Putting People Before Politics

By Jim Wallis 11-20-2014
Screen capture via The White House Facebook page.
Screen capture via The White House Facebook page.

Tonight, faith leaders and all those who have spent years trying to fix our broken immigration system should feel gratitude toward President Obama. In a primetime address to the nation, the president announced he was taking executive action to relieve some of the suffering caused by the failures of the status quo. Millions of families will no longer live under the daily threat of having their lives torn apart by senseless deportations, which is something all Christians – whether Republican or Democrat – should celebrate. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who have spent significant portions of their lives hiding in the shadows, can now enjoy the flourishing God intends for us all. Their joy and well-being must inform our judgments of the president’s action, especially in light of the biblical call to “welcome the stranger.”

Unfortunately, the president’s compassionate actions are creating a political firestorm among some Republicans in Washington. Their anger and antipathy toward the White House are blinding them to the positive effects these measures will have for our society. Even after decades living and working in our nation’s capital, I’m still amazed at the many ways political ideology can prevent us from having “eyes that see” and “ears that hear.” I lament that our political discourse has come to this.

Everyone agrees the only way to find sustainable, long-term solutions is through Congress passing bipartisan legislation. The Senate did exactly that more than 500 days ago, but their honest efforts have languished in the House of Representatives because of Republican intransigence. GOP leaders promised alternative policy ideas; reform garnered widespread, nationwide support — including among a majority of Republicans; faith leaders were hopeful after countless positive conversations with members of Congress; the president even told me that he was “optimistic” about reform after conversations with Speaker John Boehner; the country, and, more importantly immigrant families, patiently waited — yet, the House failed to act.

With only continued delay and obstruction from the Congress and no promises for change, finally a political leader decided to act for the sake of immigrant families. For making a morally responsible choice — using his discretionary legal authority to focus enforcement resources and prioritize deportations in ways that keep families together and our nation safe — President Obama has been labeled an “emperor” and a “dictator”  by the Republicans who now promise to obstruct his executive actions, sue the White House, block his administration’s executive and judicial appointments, threaten another shutdown of the government, or even attempt to impeach him.

Immigration reform has become a matter of faith for many of us in churches around the country. In Matthew 25, Jesus clearly instructs his followers to “welcome the stranger.” He goes further to say, “as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” We have seen how that biblical text and clear gospel instruction has literally converted millions of Christians, including we evangelicals, to support immigration reform.

I recall the teary single father, who was stopped for a missing bolt on his license plate, telling us that he was being deported away from his two young daughters who were hanging on to his legs with fear in their eyes. I remember a conversation in the White House where a group of evangelical pastors were told that only criminal and drug cartel members were being deported. A conservative white evangelical pastor from Orange County raised his hand and said to the president’s top staff, “I’m sorry, but you deported Jose from my congregation, and now his son Joaquin has joined a gang.” There were tears in his eyes too. These stories go on and on in the faith community — one family after another broken apart by a broken system.

It is because of our faith that Christians — Evangelical, Catholic, Mainline Protestant — and of every tribe and tongue around the country have urged our leaders to put people before politics. The president’s action does exactly this, allowing millions of God’s children to be removed from the danger and uncertainty that is currently their daily reality.

For us, the 1,000+ deportations per day means the breakup of families we have come to know and love in our own congregations and communities. Their families are now our families; their kids are our kids. For us, this is an issue for the body of Christ, a question of our obedience to Jesus Christ. It is about things that are so much more important than politics.

I know and respect a number of Republicans who believe in an inclusive party for their future, but their leaders have yet to clearly reject the politics of fear that informs so much of the fierce opposition to immigration reform. The next Congress could still pass immigration reform under its Republican leadership. And I’ll be the first person standing next to them if they’re ready to build on what the president has accomplished today and pass a more permanent solution. But until Congress stops letting politics hurt real people, many of us in the faith community will be steadfast in our thanks to President Obama for the relief he has provided to millions of people whose lives are a pawn in Washington’s political dysfunction. 

Join us in that thanks.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, The (Un)Common Good: How the Gospel Brings Hope to a World Divided, the updated and revised paperback version of On God’s Side, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter@JimWallis.

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