As Christians around the world gathered for Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday celebrations last weekend, I have reflected a great deal about the connection between the suffering and passion of Christ and the plight of the undocumented in our nation.
This past year, an amazing surge of activity and concern has emerged among believers in general, and evangelicals in particular focused on passing a new immigration policy in our country. This development is quite a surprise and change. In fact, 10 years ago it was almost impossible to find a recognized evangelical leader who was knowledgeable about immigration, let alone one who was willing to speak out on this issue.
At the core of why evangelicals have made such a dramatic change of heart is the reading of Scripture. While it is impossible to ignore that there are 92 references in Scripture where the word, 'ger' is used, speaking about the stranger in our land and our treatment of these individuals, it is not one single verse but the entire revelation of Scripture that points us towards our responsibility to love the most vulnerable people in our society.
Worshiping on Sunday morning in an inner-city church on the west side of Chicago has given me more insight into the amazing connection between Christ's suffering and the suffering of the poor. In this same neighborhood, made up mostly of African-American and Latinos, enduring murder, crime, racism and marginalization are an everyday occurrence.
While it is unquestionable that suffering is prevalent in every community and in every cultural group of our nation, I am struck by the fact that many of my African-American brothers and sisters on the west side of Chicago, with so many challenges in their present and past, have a deeper sense of the suffering and humiliation of Christ than many of us in this country. Or, when I consider the devastating genocide that my Native American brothers and sisters have endured, it is impossible for me to deny that they may identify with aspects of Christ's passion in a way that I will never be able to understand as a Mexican-American, even though the history of my ancestors includes conquest, violation, and colonization at the hands of Spanish conquistadors and missionaries.
As I consider the suffering of so many people in our society that springs from the reality of human sinfulness, it is not surprising that God in his marvelous plan of redemption has given special attention to identifying the center of His mission and concern for the world, as the widow, the orphan and the stranger- the most vulnerable people in our society.
A quick overview of the story of God makes it clear that the poor are at the center of his love. When I say this, there is often strong reaction by those of us who are wealthy and in power, to the idea that God could have some type of exclusive concern for one group of people over another. But remember that God reveals himself to us as Father.
As a parent of three children, when one of my kids was in crisis or suffering, it was not at all difficult for me to leave the other two children on their own for a time while I gave special attention to my sick or suffering child. This special love and concern does not exclude my other children from my absolute love, but it does give priority to my ailing child. It seems Jesus consistently gives high priority to those are alienated and without much hope.
The fact that Jesus entered the world as a Galilean Jew is significant. God does not incarnate himself among the religious and political elite, but comes into the world on the periphery of Roman and Jewish existence. He is conceived in the womb of a young woman, Mary, who was not yet married — which most likely created much commotion
in the village of Nazareth where she and her fiancé resided. Like many urban young people today, they had to endure that scandal. And to make life even more difficult, Joseph and Mary were forced to flee their hometown with their unborn child about to arrive, to a neighboring nation as immigrants to escape persecution. And, like most immigrants, they could not find adequate housing in their time of transition and crisis.
As Jesus's ministry progressed and became public in his 30th year of life, he declared his mission statement (in Luke 4), reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, declaring to his family and neighbors that he has been anointed to preach Good News to the poor, which includes the overcoming of oppression as his unique ministry calling.
Even a casual reading of Jesus's ministry in the Gospels reveals a constant preoccupation with those pushed aside by the mainstream. The widow, the lame, the outsider, the poor, and the rejected seem to always be the focal points of his encounters and ministry activity.
When he does minister to the rich and to the powerful, like Zacchaeus, he seems to point them towards a redemptive opportunity that includes making things right with the poor as an expression of true repentance.
His teaching and parables also put great emphasis on a right understanding of the Kingdom in relationship to those who are on the margins of society.
When you throw a party, Jesus said, do not do it like the majority of people in society who only invite those who will return the favor. Instead, when you organize and plan a lavish banquet, invite the outsider, the stranger, the weak, the broken, and the scandalously sinful who do not normally get invited to such affairs. The Kingdom of God is like that kind of party, Jesus says.
When describing the greatest commandment of all, loving God and loving our neighbor, he tells the story of a man beaten and broken by the side of the road who is neglected by the religious folks, but who is shown love, kindness, and mercy by an outsider — the one that demonstrates what it really means to love our neighbor. For Jesus, walking by and ignoring a needy individual is not an option for anyone who claims to be in relationship with his Father.
In Matthew 25, Jesus makes a radical connection between our encounters and love for the poor, the naked, the hungry, and the stranger, and to himself. The statement that he makes — that when we minister to these neglected individuals, we in fact minister to Jesus himself — is scandalous and mind blowing for those of us who might entertain the notion of having a form of religiosity without caring for the poor.
As we come to the passion work of Christ, maybe the most radical identification of God with the marginalized and humiliated, is where his redemptive work on the cross takes place. The book of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus was crucified outside the city gates of Jerusalem, in a place called Golgatha, where criminals and thieves were executed for their crimes. So Jesus lays down his sinless life for the redemption of the entire world in this despised place on the margins of both religious and political power and respectability. The significance of this is startling when we consider how Jesus not only lays down his life but his reputation.
God allows his only begotten Son to be murdered and crucified alongside criminals, so that everyone in the human race would understand that no one is beyond redemption, or beyond inclusion in his kingdom.
When I reflect on the last hours of Jesus' life before his crucifixion, what stands out is the way he was insulted and mocked by the crowds. The Bible says that they hurled all sorts of terrible insults at him. (Luke 22:65 NLT) This verbal abuse is a significant way that the suffering of Jesus is connected to our undocumented neighbors.
When I think of the myriad of insults that I have heard in the last 10 years working to lift up the needs of the undocumented and working for changes in our broken immigration laws, I have been both shocked and appalled at the insults levied agains these men, women, and children who, yes have broken laws to be in this country, but, who have also been hired, used, and often abused by employers and our economic system in need of cheap labor. Because of their vulnerable status, it has become common to scapegoat and hurl insults at them without regard to the fact that they are human beings created in the image of God. What has been most shocking is when these types of insults have been made by those claiming to be followers of Christ.
In Jesus' false conviction, beating, suffering, enduring of all kinds of insults, and in his brutal death, everyone would see that his forgiving grace is for all, and that redemption is offered to all, regardless of the severity of our past trespasses or sinfulness.
The way Jesus brings about redemption crucified between criminals and outcasts, is the final declaration for anyone who doubts that at the center of God's mission and purpose are men and women who are broken and extends to the ends of the earth. It is striking that the salvation of every human being who has ever lived is rooted among the most vulnerable and the most despised of society — the criminal, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
So, when we speak about God's love for the stranger, it is not a conversation that is based on any one particular verse pulled randomly from an ancient text, but, a striking truth that is rooted in the entire revelation of God's salvific activity that culminates on the cross. This indeed is Good News to the poor!
With such a clear and compelling connection between our love for God and our love for our neighbor, is it any wonder that evangelical Christians are waking up to the reality that our treatment of the 11 million undocumented men women and children in our nation should be of vital concern to the church?
For the last few months, Christians from all over the nation have been signing up to participate in the,"I was a Stranger" campaign that challenged church members and legislators to read 40 Scriptural references related to God's heart for the alien in our midst. Again, it has been the reading of Scripture that has prepared our hearts to take a new and compassionate posture towards the undocumented families that many of us in the evangelical community call friends and brothers and sisters.
And more and more Christians are beginning to realize that they need to take action to support the needed changes in our current immigration laws. While this has not been a comfortable step for many of us, we have been moved to talk to legislators and advocate for new laws knowing that only these changes will bring about true justice and hope for our immigrant brothers and sisters.
Last year, I was at a large gathering along the Arizona-Mexican border. One of the key speakers that day was Dr. John Perkins who is the founder CCDA, and a legendary African-American evangelical civil rights leader from
Mississippi. In John's remarks he made a bold statement, declaring that caring for the stranger and undocumented in our land and bringing about change in our current laws is the civil rights issue of our day. That day, Dr Perkins articulated what many Christians are coming to realize: that it is impossible to read the Scriptures and not conclude that how we treat the stranger and the vulnerable is very closely connected to the authenticity of our Christian faith.
At the end of this Easter season, my prayer is that the fruit of our joint efforts would result in many of our undocumented friends coming to know and experience the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ in a way that brings about not only citizenship in this country, but in heaven for all eternity as well.
Noel Castellanos is CEO of the Christian Community Development Association.