The Common Good
March 2013

'Where Were You?'

by Lisa Sharon Harper | March 2013

"You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt."

DURING THE SUMMER of 2003, 25 staff of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and their families rode a bus through 10 states on the "Pilgrimage for Reconciliation." We retraced the Cherokee Trail of Tears and explored the journey of African Americans from slavery to the civil rights movement.

As we rolled over land that had witnessed the most evil individual acts and public policies enacted on American soil, and as we heard again and again how the church was either silent or complicit, we wondered aloud: "What issue will cause our grandchildren to look back at us and ask, 'Where were you?'"

There are many we could choose from. But on this day, approaching spring 2013—a decade after our pilgrimage, 50 years after Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation—I know where I stand. On this day, I stand with my sisters and brothers in the church who are pressing our nation's leaders toward just and comprehensive immigration reform.

In the last three years, more than 1 million men, women, and children have been erased from our land through deportation. They were caught between two signs at our border: "Help Wanted" and "No Trespassing."

By law, only 5,000 "unskilled" workers are allowed into the U.S. through legal means each year. That is about the number of people processed on Ellis Island every day in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, our nation's industry and food supply rely heavily on the labor of immigrant populations. About 75 percent of all U.S. farmworkers are unauthorized immigrants. Then consider other industries: meatpacking, hospitality, restaurants, transportation. The disparity between the demand for workers and the supply is untenable.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, approximately 5.5 million children, including 4.5 million who are U.S. citizens, are in families where at least one parent lives with the threat of deportation. Nearly 45,000 parents were deported in the first six months of 2012. Thousands of U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants were caught in the foster care system last year, and some are even being adopted by U.S. families, against the will of their natural parents, according to the Immigration Policy Center.

SOME CLAIM THAT Paul's exhortation to be "subject" to authorities (Romans 13:1-7) means that Christians should go along with government acts of mass deportation and state laws, such as Arizona's SB 1070 and Alabama's HB 56, that aim to make life so miserable for immigrants that they will naturally "self-deport." But this twisted understanding of Romans 13 ignores Paul's context. Remember, he was jailed by the "authorities." He sandwiched this passage between "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2) and "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law" (Romans 13:8).

For Paul, there is a distinction between good law and bad law. Good law conforms to the priorities of God and cultivates the image of God on earth, as in Leviticus 19:34: "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." Bad law twists and crushes the image of God among us. It disregards God's call to protect the dignity of the most vulnerable among us.

For this reason, Sojourners and the Evangelical Immigration Table are engaging the church in the "I Was a Stranger" challenge. The campaign calls for people to read 40 verses of scripture about immigrants and push for steps toward immigration reform early in President Obama's second term. It is not too late for you to get involved. Where will you stand?

Lisa Sharon Harper is director of mobilizing at Sojourners. For a downloadable "I Was a Stranger" bookmark, visit sojo.net/bookmark.

Image: Political sign at pro-immigration reform rally, Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.com

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