Organize2Mobilize

Alabama’s Indefensible New Immigration Law

By Ryan Rodrick Beiler for Shutterstock.
Father and child at an immigration march in Washington, D.C. By Ryan Rodrick Beiler for Shutterstock.

Last week, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley made a morally indefensible decision. He signed HB 658, which intensifies the climate of fear that already hangs over Alabama like low dark clouds before a hurricane.

Bentley once claimed that HB 658 would simplify HB 56 — the current anti-immigrant legislation that catapulted Alabama to the national stage. If this is simplification, then I’d like to see Bentley’s version of messed up. HB 658’s additional punitive measures now have created a more problematic situation that exacerbates the current oppression of some of the most vulnerable souls in Alabama.  

The new law is reckless. HB 658 calls for the creation of an online public database to expose the names of all undocumented immigrants who have appeared in court. In addition, the law targets innocent children by requiring schools to check the immigration status of students.

Are Voter-ID Laws Racist?

I received an odd phone call in the afternoon of Election Day 2010. “I’m calling to let everyone know that Gov. O’Malley and President Obama have been successful,” the robo-voice said. “Relax. Everything is fine. The only thing left is to watch it on TV tonight.”

At the time, the call struck me as strange—the polls in the Maryland governor’s race, in which Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley was running for reelection, were open for three more hours, and Obama wasn’t even on the ballot.

Turns out, the calls were ordered by the Republican candidate’s campaign manager, and they were aimed at voters in Baltimore and my home county, Prince George’s, the two largest majority-black jurisdictions in the state. A jury recently convicted the GOP campaign manager for what prosecutors called criminal acts intended to suppress black voter turnout.

Across the country, efforts to inhibit turnout in certain populations have been popping up all over. Some of them seem like Nixonian dirty tricks, such as the Milwaukee election material that warned that anyone found guilty of even a traffic violation was not eligible to vote, or the flyer supposedly from a local election board telling Republicans to vote on Tuesday and Democrats to vote on Wednesday.

But those illicit efforts pale next to the far-reaching campaign to change voting laws for 2012. Such changes include restrictions on voter registration drives, reductions in early voting, cutbacks in the voting rights of people who have finished their sentences for felonies, and—most pervasive—voter ID laws. In all, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice, more than 5 million voters could be affected by these laws. In 2011, photo ID laws were introduced in 34 states and enacted in eight.

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Banking For the Rest of Us

One meaning of the word “occupy” involves asserting sovereignty over a place. For the demonstrators who set up camp in lower Manhattan last fall, “occupying” was a reassertion of popular sovereignty at the very epicenter of our economic system. It was a challenge to the power that giant corporations—and Wall Street banks in particular—have amassed. It was a challenge to the way these firms have captured the levers of government and rigged policy to protect their own positions and profits at the expense of everyone else.

More than three years after their reckless greed triggered the Great Recession, the nation’s biggest banks have paid almost no penalty and are bigger than ever. In 2007, the top four banks—Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, and Wells Fargo—held assets of $4.5 trillion, which amounted to 37 percent of U.S. bank assets. Today, they control $6.2 trillion, or 45 percent of bank assets, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. For them, the recession was a brief hiccup, promptly ameliorated by a public bailout and a return to robust profitability. Last year, these four firms, together with the next two largest banks, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, paid out $144 billion in compensation, making 2011 their second highest payday ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average bank teller made $24,980 in 2010. Such rank-and-file employees didn’t benefit from the big bonuses and compensation packages which were heavily concentrated at the top of the corporate ladder.

Meanwhile, joblessness, staggering debt, and foreclosure have devastated countless families. Many have shared their stories on the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr website, which should be required reading for the 1 percent. It provides a heart-breaking account of living in a society “made for them, not for us,” of drowning in debt and struggling merely to secure a means of keeping food on the table.

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A Turning Point on Immigration

“WHAT A MOMENT you have brought me to,” belted a massive gospel choir of nearly 100 mostly white students and faculty at Cedarville University’s G92 Immigration Conference in Ohio in October. Led by several African-American and white students and staff, the choir swayed, clapped, and worshipped, pressing through years of tradition, partisan loyalties, and cultural isolation.

Founded 125 years ago, Cedarville is rooted in a fundamentalist worldview, which is not generally associated with justice efforts in the social sphere. Carl Ruby, Cedarville’s vice president for student life, said in a recent interview: “I grew up hearing about the dangers of the ‘social gospel.’ The social gospel was always presented as something antithetical to sharing the need for personal salvation. I don’t view it that way anymore. In fact, I think if we approach issues of social justice appropriately, it lends credibility to the gospel message that we want to share. I think we need to both tell the gospel and do the gospel.”

At Cedarville, according to Ruby, a transformation was sparked for faculty and students by the 2007 book UnChristian, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. “They outlined the way that people outside of the church tend to view, particularly, conservative evangelicals as being pushy, hateful, disconnected from issues that matter, backward culturally,” Ruby explained. “I want to see us change those perceptions by providing solutions to real-life problems.”

The following year, Ruby tried to bring Shane Claiborne, cofounder of The Simple Way community and author of The Irresistible Revolution, to campus to lecture. The backlash from bloggers and alumni was so great that Ruby canceled the event.

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Salt, Light, and Social Change

The year of my evangelical discontent dawned at the age of 22. In 1990, having recently completed my undergraduate education, I languished in a secure job while faithfully serving my church on weekends. Deeply rooted in evangelical Christianity, I could not imagine ever turning in my metaphorical membership card. But I struggled with what I perceived to be shallowness in evangelicalism.

My church focused on personal spiritual growth. Faith had been reduced to an individualistic expression; my ticket to heaven punched with required purchases of the Scofield Bible and Evidence that Demands a Verdict. My years as an undergraduate in New York reintroduced me to a world that I had abandoned when my family moved out of inner-city Baltimore. I had trouble reconciling the jarring juxtaposition of my secular education on the border of Harlem with my comfortable suburban church. My new Mazda 626 failed to provide me with the expected satisfaction of having arrived into middle-class America at such a young age. 

In the midst of my evangelical angst, I stumbled across Sojourners magazine. The content of the magazine proved revelatory. No longer could I reduce my faith to multiple trips to the altar and a feel-good individualized faith. Suddenly, my new car represented oppression rather than triumph.

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From a Shoebox to a Movement

The metaphor I have often used to describe the origins of Sojourners in the fall of 1971 is that we raised a flag up a flagpole. The words on the flag proclaimed, “Biblical faith requires justice.” Many on the ground felt the same way, but they often couldn’t see each other and felt alone. When they saw the flag we raised, they ran to the bottom of the pole where they met others—and a movement was born.

Our core group met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the northern suburbs of Chicago. We connected the first week of seminary and became excited about a new possibility for American Christianity. We ranged across a wide spectrum: civil rights and anti-war activists who had come to Christ; InterVarsity and Campus Crusade students and staff searching for a gospel that could reach the current generation of students; hippies and druggies converted to Jesus; disaffected Southern Baptists from Baylor University; Moody Bible Institute graduates against the war in Vietnam; and even one from Bob Jones University in the heart of American fundamentalism. We were at a leading evangelical seminary, not a liberal one; some of us chose deliberately to go there to argue with our own evangelical tradition about what the Bible really says.

For example, one of our first activities was finding every verse of scripture about the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. We found more than 2,000 texts that we then cut out of an old Bible. We were left with a “Bible full of holes,” which I used to take out with me to preach.

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