Immigrants and the conduct by some Christians

By Rebecca Hoeffner

It seems like the issue everyone is talking about are the thousands upon thousands of child refugees who are fleeing terrible circumstances in their Latin American countries and seeking safety in the United States.

What is surprising, though, is the level of vitriol the issue has stirred up, even among Christians.

Mind you, this hatred doesn't seem to be coming from church leadership that I have seen. In a letter to his convention, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote "While evangelicals, like other Americans, might disagree on the political specifics of achieving a just and compassionate immigration policy, our rhetoric must be informed by more than politics, but instead by gospel and mission.

"I'm amazed when I hear evangelical Christians speak of undocumented immigrants in this country with disdain as ‘those people' who are ‘draining our health care and welfare resources.' It's horrifying to hear those identified with the gospel speak, whatever their position on the issues, with mean-spirited disdain for the immigrants themselves."

A number of American Christians are nervous and surprised at the growing entwining of Christianity and politics (which is a fairly new concept in this country's history).

For Christians to choose national security over "the least of these" and "loving the stranger as yourself" is a disconcerting turn from the tradition of our faith. Even as recently as the 1980s, Christians were going so far as to defy the federal government to take in refugees from Central America.

The Migration Policy Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide; their website details the collection of churches that took refugees in against the government's wishes, known as "the Sanctuary Movement."

It began with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Arizona.

"When, after two years, none of the refugees they assisted had been granted political asylum, Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson announced — on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero — that his church would openly defy INS and become a ‘sanctuary' for Central Americans," according to the website. "The Arizona congregations were soon joined by networks of religious congregations and activists in Northern California, South Texas, and Chicago."

At the height of the movement in the mid-'80s during the Reagan administration, "more than 150 congregations openly defied the government, publicly sponsoring and supporting undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families. Another 1,000 local Christian and Jewish congregations, several major Protestant denominations, the Conservative and Reform Jewish associations, and several Catholic orders all endorsed the concept and practice of sanctuary."

Members of the movement coordinated with activists in Mexico to even smuggle refugees across the border.

"The defense of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans marked a new use of international human rights norms by U.S. activists. Citing the Nuremberg principles of personal accountability developed in the post-World War II Nazi tribunals, religious activists claimed a legal precedent to justify their violation of U.S. laws against alien smuggling. Other activists claimed that their actions were justified by the religious and moral principles of the 19th-century U.S. abolitionist movement, referring to their activities as a new "Underground Railroad."

The federal government pressed charges, but it didn't go smoothly for the prosecutors.

"Despite the judge's order barring the defense from presenting evidence of conditions in El Salvador or Guatemala, the Sanctuary Movement managed to turn the publicity surrounding the trial into an indictment of the Reagan administration's war in Central America and its treatment of the refugees. All the Arizona defendants were convicted, but none were sentenced to jail time. After the Arizona trials, the movement continued to attract more congregations."

The story from our history and the current situation reminds me of the scene from "Les Miserables" I've mentioned before. A convict, Jean Valjean, is surprised when he's taken in by a bishop after everyone else treated him with distain, and ultimately turns his life around because of it.

How many opportunities like this are Christians missing when we scream at children seeking solace?

They will know you are Christians by your love.


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