By Alan Bean
Last night at Waco’s Calvary Baptist Church, Friends of Justice sponsored a worship “God’s Heart Toward Immigrants”, an ecumenical worship service that brought Christians from Anglo, Latino and African American congregations into one place to consider what the Bible has to say about immigration. A lot, it turns out. For those with eyes to see, the Bible is bursting with clear, radical, uncompromising instruction that leaves little to the imagination. Here are links to the NBC story and the write up in the Baylor University Lariat. Below I have pasted the text of the sermon I preached at this event. It quickly became obvious that a good portion of the 140 people gathered in the Calvary sanctuary spoke little English, so a local pastor volunteered to translate as I preached. After the service, people told me they had never heard a sermon like that before. One day, I pray, these sentiments will not seem unusual.
A Common Peace Community
The last time I preached in Waco we talked about the ancient confession imbedded in the book of Deuteronomy:
“A wandering Aramean was my father; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.”
This history explains the urgency of Leviticus 19: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
Then we revisited the first sermon Jesus preached as recorded in the Gospel of Luke: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Then we dealt with the last sermon Jesus preached as recorded in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” “Stranger” is the English translation of the Greek word “zenos” which can mean “foreigner”, “alien”, “stranger” or all three at once. The two-bit word “xenophobia” refers to fear of the foreigner, the stranger, the zenos.
Jesus isn’t just saying that he loves undocumented aliens and incarcerated felons and that we should do the same. Jesus is saying something much more radical. Just as God was incarnate, enfleshed, in Jesus, so Jesus is incarnate or enfleshed in the undocumented and the incarcerated.
Think of the woman wading the river, driven by dreams of a better life for her family. She is hungry, she is thirsty, she is alone . . . she is Jesus.
Which adds new meaning to this cryptic saying: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Of course he doesn’t. The Son of man is a zenos, an undocumented alien, a stranger.
A famous sketch on the British television show The Mitchell and Webb Look begins as two officers with the German SS are planning their next battle with the Russians.
“Now we’ll see how these communists deal with a crack SS division,” one officer says.
“Hans,” his fellow officer replies, “Have you looked at the badges on our caps recently.”
“What do you mean?”
“Our caps have little pictures of skulls on them.”
“Hans, are we the baddies?”
Of course, we are never the baddies; we are always the goodies. We’re programmed to think that way and are virtually incapable of believing otherwise, especially in wartime. So long as we’re drawing lines between goodies and baddies we miss the grace. The idea that Jesus enters the hands, feet and faces of the undocumented and the incarcerated isn’t just a footnote to our faith; it is the heart of the issue.
Latinos are overwhelmingly in favor of compassionate and comprehensive immigration reform. Sixty percent of the Latino electorate knows somebody who could be deported at any moment. A quarter of the Latino electorate has seen a loved one deported.
We say, “What part of illegal do you not understand?” The Latino voter says, “What part of ‘don’t deport my mother’ do you not understand?”
It’s personal. When you are close enough to these brothers and sisters of Jesus to taste the salt in their tears it changes your thinking and your emotions.
Many of us are too cut off from the sorrows of the undocumented and the incarcerated to be touched by their suffering. Our heads are confused because our hearts have gone cold.
The undocumented and the incarcerated get little attention from the pulpit and there’s a good reason for that. Friends of Justice speaks of a “punitive consensus”. Politicians disagree about many things, but for decades our two major parties have been competing to see who can be the toughest on the undocumented and the incarcerated. Compassion and politics don’t mix. While the punitive consensus reigns, the solution to every problem is punishment and exclusion.
You can see this punitive consensus at work on the evening news and in the crime dramas splashed across our sixty-inch television screens. If it takes violence and depravity to sell us soap and soft drinks, that’s what we get. We want to see bad people doing bad things, but we can’t be the baddies, so we get criminals and the foreigners who are violent and depraved and our fear and loathing keeps us glued to the screen.
When the Christian pulpit falls silent, we take our cue from secular politics and entertainment. We buy into the punitive consensus by default and without awareness.
“Do not be conformed to this world,” Scripture says, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the Scripture says, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . . And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
The bad news: we’re all baddies—every miserable one of us.
The good news: Jesus Christ loves baddies—every miserable one of us.
All human distinctions are obliterated by the cross of Christ—that’s the gospel. When we read the Bible through the lens of Jesus Christ, the grace of God is everywhere: the law, the prophets, the gospels and the epistles become harmonious voices joined in one great Hallelujah chorus.
“Remember,” Paul told the church at Ephesus, “that you (Gentiles) were at one time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers (zenoi) to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”
If Jesus could break down the wall of hostility separating Jewish and Gentile Christians two thousand years ago, he can erase the artificial lines we have drawn between Anglos, Latinos and African Americans. Jesus can take three divided peoples and mold them into one people.
How do we move from the punitive consensus that cripples our spirituality to a “common peace consensus” where we allow Jesus to erase the lines we have drawn?
We break the silence by finding the courage to take Jesus at his word.
If Jesus Christ comes to us in the hands, feet and faces of undocumented and incarcerated people, we must receive them as brothers and sisters. What other option do we have? How this plays out in your politics is none of my business; but compassion is non-negotiable. Christians surrender their right to a personal opinion when the teaching and example of Jesus is so clear as to be uncontested. If Jesus is our common peace, we must relinquish the weapons of war.