Editor’s note: Below is part one of a two-part column on immigration and theology.
Attending a recent screening of “Gospel Without Borders” and a discussion of its implications by some frontline participants clarified for me as nothing else the profound complexity of immigration and the superficiality of the wave of legislative efforts to respond to it.

Conversations among other attendees afterward reflected impressions similar to mine.

“What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” is a popular piece of the narrative that supports the hard-line perspective of the legislation.

One wants to reply, “What part of the Gospel’s clear admonition to offer hospitality to the stranger don’t you understand?”

Is it a legal issue, or a faith issue? If both, then which should have priority among people of faith?

Reducing the issue of immigration to a matter of legality (as in the prevalence of referring to our undocumented neighbors as “illegals”) seriously oversimplifies the economic, social and theological dimensions of this arena of our common life.

The powerful personal stories and commentary of “Gospel Without Borders” lift the thinking and conversation about this matter to an entirely new level.

Much more than a legal problem that can be fixed with new laws, it is a human problem that must be responded to (as the prophets would say) with new hearts. The core of the problem is not with “them” but with “us.”

Bishop Anthony Taylor of the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock comments in the documentary on the human tendency to absolutize the law when its enforcement serves the purposes of a cause we support, while its authority is conveniently ignored when the benefits of “illegality” serve the purposes of a lifestyle we value.

In the panel discussion, Auxiliary Bishop Luis Zarama of the Archdiocese of Atlanta observed that when undocumented workers build the houses, harvest the crops and perform the services we want at low wages, we have welcomed their work, if not them, without concern for their undocumented status.

When the bubble bursts and the flaws of a system begin to show, and there is a need to find a vulnerable group to blame and to turn attention away from the real nature of the problem, “illegals” become a handy target.

(Remember the “Jewish problem” in Nazi Germany and the “outside agitators” in the civil rights movement?)

The law didn’t really matter when we were benefiting from its lack of enforcement, but it becomes important when we need it as a tool to protect privilege and power and to divert attention from questions of its legitimacy and its morality in the first place.

I can’t help wondering if we are seeing another replay of the appeal of snake oil as a remedy for a serious disease because superficial solutions to deep-seated human problems are not new.

Jeremiah’s temple sermon (chapter 7) chastises Judah for thinking that getting people to the Temple would protect them from the consequences of the idolatry, injustice and corruption that had become their way of life.

Our system makes it possible for many to continue to grapple with the issue at the policy level, and there is reason to hope that eventually insight and reason will prevail and move things to a better place, even though many will be harmed by the misconceptions and their application along the way.

Those who work in the ongoing process of refining the policies by which we live deserve our encouragement and appreciation.

It seems, though, that communities of faith have something more to offer than policy, even beyond the prophetic voice that holds policy accountable.

It is our calling to be witnesses to an alternative vision for the human family that moves beyond “them and us” – Jew and Greek, male and female, bond and free, and so on – and sees all humanity as siblings in the family of God.

In other words, the unique contribution people of faith can make is theological – not just in the affirmation of time-honored doctrines and formulas that have preserved our traditions, but in the connection of the principles embedded in those doctrines to the concrete circumstances and issues of our lives.

Part two of this article will offer some suggestions as to a specific direction this theology might take.

Colin Harris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.

Visit GospelWithoutBorders.net for more information about EthicsDaily.com’s new documentary on faith and immigration.

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