is another pair, dissensions and factions.
Which of these does our Gospel story address? How people behave sexually? No. As important as that subject is in a spiritually ordered life, Jesus doesn’t tell his story about that—in fact, that isn’t a topic he tells stories about, as a rule. It’s factionalism we hear about this morning. Age-old grudges between Samaritans and Jews explain why Jesus and his companions are not welcomed in that village—and the disciples are about to add to this long history of animosity. This is the front line of the new created order our Lord has come to achieve. He wants to do it by healing and teaching and feeding—we might call it the approach of humanitarian assistance—but his disciples want to take that front line by supernatural military might, not manna from heaven but mayhem from heaven.

What follows has, to my knowledge, never been captured in a stained glass window. Like the scene where Jesus throws over the tables of the money-changers in the temple, this scene of his rebuking his disciples hasn’t yet caught the Church’s imagination as being worth remembering in her visual arts. We might be better off, if we did keep before us this dressing-down, this scolding that is meant to deliver to all believers the message, “Don’t be crazy: you aren’t going to heal and overcome long-stewing factions by means of violence.” The right approach, the right mind to have, the mind of Christ, will express itself in healing and teaching and feeding, forgiving and freeing, justice meted out in mercy.

This is timely stuff for a nation sharply divided in factions over the complex subject of immigration. To call it complex is to respect diverse viewpoints and opinions. To call it complex is to hope—even insist—that people on opposite sides stop to deeply listen to one another. But it ought to trouble us all is that what’s driving our society’s handling of this subject is an unmistakably violent spirit that seems ready to command fire to come down from heaven and consume. Isn’t it time to rebuke this spirit?

I commend our two senators in Washington for rebuking the policy of Homeland Security that was actively deporting Yaderlin Hiraldo of Lawrence, an undocumented immigrant married to Army Specialist Alex R. Jimenez, one of three soldiers kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq, presumed dead. May our senators be successful in their attempt now to expedite the path to citizenship for all other undocumented spouses of American military personnel risking their lives on our behalf.

Massachusetts has also provided the stage on which the fire-from-heaven faction is earning rebuke from across the nation. In New Bedford on March 6th, Immigration and Customs Enforcement—ICE—agents carried out a long-planned raid on a leather goods factory where 360 undocumented immigrants were arrested. Almost two-thirds were handcuffed, jailed, flown to Texas and jailed again, all within twenty-four hours. Almost all were women, “smuggled away, terrified, and unable to contact family members,” reported The Boston Globe.

Hundred of thousands of our tax dollars got spent renting planes and Texas jail beds in this assault on hard-working Latino families, six months in the planning. ICE wanted to get these “criminals” as far away as possible from Massachusetts, where 95% of detained immigrants are released on bail (in Texas, it is under 60%), and bail in Massachusetts is one-fifth what it is in Texas. You might call our two states poster children for the factionalism and dissent that divides our nation on immigration.

I am the son of an immigrant, my father having passed beneath Lady Liberty’s torch in 1909, when she, herself an immigrant, was just 23 years old. This was a time when poverty in the north of the British Isles drove many to come here. Poverty, war, persecution, and ambition always ensure this country its place at the receiving end of a steady exodus, requiring intelligent and compassionate laws on the subject to be revised in every generation, to ensure justice.

You know that on the base of that statue the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” are inscribed. I’d like her words to be heard today.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’

It is time to expect our legislators to polish these brass letters, so that we may see them again: not surrounded by yellow police tape, red tape, barbed wire—but shining as bright as the torch above.

To be a citizen of this country is to have a history that stretches four hundred years. To be a Christian is to belong to the Body of Christ at work in the world nearly two thousand years, that work shaped in large part by our Jewish heritage which adds at least another millennium to our long view.

By that long view, we see that many human societies undergird their common life by depending on the labor, the affordable labor, of foreign workers who cross their borders. Sometimes this is migration driven by poverty or by ambition. Sometimes it is slavery. By dependence on cheap labor, a society takes care of certain of its needs while freeing itself to grow and flourish—or to fiddle while Rome burns.

That we have twelve million undocumented residents in this country is evidence of two realities: their need to work, and our need to have them work. Whether we can send them home, fine them steeply, tear apart their families, force them through hoops of years of procedure, and still enjoy the standard of living we do, is a question we may not yet know how to answer. What the long view does teach us is that the humanity of our society will be shown and shaped by how we treat them.

One thing unites a compelling majority in this nation: We would not be here without Lady Liberty’s welcome. To be a citizen of this country is to belong to a society of immigrants, a society which has yet to honor its debt to the original inhabitants of these Americas, south, central, and north. It could quiet all factions in our current dissent to stand rebuked if they have forgotten this. Remembering this could help us find our right mind and compassion to end the craziness.