One of the disheartening lessons I have learned as I have begun to research the Sanctuary church movement and responses of people of faith to the plight of displaced people, including both undocumented immigrants and refugees, is that this is a bipartisan problem.
With our current President, Donald Trump, loudly proclaiming himself to be against our influx of refugees and also undocumented immigrants, to the point that he is talking about mass deportations and a massive border wall, often we are left with the impression that Republicans are solely the ones standing against the fair treatment of these displaced people. In the recent workshops on how people of faith can respond to the call of Scripture to defend the rights of displaced people, I have been struck by how the history of the Sanctuary movement shows that the situation for immigrants and refugees have also been difficult under Democratic leadership such as Clinton and Obama.
Hearing this has reminded me of a discussion during the years of the Obama presidency with good friends in the peace movement here in the Carolinas who reminded me that, for all his talk about making peace, Obama was no dove. They pointed to practices which they deemed torture under Obama, to ongoing military actions that were problematic. It was under Obama, after all, that warfare began to make use of drone strikes – or, as I like to call them, flying robots in the sky raining down death. He was not pacifist but someone willing to use American power to strike with deadly force. They lamented that in the liberal community’s celebrating having “one of their own” in office, people overlooked the ways in which Obama in fact continued to strengthen the military industrial complex.
Similarly, in her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander explored how both Republicans like Richard Nixon & Ronald Reagan and Democrats like Bill Clinton strengthened the drug war and the prison industrial complex in ways that marginalized and oppressed largely people of color and communities of color.
For me, as I prepare to engage personally and through the communities in which I work toward social justice to resist the unprecedented vitriol and oppression being rolled out by our new Administration as an act of Christian faith, I must hear the uncomfortable news as a political and social liberal that our liberal political governments also have fallen short as paragons of virtue and embodiments of social justice. In fact, at times, they have chosen to further expressions of systemic racism, programmatic oppression of others, and heartless violence which we see expressed in what is worst about our prison industrial complex, our military war machine, and letting big business line their pockets with wealth at the expense of the poor & working class.
Through Trump and his rising kleptocracy only worsens and makes more explicit these failings, failing in every way to defend the working class he says he represents, we do need to face into such inconsistencies as part of why many working class people rejected the Democratic and liberal candidates running for office in our country.
I don’t say any of this to disparage either party, nor to in any way suggest the extremism we face now is morally equivalent to the failings of the Obama and Clinton administration. They are not the same.
But I do want to suggest that these realities call me to remember that, as a person of faith, as much as I may find myself drawn toward a particular political party or set of social principles, ultimately I am called to something wider and deeper than can be expressed by any political party, government structure, or ideology.
As we consider the plight of migrant people, displaced people, and refugees, we must remember our call to see ourselves as distinct from these structures of society that oppress.
1 Peter says to us,
“Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul” (2:11).
We are to see ourselves in solidarity with displaced people and refugees, migrant people, for like them we are to understand ourselves as people of faith as aliens and exiles in our land, communities, political parties, and governments too.
The author of 1 Peter puts it well when she or he writes,
“you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1:9-10).
When Jesus comes proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near and so we are to repent and believe, Jesus is calling us to live as if our primary identity is not white or black or Native American or Latino, straight or gay or bisexual, male or female or gender-queer/fluid, transgender or cisgender, and yes Democratic or Republican or Independent. We are called to not even have our primary identity as American or British or some other nationality; and I would argue even Christian or Jewish or Pagan or Muslim or agnostic.
The call is to see ourselves as citizens of what Jesus calls “the Kingdom of God”. We must, as 1 Peter 2:12 and following suggests, acknowledge and take our place in our neighborhoods, communities, schools, national settings, and this can include working within the structure of political parties and government structures.
But we work to build a community of justice, where all people are treated as equal: where the life of those displaced people we are tempted to call “foreign” is of equal value as that of life-long citizens, where the life of people of all sexualities and gender identities are equally prized, where folk of every faith and none and all are equally respected.
We are to live out a deep respect for other people, especially those we feel alienated from or our communities teach us to fear or hate as “enemy” or “foreigner”, and for all living creatures on God’s earth.
In Christian tradition, this is being a citizen of two worlds: the nation, community, and group we find ourselves in by birth and also the Kingdom of God which by putting justice and compassion for all folks as more important than lesser commitments we live out.
What does this mean practically?
It means those of us who are Christians who, like myself, identify as liberal, must hear the call to repentance this election calls us to: acknowledging that many of us failed to speak up against the ways our liberal candidates failed to live out the values which are expressions of the Kingdom Christ preached but instead chose to live out the death culture of the prison and military industrial complex, the accommodation to the rule of the wealthy that crushes the poor and oppressed so at the heart of what is worst about American neoliberalism, and learn the lesson: not just to speak out when things get as bad as they are becoming under the Trump presidency, but yes even against those with whom we largely otherwise agree. After all, who are they more likely to listen to?
It also means that those of us who are Christians who identify as conservative cannot simply look away when conservative candidates speak full of racism, xenophobia, and sexism, put down women, and seek to do injustice to the least of these in our midst simply because they will further other political goals we long to see fulfilled. Conservative brothers and sisters, you cannot be faithful people of God while doing as Franklin Graham has done and claiming caring for the immigrant in our midst and refugee fleeing certain death is not a Biblical issue when, as I have noted already on this blog, this is a clear black and white issue in the literal texts of Scripture.
On that end, I was encouraged to see in the news how a large group of evangelical pastors speaking out to President Trump on how his refusal to accept refugees and his commitment to break apart families by a program of mass deportation fails to live out the values at the heart of our faith.
Those of us who, like me, identify as progressive people of faith need to applaud such actions from the other end of the political aisle. We need to be willing to partner on such issues of justice with those we tend to want to look at as our political opponents: for the kingdom of God is not about this party or that, but doing justice and loving mercy so that we can walk humbly with our God.
I think, too, we can do the dual work of deeply considering how we might reconsider how we do the work of politics, so that we do not compromise with systems of oppression as we have done in the past but actively work to bring a justice which brings together the cause of both the migrant in our midst and the struggling worker in the hills of Kentucky, the queer person of color and the white laid off factory worker as straight as the day is long, as one cause, we must also call our conservative brothers & sisters to realize they, too, must learn the message: to sow the wind is, as Amos said, to reap the whirlwind. If they fail to speak up against the excesses of their party, they too will see their conservative experiment in these Trump years fail.
I don’t fully know the way forward in this call, but I hear it deep in my soul.
Your progressive redneck preacher,