John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite theologian and significant influence on Sojourners, used to say that the world often helps the church remember what it means to be church. The observations of those outside often serve to return the church to its roots.
Recently, church leaders and faith based organizations have gotten a lot of flack over their outspoken support of comprehensive immigration reform. In light of Yoder, I’ve been mulling over the criticisms from Lou Dobbs and others, wondering if there are any lessons for us.
It took me awhile, but I think I found one. Dobbs loves to point out the “schism between the leadership of churches and religious organizations and their followers and members” over the issue of immigration. While the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Churches, and even the National Association of Evangelicals call for compassionate policies, many Christians express support for harsh, enforcement-only measures like last year’s Sensenbrenner bill. Dobbs is right: Our leaders call for inclusion, while the rest of us say “kick ‘em out!”
Clearly there is a communication breakdown, one that I think runs much deeper than failing to educate the people in the pews about immigration polices. Rather, I think this gap demonstrates the failure of church leadership to instill in its people a deeper understanding of their Christian identity.
I recently sat in on a Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform strategy session. Krista Zimmerman, who works for the Mennonite Central Committee, often travels to churches to discuss immigration. She lamented how many white churches fail to see the crisis as their problem, and how the discussion often breaks down into “us” and “them,” even when talking about members of the same church body. She said we have failed to help the church realize it is an “us.”
Theologically, she is exactly right. The church is to be our first family and primary allegiance, and we are to find our identity together in Christ above everything else. Being part of the church is to be a more determinative identity than any of the other ones we carry with us: nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. It is “more real” than anything else about us. When we hold something about us to be more important than our Christian identity (i.e., our American citizenship), we are practicing idolatry and deceiving ourselves. It seems the church in the U.S. has largely forgotten this.
Sociologically, Zimmerman was spot-on as well. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, 78 percent of undocumented immigrants (around 9.4 million people) currently in the United States came from Mexico or Central America. In another survey, Pew found that 87 percent of Latinos self-identify as Catholic or Protestant. This means that there are over 8.1 million Christians in the U.S. who are undocumented immigrants. The body of Christ, it seems, does not have all its papers.
With the collapse of the comprehensive reform bill in the Senate, it now seems that it will have to wait a little longer to get those papers, and many of our brothers and sisters will suffer and be deported in the meantime. This is to be lamented. At the same time, the government’s callous inaction provides us with a new opportunity to be the body of Christ. The New Sanctuary Movement is one way churches are siding with our undocumented sisters and brothers, and boldly challenging our nation’s inhumane immigration laws.
Most of us aren’t there yet, though, as Lou Dobbs pointed out. Later in the meeting, Bill Medford of the United Methodist Church said what most churches need isn’t political organizers as much as we need party planners—people who will bring white and immigrant churches together for fellowship. Out of this sharing, eating, and singing will grow a sense of unity and shared calling. Then when the homes of our brothers and sisters are raided, or they are threatened with deportation, we won’t hesitate to act on their behalf … because it’s really our behalf.
Ultimately, how the church in the United States responds to the immigration crisis is less a matter of legislation and more a question of Christian identity and test of our discipleship.
Will our actions legitimize false differences? Or will we stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of faith, together as the undocumented body of Christ?
Tim Kumfer is the executive assistant at Sojourners/Call to Renewal.