We’re All Outsiders

Person in Exile for Urban FaithAs Christians, we are exiles who follow an alien, undocumented, migrant Messiah. Shouldn’t we, then, have a more compassionate and unified voice in the immigration debate?

There’s a scene in the film Food, Inc. that reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of U.S. immigration policy: In Tar Heel, North Carolina, Hispanic workers at a Smithfield Foods packing plant are rounded up by ICE agents (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in a pre-dawn raid. A politician running for office would narrate such a scene by saying that these men and women, while perhaps hard workers, are in the U.S. illegally and if the rule of law is going to mean anything in this country, they must be picked up and sent to a detention center where the legal process can run its course.

But the film tells the true story: After NAFTA caused cheap American corn to flood Mexican markets, putting even prosperous Mexican corn farmers out of business, many fled to the U.S., desperate for work to support their families. Many others were actively recruited by corporations like Smithfield to work dangerous jobs in American factories. Government raids, like the one depicted in the movie, are carried out in collusion with the senior management of companies like Smithfield to “send a message” (to Americans, to the undocumented) while never really interfering with the company’s production line or, more importantly, its bottom line.

The dominant narrative — the one about illegality, rule of law, blah, blah, blah — is persuasive because it provokes and exploits the one emotion that has driven American politics since 9/11: fear. We’re told by critics and commentators that Americans have never been so angry, that our public discourse has never been this strident and dangerously uncivil — all the red-faced name-calling, the ugly race-baiting, the shrill, snarky meanness.

But much of the anger — at least the real anger, not the feigned rage of opportunistic politicians — is symptomatic of Americans’ deep-seated xenophobia. This fear has been carefully cultivated since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was crucial in rallying the country to support two insupportable wars. As a political strategy it was brilliant; it worked so well that now many Americans fear their own duly-elected president. They hate him too, of course, and they’re mad as hell at him, but all that hate and rage start with an irrational anger that continues to be stoked shamelessly by that most misnamed of all political groups in a purportedly civil society: the Tea Party.

The anti-immigration bill signed into law recently in Arizona is an unsurprising outcome of this ongoing collective fear of outsiders. When I heard the news, I was reminded of a book published last year, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate. Authors Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang deftly link legislation, work visas, border patrols, ICE raids, and green cards to the Hebrew scriptures’ insistence that “Israel’s very identity was tied to how they treated the foreign born” and to the truth that the New Testament’s “most notable refugee was Jesus himself.”

In a review of the book I noted that Soerens and Hwang challenge any reader who claims to follow Jesus to consider immigration through Scripture’s insistence that we see ourselves as a people in exile: sojourners in a foreign land who live not by claiming “our rights” over and against so-called outsiders, but solely by the mercy and grace of a generous, hospitable God.

We are exiles who follow an alien, undocumented, migrant Messiah. As Edgardo Colón-Emeric notes (in the sermon linked above), “Jesus did not have a valid birth certificate. Mother’s name: Mary; Father’s name: unknown. In fact, Jesus had no papers in his name, no title deed, no rental contract. Nothing. ‘Foxes have dens, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.’ ”

A phrase formerly associated with interrogators of the Third Reich — “let me see your papers” — will now enter the lexicon of law enforcement in Arizona. Jesus — in the guise of the brown-skinned “other” — will be asked for documentation he doesn’t have. And unless his followers practice the kind of perfect love that casts out all phobos (1 John 4:18), fear, on both sides of these encounters, will have won the day.

About the author, Debra Dean Murphy

Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at ekklesiaproject.org.
  1. Amen and amen. The phrase, “Americans’ deep-seated xenophobia” is so true and one can unfortunately find it in the Church and this should not be. It also makes one wonder when Christians are more concerned with rule of law than mercy and compassion. By no means should we throw out the law or be found endorsing its breaking, but immigration like so many other issues call for more than just laying down the law regardless of circumstances. When we ourselves were at our greatest point of need, Christ died for us. He didn’t go by the rule of law which would have condemened us. If nothing else, this fact alone should force Christians to look very seriously at the immigration issue and offer some viable alternatives. Let’s be a third voice in the debate.

  2. Hello Debra,
    I really appreciate your thoughts and insights into the immigration debate. As Christians we need to be a moral obligation to approach this issue, and other, from a biblical perspective. I also believe that our application needs to be balanced. I think that Christ has compassion for people on both sides of the debate. Peter also had issues with race, but Jesus loved Peter and selected him to be a leader in the early church. Today, I hear Christians speak about compassion for the immigrant, but not for the people who have “deep-seated xenophobia” or Tea Party activists who are “afraid” because they have lost their jobs and are worried about their increasing tax burden. True, NAFTA destroyed many corn farms in Mexico, but NAFTA also destroyed many automotive factories in the Midwest. We are all outsiders, even those of us who are afraid of an uncertain future. I agree that the church is a “moral compass” in the immigration debate, but a little balance in tone would go a long way.

  3. Ma’am,
    I disagree with you substantively on the issue of immigration and your interpretation of scripture to back up your point of view. But that’s okay. What really concerns me about what you wrote is how you put down and dismiss those who disagree with you. I’m not a tea-party person but it’s insulting the way you’ve portrayed them as emotional, empty-headed, irrational people who can be easily manipulated by slick politicians as if there are not real issues associated with immigration that clear-thinking people can disagree on.
    The state of Arizona is facing real problems connected with immigration that need real solutions. The reason Arizona had to do something is because of the crime they’re experiencing due to this issue and the fact that they have budget issues that need to be addressed.
    Many are saying that immigration is a federal issue. I believe they are right. But the real problem is that we have a Federal Government that has refused to protect our borders. I’m not just blaming Pres. Obama. He inherited this. Pres. Bush, Pres. Clinton, Pres. Bush (the elder), and Pres. Reagan all have failed us when it comes to this issue. That’s why Arizona had to do something. I must say that the way President Obama has responded to this is dead wrong! He’s basically done the same thing you’ve done in this article. Just dismiss them!
    You act ma’am as if the rule of law means nothing, protecting our borders is a bad thing, and dealing with “illegal” immigration is the crime of the century. What’s worse, to invoke images of the Third Reich is going below the belt. Why should I be surprised at this? People like yourself want to alienate the other side, paint them as racists, and dismiss them as irrational. The vitriol in your point of view is very easy to see in how you refer to the teaparty. It’s funny to see that the meanness you accuse the teaparty folks of comes across in your own article.
    Ma’am, as I said earlier, I don’t have a problem with the stance you take on these issues. All I would ask is that you be a little more respectful of those on the other side of this.

  4. Thanks to each of you for your comments. I agree that my tone here is a little flip and I regret that. I wrote the post in the “heat of the moment” (immediately after the AZ decision) and my personal experience with immigrant communities in North Carolina has made me quite passionate about all of this.
    But I guess I would push back a little on the interpretation of my criticism of the Tea Party. I did not say that its members were “emotional,” empty-headed,” “irrational,” or “racist.” My point was to make a rather lame joke about the incongruity of the term “Tea Party” (which we’ve always associated with white-glove civility) and much of the very uncivil rhetoric that’s been associated with this new political group.
    I also don’t think that the immigration problem is fundamentally about borders. I agree that there are real issues to be dealt with–like crime, as Mr. Sutton points out; but those are matters of lawlessless and should be dealt with as such. The immigration “problem” at root is that U.S. immigration law is completely broken–outdated, unworkable, and grossly unfair.
    And, finally, I do think that Christians must think about these matters in ways that see immigrants not as “aliens” nor “criminals,” but as neighbors, persons to whom we are called to love and be in relationship with. I’m not being naive or romantic; it’s just that the way of Jesus–troublesome and inconvenient as it is–invites us to this work. And I can say from experience that it is holy, joyful work.

  5. Thank you for your response Debra,
    I appreciate your willingness to respond to our comments. I would like to here your thoughts on a long term solution to immigration problem. Your post seems to indicate that the primary problem to the current immigration problem is not our immigration system (although it is need of repair). The problem is the economic situation in Mexico and other countries south of our boarder. I believe that most illegal immigration would end if the Mexican economy was stronger. For example, we don’t have an illegal immigration issue with Canada because they have a strong economy and numerous job opportunities. However, I rarely hear the church or our government push for this type of long term solution to our immigration problem. Instead, American corporation exploit illegal immigrants and drain South American countries of their labor force. By simply streamlining our immigration system, countries south of our boarders will remain dependant on the U.S. economy. Helping to rebuild the Mexican economy so that workers can stay home with their families seems like compassionate thing to do.

  6. Thanks, Jared. You’re right about the need for Mexico to have a stronger, more viable economy, and there’s a long history as to why they don’t. But U.S. immigration laws are also a huge part of the problem, namely the inability of those desperate for work to get visas. When people say, “they should just come here legally,” they don’t realize that there’s really no way to do that. The money and time that it takes, along with the bureaucratic backlog in proessing cases make it impossible. (If immigrants had the kind of money and time required, they wouldn’t be trying to get into the U.S. in the first place). Of course if you have money, education, connections and want to come here, say, from India to work at IBM, that’s pretty easily done. Also, current law works against keeping families together, it punishes mixed-status families, and it discourages marriage–things “family values” advocates should care about.
    So it’s a big mess of a problem, and it needs to be dealt with from many angles. If you’re on facebook, you might want to check out Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) and a page set up for the book, Welcoming the Stranger. Lots of good essays, commentaries, and blog posts on both.

  7. What an all round well thought out blog..

  8. Wonderfully well executed writing!!