The Common Good

On Scripture: Fear and Wisdom In The Immigration Debate

They have many labels. Undocumented immigrants. Illegal Immigrants. Illegal Aliens. Wetbacks. Jan Brewer, the governor of Arizona, recently suggested that most of them are “drug mules.” Some have even called them “terrorists.” But few are known by their real names or treated as people with real lives.

Immigration reform rally, Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Immigration reform rally in 2010 in Washington, D.C., Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

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Most of them live at the edges of the society, under inhumane and dangerous conditions, often separated from their loved ones. For some it may be a choice. However, a vast majority of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are driven to such extremes by factors beyond their control — political crisis, drug-related violence, famine, or eviction from their own homes at gunpoint. Theirs is a story of displacement, of being forced to flee their homes and take risks few would under normal circumstances. They are victims, not the offenders they are often made out to be. Still, for many, it is a story of being treated by the border security as violent criminals, being stripped of their clothes and dignity and separated from their families and traumatized in detention centers. It is also a story of ostracizing and exploitation by parts of the society. The labels and stereotypes about them “otherize” them in ways that prevent their full participation in the society. Injustices like these are the reason why NETWORK’s Nuns On The Bus have been touring across the country speaking out for immigration reform.

The current debate on immigration reform raises several pertinent questions. Who owns the country? Who belongs here and who should be kept out? Are some immigrant groups more entitled than others? Should the undocumented immigrants be granted basic rights — work permits, healthcare, education, etc. — that would allow them to live with dignity? There are underlying economic fears in this debate. Might the country experience another economic meltdown if the undocumented immigrants are granted the rights they seek? What might an “amnesty” cost the taxpayers? How will the full participation of undocumented immigrants affect our way of life, language, culture, and the nature and fabric of our communities? Can we remain safe if potentially dangerous individuals are allowed to remain in the country?

The story of the “demon-possessed” person in Luke 8 offers some helpful insights. This unnamed, naked person, who lives among the dead, is driven to such extremes by the Legion — a technical term for a division of the Roman army. This passage is partly about the oppressive effects of the Roman Empire on people like him. But the text focuses primarily on the city’s treatment of this individual and its negative reaction to his rehabilitation by Jesus. First, he is labeled a “demon-possessed” person and “otherized,” making him ineligible to participate in society. He is “bound with chains and shackles” and “kept under guard,” despite a lack of evidence that he has harmed anyone. He has been victimized by the Legion and now by the society. He is hardly the offender. Still, the people seem to have decided that he did not deserve a place among them.

The people of Gerasene ask Jesus to leave them when he restores the “demoniac” back to the society. They likely resented the loss of swine, but their adverse reaction to Jesus expresses their disapproval of his miracle. Why object to someone becoming a contributing member of the society? When the people see the “demon-possessed” person fully clothed, in his right mind, and at the feet of Jesus (back in the city), they are afraid. The text does not mention their fear when the man was “demon-possessed.” They should have been afraid of the cost — on many levels — of continuously keeping him bound and under guard. Why should they be afraid, now, of his rehabilitation as a productive member of the society? Why object? Perhaps because welcoming a hitherto outcast into their neighborhood — literally and figuratively — requires a huge and uncomfortable leap in their imagination. The people of the city now have to acknowledge that that he is not the destructive other he was made out to be and interact with him every day. They would rather hold onto their construction of him as the scary “other” than acknowledge that he too is “normal.” If he is normal, they will no longer be normal. Therefore, the best approach might be to continue the notion that he is still the “other” and hence a threat that should be avoided.

Luke offers a critique of these misguided fears. It is a critique of those who think that their security depends on keeping others who do not look and act like them outside the borders of the city. The text highlights the cost of keeping the “demoniac” outside the city as well as the potential benefits (for everyone) of enabling him to participate in the society. The city has more to gain after he has been rehabilitated than when he was excluded. But the realization of his potential contributions would require people to move past their misperceptions and grant him the right to live among them with all the benefits of this community.

The continued stereotyping and exclusion of undocumented immigrants from the mainstream American society not only causes perpetual fear that affects everyone but also has adverse economic implications. Economists at both conservative and progressive think tanks estimate there are potential economic benefits to everyone if the undocumented immigrants are given a chance to become full-fledged members of the society. Such a scenario requires not just political legislation but the collective will of communities and neighborhoods. This would mean looking beyond the otherness of the undocumented immigrants and welcoming them. Hopefully, the current immigration debate will lead to their full inclusion and participation. Surely, demonizing and keeping them bound with chains — literally or figuratively — is both inhuman and costly.

Dr. Raj Nadella serves as Assistant Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. His first book, Dialogue Not Dogma: Many Voices in the Gospel of Luke was published in 2010. He is currently working on his second book that juxtaposes Matthew's response to the empire with Mark's response to the empire. This ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.

Image: Immigration reform rally in 2010 in Washington, D.C., Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

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