Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Why I Am a Political Liberal (U. S. Context)

Unlike my former blog, Levellers, Pilgrim Pathways is not primarily about the intersection of faith and politics and I don’t want to focus much on U.S. electoral politics–although one cannot write about Christian theology in an apolitical way since themes of peacemaking, social and economic justice, racial justice, the equality of the sexes and much else are rich biblical/theological themes.  But because of the widespread assumption in the U. S., especially in the media, that all or most Christians are political conservatives (or even reactionary rightwing zealots), I thought I would write this testimony about why I have always been a political liberal. (I am also a political progressive–the terms are not interchangeable and I may write a subsequent post on being a progressive.)

First, let us distinguish “liberal” and “conservative” as tendencies or orientations vs. these terms as the names of  particular politicial ideologies or movements.  A person who is conservative by orientation or temperament is a traditionalist who likes things to change slowly, if at all.  By definition, he or she is more comfortable with the status quo (or an idealized form of such from his or her remembered childhood) than with movements for change.  A liberal by orientation is less satisfied with the status quo and embraces change–is future oriented rather than past oriented.  In this sense of orientation, rather than ideology, all societies need both conservatives and liberals–in order to avoid chaos or dissolution any period of rapid or massive change needs to be offset or balanced by a period of “normalcy” or rest or regrouping.  A society will have good things that need to be preserved from the past as a heritage and those of conservative orientation are the champions of such heritage and tradition. But a society, any society, will also have negative features that need to be overcome (in the U.S., think of slavery, segregation, the times when women couldn’t vote, own property their own names, own businesses, work in “men’s jobs,” hold political office, or have any voice in whether or when they would get pregnant, etc.) and left behind.  Liberals will always lead the charge for such changes.

Now, more specifically, about U.S. liberalism as a political philosophy that I largely share.  It champions individual freedom (both the conservative and progressive traditions add a concern for the common good that is needed to balance the liberal focus on the individual) , is suspicious of concentrations of power (and wealth is power), trusts in reasoned debate and an open society and marketplace of ideas.  It is democratic because it trusts in people to govern themselves.   It is not overawed by traditional authority.   The roots of liberalism are found in the radical Free Church strand of  Protestantism ( with maybe some earlier roots in Medieval nominalism) and the 17th C. Enlightenment philosophy.  In the Free Church tradition, I would highlight especially the thought of  Gerrard Winstanley (1609-1676), John Milton (1608-1674), William Penn (1644-1718), Richard Overton (c. 1631-1664), & Roger Williams (c. 1603-1683).  The Enlightenment political philosophers most influential on the U.S. liberal tradition are the Englishman John Locke (1632-1704),  the Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and the Americans Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), & James Madison (1751-1836).

Contemporary defenses of politicial liberalism that I find helpful (although not agreeing with every part of any of these sources) include: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice Political Liberalism;  Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice; Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family;  Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community, & Postmodernism in Ethics; Democracy and Difference; Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism; Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal; Paul Rogat Loeb, The Impossible Will Take a Little While; Soul of a Citizen; Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; Robert Wexler, Fire-Breathing LiberalThose are a good start.  I was also inspired by the fiction of Flannery O’ Conner, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Dickens, Les Miserables,  & the utopian liberalism of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” universe.

But the roots of my political liberalism are not just historical, or derived from books–it is wrapped up in my autobiography.  I am a liberal (in the U.S. sense) because, first and foremost, my family supported desegregation. If you were a white person growing up in the South in the 1960s and stood against segregation, you were a liberal–plain and simple. (Actually, “liberal” was one of the nicest things we were called. Other terms included “race traitor,” “communist,” and much worse.) In fact, when my parents were young, any white person in the South who even wanted decent treatment for African-Americans (a term that didn’t yet exist) WITHIN the Jim Crow segregation laws (instead of regularly demeaning, terrorizing, and lynching them) were called “liberals.”  I am a liberal because liberals stand for a world not just of individual liberty, but of equality of persons, the common good, and environmental caretaking.

It was American liberals (known as abolitionists) who worked to end the scourge of slavery in this country–a country founded as a slave republic. In the original, unamended, U.S. Constitution, enslaved persons of African descent are only counted as 3/5ths of a person (for the purposes of census).  The abolitionists tried to abolish slavery legislatively–and through Constitutional amendment, only to be constantly thwarted by Southern senators. (A senator from KY used a walking cane to bludgeon an abolitionist senator from New England to death on the floor of the senate!)  The slogan “states rights” was coined to mean the right of slaveholding states to keep slaves without interference from the federal government.  But these same “states rights” conservatives had no philosophical problem with passing the Fugitive Slave Law usurping the rights of other states and using the power of the federal government to force the return of their escaped human property.  The Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, so frustrated with attempts to end slavery within our original slave-loving Constitution burned a copy of it at a 4th of July speech while quoting anti-slavery passages from the Bible.  Another abolitionist (and former slave), Frederick Douglass, gave as one of his most powerful anti-slavery speeches, “What, to the Slave, is the 4th of July?” Arguing that it was a day of supreme American hypocrisy. Douglass contrasted the Christianity of the Bible with the false Christianity of white slaveholders, too.  Liberals defeated slavery; conservatives defended it.

Liberals fought for 70 years to win the right to vote for women. Liberals ended child labor. Liberals created the public school system, arguing that democracy requires universal education–that only an educated electorate can decide intelligently about the issues.  Liberals (and progressives) fought for the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively for fair wages, times of rest, safe working conditions and benefits.  Liberals (called “muckrakers”) exposed the dangers of tainted meat and other food and created government safety inspections of food and medicines.  Liberals created Social Security (greatly decreasing poverty among the elderly–old age had been a time of absolute fear and horror beforehand), Medicare, Medicaid (and,now, the first steps to truly universal healthcare). Liberals ended segregation (American apartheid) and have continued to work for racial equality and justice and a multi-cultural society where difference is celebrated rather than demonized.  It was a liberal Republican president (Teddy Roosevelt) who broke up the corporate monopolies and created the national park system. It was liberals who began the environmental movement and passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Liberals began the modern tradition of international law, forged international organizations that would help the relations of nations be decided by other things than naked force. Liberals strive for the codification and protection of universal human rights.

All of these things were strongly, often violently, opposed by conservatives.  Sometimes they were later accepted by conservatives–few would argue for a return to segregation, for instance. (However, see Republican  candidate for U.S. Senate from KY and Tea Party hero, Dr. Rand Paul, who would allow segregation in private businesses.) At other times, such as repeated attempts to abolish Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (and, now, to repeal Health Insurance Reform), the conservative opposition to the progress made by liberals has never died.

(I have not talked about war and peace because these issues do not easily chart along a liberal-conservative axis. There have been forms of liberal internationalism that have resulted in very militaristic outlooks–from Teddy Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to FDR, JFK & LBJ–“Cold War liberalism,” to the pro-war views of Clinton and Obama.  Likewise, there have been conservative outlooks that led to anti-war views–especially in the libertarian strand of modern conservatism.  What is true is that liberalism’s international outlook usually works against military unilateralism–but not always.  My own commitment to pacifism and nonviolence is rooted deeply in my Christian faith, not in political liberalism. )

I have been working lately to formulate my view of political liberalism into a few major principles.  This is my latest attempt:

  • People matter more than profits.  Profits matter in most cases. I am not a Marxist (though I have learned from Marx and find the conservative fear to even read Marx or consider the areas in which he is right to be ridiculous). Most businesses will not be non-profit or not-for-profit and without profits few businesses can survive.  But for liberals like myself, unlimited profit can never be the bottom line.  Profits cannot come at all costs.  People matter more than profits.  If a person or company must make less profit for the sake of people–in making a safe product or having safe working conditions or making sure one’s environmental impact is as little as possible, for instance–then the welfare of people trumps higher profits.
  • Corporations are not persons–despite the stupid ruling of the Roberts Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC.  The preamble to the Constitution begins “We, the people,” not “We, the corporations.”  The fiction of corporate personhood undermines the human rights of actual persons. 
  • Money is not speech.  The rightwing Supreme Court has been striking down campaign finance laws by claiming that restrictions on campaign donations by individuals or corporations stifles free speech. But if money is speech then there is no free speech.  The person or corporation with the most money can buy the most speech.  Banning corporate financing, publicly financing campaigns and giving each campaign equal access to free media promotes better democracy:  It means that people with great ideas who would make great elected officials can run even if they aren’t rich or supported by the rich. More ideas can be debated in the public sphere than just those approved by the narrow range of the corporate media. And elected officials won’t be owned by the big corporations who fund their campaigns.  If a rich person wants to own more TVs or i-Pads than others, liberals have no complaint–but they must not be allowed to use their money to purchase “more democracy” than others.
  • The Earth is meant to be humanity’s home–not our toilet.  We must care for this planet. Sure, from the beginning we have adapted our environments to suit ourselves. And this is not bad in itself.  But, too often, we have destroyed our environments–turning forests into deserts, wiping out whole species of plants and animals, poisoning our air and water and threatening the survival of our own species with our greed.  To the liberal, there is an ethic of “enough.”  Consumption has limits.  (Why do conservatives never want to conserve anything?)  To a liberal, a responsible ecological ethic is not necessarily anti-technology–but we recognize that technology is not a god and not all technological advances are truly “progress.” We have to care for and adapt to the limits of our environment because we are not separate from it. We are all connected in a great web of life.
  • Individual liberties are balanced with concern for the common good.  Authoritarian societies–whether fascist, communist, or theocratic–oppress all individualism for the sake of (the authority’s view of ) the common good. So, a particular society may decide that homosexuality threatens the common good and thus may have various penalties for gays and lesbians–sometimes even the death penalty. Others may believe that society functions best with women in clearly subservient roles to men–and may disallow women the right to vote or to be educated or to be seen in public, etc.  By contrast, libertarians defend only individual rights (or the rights of corporations).  But the U.S. liberal tradition, influenced by the democratic socialist tradition (a very strong influence on me), works to balance individual liberty and the common good–and recognizes that this balance is not always easy and that errors are made in both directions. (Example: Religious liberty means that all are free to worship the divine as they understand it–or to live without worship if they are atheists. We protect minority religious viewpoints against the tyranny of any religious majority. But there are limits:  If one’s religion demands human sacrifice, concern for the common good must trump that.  One’s religious convictions cannot be exercised to the degree that they represent a threat to others’ wellbeing.)
  • The primary moral values of the political liberal are liberty, equality, & justice, & compassion.  From liberty, we get our concerns for freedom of religion (and it’s corollary, separation of religious institutions from governmental institutions), freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances (my only arrests have come from exercising this right in the form known as civil disobedience).  From equality, liberals do not derive the conclusion of “simple equality” that Marxists would (e.g., demanding that everyone have exactly the same money, property, etc.). Nor are we content with simply the libertarian insistence on “equality of opportunity,” but endorse a “complex equality,” that accepts differences in talent, etc. but works for “equal participation”  and the equal value of all persons.  In liberal perspective, there is nothing inherently unjust in one person making more money than another–as long as all have what they need for human flourishing.  The cumulative GAP between rich and poor (i.e., the erosion of the middle class) is unjust, however, because it represents the concentration of power in the hands of the few.
  • Government (of the people, by the people, for the people) exists not just for defense of property and the enforcement of contracts (the conservative view), but to enable people to work together to those good ends which are difficult or impossible to do separately. To the liberal, the debate over “big government” vs. “small government” is mostly misplaced–the debate should be over what constitutes good government.  Clean government vs. corrupt government, competent government vs. ineffective government, or responsive government vs. out-of-touch government–are all the kinds of debates that liberals find more helpful than simple “big vs. small” government debates.
  • Taxes are a civic tithe.  Yes, taxes can be too high and too burdensome.  And, especially in a nation like ours that began with a series of tax protests, no one is ever going to like paying taxes.  But taxes are not inherently evil, but rather the price we pay for civilization. In countries where the taxes are insufficient to pay decent wages to government officials, bribery and corruption is rampant. Taxes are the price for good governance. With taxes we get roads paved, bridges built and kept in repair, levees built and kept in repair–all the infrastructure needed for a healthy society–including a healthy marketplace.  Taxes pay for firefighters and police officers and public schools, Social Security, clean water and air, and much else.  The rich should pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes because they can.  Flat tax schemes are inherently harmful to the poor. (If you have $1,00 & I have $1,000 and we are both taxed 10%, I’ll have $900 left over to get through the month, but you’ll only have $90–and probably won’t make it to the end of the month.)
  • Regulations exist to protect the vulnerable.  No one likes red tape–and all bureacracies get tedious and need periodic reform. It is quite possible to over-regulate things.  But regulation and enforcement of regulation is necessary.  If you don’t want your food to poison you, it needs to be inspected by the U.S. Dairy and Agriculture dept. (USDA) or the restaraunt you’re going to needs inspecting by the health department. If you don’t want your kids to get sick from lead toys from China, then you need regulations–and enough inspectors to prevent this.  If you don’t want oil companies to ravish the planet, then you need strict regulations–and a robust enforcement regime.  With “deregulation” of financing comes risky behavior that results in a collapsed economy.  Regulations need regular reexamination to see if they need reform, but “deregulation” as a battle cry or a political philosophy is a cry for anarchy and a recipe for disaster.
  • Liberals do not worship the “good ol’ days.”  We value and learn from the best of our history and from the mistakes in our history.  But whether it is the “Leave It To Beaver” view of the 1950s or the triumphalist perspective of The Patriot’s History of the United States,  liberals do not have the conservative view of an idealized or perfected past.  Conservatives seem to believe that “the U.S. began perfect and only got better”–until the 1960s.  By contrast, liberals see the promise of the American dream as always being a struggle–“toward a more perfect union.” Liberals can be overly confident about the ability to forge a perfect society in the future–some liberals need a sense of human sin and finiteness. But liberalism is (rightly in my view) oriented to the future. We look to the past for guidance, but we are journeying together toward the future–not wanting a return to a past that wasn’t as good as remembered.

There may be other principles that could be added–and liberals have certainly often made mistakes or had blindspots.  Political liberalism is a tradition–and this is the U.S. strand of that tradition. Traditions are, as the decidedly non-liberal Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, arguments or conversations over time.  For better and worse, this is tradition in which I stand in the American story.


May 30, 2010 Posted by | autobiographyu, civil rights, justice, political philosophy | 2 Comments

Of Oil, Eschatology and Creation Care

The  “oil volcanoe” from the British Petroleum-owned oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico has greatly depressed me.  At first, I was angry–full of righteous indignation at the “drill, baby, drill” crowd (because I feared exactly this when expanded offshore drilling was proposed in ’08) and at Pres. Obama for attempting to relax restrictions on offshore drilling as a way to buy Republican Senate votes for a climate change/clean energy bill–a ploy that wouldn’t work because Sen. Minority Leader McConnell (R-KY) has decided that the way back to a GOP majority is to block everything the president was elected to pass through whatever obstructive rules he can find.  But even if it would work, I fear the price is too high.  What is the use of tackling the problem of human-caused catastrophic climate change through shifting to clean energy if one is just going to trade it for the ecological disasters of drilling for oil in ecologically sensitive areas–or in places where one cannot shut off the pump if the worst happens?

I could say, “I told you so.” I could point out, as others have, that certain Southern governors are not decrying “socialist” big government, or threatening to secede, now, but are standing in line for federal disaster relief money! I could, but my Schadenfreude is as exhausted as my anger.  Watching the ecological disaster in slow motion in the Gulf is simply leaving me depressed.  I grew up in Florida and I know those fragile waters all too well.

One of my childhood heroes was the French-Canadian explorer and environmentalist, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, co-inventer of the “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus” or SCUBA gear.  In my house we had strict rations on the number of hours per week we could watch television and I would save up time for one of ABC’s two-hour specials, The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau.  I learned so much from those TV programs.  I fell in love with the oceans even more than I already had.  Too young to know much about early environmentalists like Rachel Carson until later, it was, instead, Jacques Cousteau who made me an early environmentalist.  Even at 8 years old, I berated a guest-evangelist at our church for littering on the beach!

I saw no tension between faith in God and care for God’s good Creation.  Scripture is clear that humans have responsibility for the created order.  I can still remember reading 2 of the earliest examples of environmental theology as a child, Eric C. Rust’s Nature: Garden or Desert? (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1971) and Henlee H. Barnette’s The Church and the Ecological Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI:Eerdmans, 1972).  (Later, I found that the conservative Francis A. Schaeffer, who was a major voice in the founding of the U.S. Religious Right, had also written a pioneering environmental theology, Pollution and the Death of Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971).  Sadly, that work had little effect on the Religious Right as a whole.)  So, it took me some time to realize that many U.S. Christians did not share my ecological concerns–and longer to figure out why.

One day in college (so it had to be the early ’80s), I was watching the TV news and saw a brief interview with James Watt, who was Secretary of the Interior under then-Pres. Ronald Reagan (R).  Watt was arguing for the privatization of much of the public lands of the Interior–including lands that had been set aside as public parks since the days of Pres. Theodore Roosevelt.  Watt wanted to lease much of this land out to oil companies and other major polluters. Asked why, he made it clear that his Premillenial Dispensationalist eschatology led him to have little concern for the environment:  After all, Jesus was coming back soon, so what did it matter?  A light dawned on me. I began to see why so many Christians could be so indifferent to the poisoning of God’s Creation.

The problem is a faulty eschatology–a faulty view of the future.  Instead of seeing the future hope as a motivator for ethical action, for what our Jewish brothers and sisters would call tikkun olam, “the healing or repair of the world,” too many conservative Christians believe that God’s Creation is expendable.  They believe that Creation is only a stage for the drama of salvation (which involves only the souls of individual humans) and will be destroyed at the Second Coming of Jesus. (This is also why they dismiss Jesus’ commands to be peacemakers or to feed the poor and clothe the naked. If you believe the world MUST continually get worse before the End, then action for social justice is useless at best and at worst delays the Second Coming!)

Theologians from many parts of the spectrum have been rethinking this view since the early 1970s. If one punches in “environmental theology” in the Amazon.com search engine, the titles will go on for 100 pages or more. If I were to list just the GOOD works in this area, it would be a long bibliography.  Yet, somehow, not much of this is finding its way into the average pulpits.  I met an environmental lawyer last month who is a fellow Baptist–and told me he has never heard a sermon on care for the Creation!   Some conservative evangelicals are actually anti-environmental because they believe that all those who are concerned for the environment are Wiccans or some other form of neo-Pagan.  Yes, Native American, Wiccan and other “new age” spiritualities do lend themselves to environmental concern, but I would argue that Scripture provides as much or more ecological resources. A knee-jerk reaction of “they are for it so we should be against it” seems terribly shortsighted.

John 3:16, the favorite Bible verse of evangelicals, does not say that “God so loved humankind,” but God so loved the cosmos,” the created universe “that He gave His only Son.”  Christ’s saving death was not on behalf of humans alone, but on behalf of the entire Creation.  “All things in the heavens and on earth, both visible and invisible, have been made through [Christ] and for him. He himself is before all [ta panta] and in him all holds together.  . . . [T]hrough him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” Colossians 1:15-20.  Salvation is COSMIC, including the entire Created order, not just human beings.  In light of this, we need to see the “new heavens and new earth” of the Book of Revelation as a renewed heavens and earth–in continuity with our current order, not de novo after this order is destroyed. And since humans were given the task of stewardship over God’s earth, should we not tremble when we think of God’s judgment on how we have treated this Creation?

How could we have EVER thought that God was only concerned with us humans? Sure, in both Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, humans are called the “image and likeness of God” and no other part of the Creation is given such an honor.  But that hardly means that the rest of Creation has no intrinsic worth, but only worth as far as it is useful to humans–as I have heard so often.  In Genesis 1, every part of Creation is pronounced “GOOD” by God before humans are even around.  In Job, God portrays God’s self as finding food for hungry baby lions, roaring in their dens.  The Psalms are full of the praise of God’s creation.  How have so many churches missed all this and more?

I ask this because I believe God is weeping over the creation we are destroying.  The oil volcano flows onward, BP is not even sure it knows how to stop it, the fishing industry will be destroyed along the Gulf coast for decades–and still our churches are silent.  Where is the Christian outcry on behalf of God’s wounded planet? Where are the church leaders demanding that offshore drilling be stopped and DEMANDING a shift toward a Green Economy? 

Big Oil and Big Coal have big bucks and many lobbyists to look after their interests on Capitol Hill.  But we have the prophetic voices of the churches (and other faith groups).  Can we not lift those voices on behalf of God’s Creation and tell our elected officials to put the planet ahead of the profiteers?  For the sake of God’s wounded world, I hope so.

May 4, 2010 Posted by | environmental ethics, environrnmental theology, eschatology, ethics, theology | 7 Comments

“Papers, Please”: Arizona & Immigration in Christian Perspective (with updates)

Yes, friends, I know I have neglected this blog since Palm Sunday.  My deepest apologies. The truth is that, in addition to trying to catch up on paying writing and family responsibilities, I have been overwhelmed by many current events–and the activist in me supplanted the blogging theologian/public intellectual in me.  I would be mentally composing one column for this blog only to be distracted by new events. I shall try to make up for my absence this month, friends.


By now almost no one in the United States has missed the controversy over the state of Arizona’s new immigration law–which has re-ignited the stalled movement to reform federal immigration laws.  Many overseas have watched the story, too, with various degrees of comprehension.  But before I give biblical-theological reflections–never mind calls to political action–I want to sketch some historical and contemporary backgrown for broader perspective.

The U.S. had no immigration laws at all from the time we ratified the Constitution in 1789 until 1875.  Officially, at least, we favored open borders and welcomed all immigrants.  We were a “land of opportunity” built on waves of immigration.  When the French sculptor Bartholdi constructed the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in New York harbor, the poet Emma Lazarus (an American democratic socialist) wrote a poem (The New Colossus) to raise money for the statue that is engraved at the base–and represents the best of U.S. ideals on immigration. It reads:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“”Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!”” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


But if that famous poem of welcome represents our highest ideals, the reality of our policies has often fallen far short.  A Native American perspective would undoubtedly see all the rest of us as “illegal immigrants” who came–without permission–here, conquered, repeatedly broke treaties with the indigenous nations, stole ever-more of their land, spread disease (often intentionally, such as when smallpox-infected blankets were given as gifts in an early–and devastatingly effective–form of bio-terrorism), massacred millions, forced Native American children into missionary-run schools (paid with federal funds in a huge violation of the “no establishment of religion” clause of the 1st Amendment) where speaking in their native languages led to beatings, etc.  The crimes of the rest of us immigrants against the First Peoples of this continent continue to this day–and demonstrate both the hypocrisy of the anti-immigration feelings of the dominant “white” culture and that securing borders CAN BE necessary for the survival of a nation (or group of nations) or cultures.  Without security in one’s own land, the very existance of a people (or peoples) is threatened–as the genocidal near-extermination of Native Americans shows.

The history of African-Americans shows another tragic face of our bizarre contradictions in this country as they intersect the subject of immigration. Of all the non-indigenous people-groups in this country, persons of African descent are not “immigrants” in the usual sense.  They did not come here voluntarily, but were kidnapped and enslaved–stacked in overcrowded slave ships (often bearing blasphemous names like “The Grace of God,” or the “Jesus,”) whose conditions were so bad that historians estimate that somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the human cargo did not survive and were simply thrown overboard.  Historical records indicate that sharks followed the slave ships for free meals.  No one knows how many millions of African slaves were kidnapped from their homelands and sold throughout the Americas, but sub-Saharan Africa had 200 years of virtually ZERO population growth, so the effect was horrendous.  And when the freed slaves finally had the status of citizens at the end of the U.S. Civil War (and the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution), they were immediately forced into competition and conflict with new waves of immigrants for both “homesteads” (in areas recently stolen from conquered “Indians”) and unskilled and semi-skilled jobs.  African-Americans have sometimes held anti-immigrant views because they feel, rightly or wrongly, that every time they begin, as a people-group, to move up the economic ladder, they are undercut by the arrival of new groups working for less money.  (On the other hand, anti-black racism among some immigrant groups that came shortly after the end of slavery–such as the Irish who are a large part of my family tree–is at least partly traceable to the fact that newly-freed slaves would work for even lower wages than poor immigrants looking for a foothold.)

The U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” built on waves of immigrant labor.  The Chinese and the Irish in the late 19th C., along with African-Americans, built the transcontinental railroads that linked the far-flung nation together.  Numerous other examples could be given.  And, at our best, we have celebrated that heritage as Emma Lazarus did in her poem.

On the other hand, each wave of immigration (always including both legal and illegal immigration–my Irish ancestors met closed doors of a quota system at Ellis Island and so went to Canada and then snuck south into this country!) was met with suspicion and hostility by many.  Especially during economic hard times, immigrants have made convenient scapegoats for problems. I well remember the hostility to the Vietnamese “boat people” refugees during the recession of the late 197os, as well as to Haitians.  Often, our immigrants have been refugees from war–including wars in which the U.S. was a player: Here in Kentucky, recent waves of immigrants have included many from the former Yugoslavia, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Sudanese.

Some significant dates in U.S. immigration history:

  • The Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that “any alien being a free white person may be admitted to become a citizen of the United States.” (Notice the racism of this earliest immigration policy.)
  • 1875, The U.S. Supreme Court declares that regulation of U.S. immigration is solely the prerogative of the federal government (on this ground alone, it seems clear that that Arizona’s new law is unconstitutional).
  • 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act, reacting to fears of the “yellow menace” of Chinese immigration, stopped, for a long time, the legal immigration of Chinese to the U.S.
  • 1885, 1887, laws prohibited certain laborers from immigrating to the U.S.
  • 1891, the federal government assumed the task of inspecting, rejecting, admitting, and processing all persons seeking immigration to the U.S.
  • 1892, Ellis Island is set up as the federal immigration center in New York harbor on 02 January 1892.
  • 1903, for the first time, immigrants crossing the border from Mexico are legally inspected–although informally (and probably illegally) the Texas Rangers and similar groups in other Western states permitted whites to raid Mexican ranches and steal horses and cattle while killing any Mexicans who attempted the same.
  • The U.S. Immigration Act of 1907 reorganized the states bordering Mexico (Arizona, New Mexico and much of Texas) into a Mexican Border District to stem the flow of immigration from Mexico. This had the effect of breaking up many families who had long traveled back and forth visiting relatives.
  • 1917-1924, a series of very harsh immigration laws set strict quotas of immigration–encouraging more Northern Europeans (light-skinned and Protestant), placing strict limits on Jewish immigrants, immigrants from Southern Europe (darker-skinned and Catholic) and banned all Asian immigrants except the Japanese.
  • 1924 Act: Greatly reduced the number of U.S. visas permitting any entrance to the U.S.–a reaction to the refugees from post-  WWI Europe in the America of the Roaring Twenties.
  • 1940, The Alien Registration Act established “green cards.” For the first time, all non-U.S. citizens in the U.S. legally (“aliens”) had to register with the U.S. government and receive a registration card.
  • 1950–The modern Green Card which allowed legal residents (non-citizens) to move and work in the U.S.
  • 1952–Modern immigration system with per-country quotas.
  • 1968–Immigration based on race, place of birth, sex, and residence is struck down. It also officially removed the banning of Asians.
  • 1976–Immigration preference to those from the Western Hemisphere was abolished. This had the unintended effect of making LEGAL immigration from Mexico, Central America, and South America much harder than previously.  The contemporary problem of massive illegal immigration from Mexico has its roots in this law signed by then-Pres. Gerald Ford which was intended to be fairer to African and Asian people seeking immigration.
  • 1980–In response to the crisis of the Vietnamese “boat people” and the Haitian crisis of the late 1970s, as well as refugees from Cuba, a law was passed that formalized the acceptance of all refugees, signed by Pres. Jimmy Carter. Later, Pres. Ronald Reagan would distinguish between “political refugees” and “economic refugees” to claim that those fleeing the military dictatorships in Central America, especially Guatemala and El Salvador, were not “real” refugees and not entitled to entry. In protest, church groups created the “sanctuary movement” harboring thousands of refugees from U.S. backed military dictatorships in South America. Throughout the 1980s, the federal government raided numerous churches and paid people to become members of sanctuary churches and spy on their activities for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  (Full disclosure:  Although never a member of a “sanctuary congregation,” I visited several of these congregations throughout the nation during my seminary days in the 198os and wrote papers and articles on them–advocating resistance to the government’s policy and urging lawmakers to take a wider definition of “refugee.”–so that asylum was not simply granted or rejected based on whether the government of the originating nation was friendly with our government.
  • 1986–In response to the crisis of immigration in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan granted a widespread amnesty to illegal immigrants in this country–in return for a law which tightened restrictions still further on future immigration and gave stricter penalties to letting visas expire, etc.
  • Realizing that the current system was broken, Pres. George W. Bush (in one of the few moves of his I supported) tried in 2007 to get a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law that would allow far more legal immigration, punish companies that knowingly hired or recruited undocumented workers (usually illegal immigrants), would help reunite families, grant partial amnesty to longterm resident illegal immigrants who had broken no other laws and give them a path to citizenship, while strengthening border protections.  It was initially supported by most Democratic politicians and several Republican ones, including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), but was blocked by a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican party.  A federal solution to the problem of immigration has languished ever since–and with border crime and violence, especially from the Mexican drug cartels, on the increase, border states have become increasingly hostile to all immigrants, legal or illegal, and of all persons from South of the U.S. border–even while Mexican tourism is a major source of income.

With this background came the AZ law.  The authors of the law may not have had pure motives.  There is strong evidence that AZ State Rep. Pearce and the orginazation FAIR that he used to help write the law, have very racist ideologies, including ties to the eugenics movement.  Gov. Brewer does not seem to have such far-right ties and I initially thought she signed this law as a harassed governor simply desperate in a no-win situation. But, as Secretary of State, Brewer did purge the AZ voting rolls of Latinos in a fashion that would have made Katherine Harris, former FL Sec. of State in 2000, blush with shame at the audacity of it. So, she may be motivated as much by a desire to suppress Latino voting in her state as by desperation over border security.

Now, to examine the law itself. The AZ law, which was SB 1070, claims to forbid racial profiling (which is unconstitutional) but the details of the law make this a contradiction in terms.  It DEMANDS that local police stop any person who “seems illegal” and ask for proof of citizenship and/or legal residency status.  It leaves up to the officer the decision as to what makes someone “seem illegal,” and what would constitute proof of legal status– in most cases simple driver’s license and Social Security card would be insufficient. I doubt I could pass muster were I to drive through AZ: I only have a photocopy of my birth certificate (the original was long ago destroyed in a fire) and don’t keep it in my car.  Who “seems illegal?” I sincerely doubt that the AZ police will be stopping busloads of Japanese tourists or “snowbirds” with Canadian license plates. Since the law is designed as an answer to the problem of a porous southern border, and especially violent crime from Mexican drug lords, police HAVE to target Hispanics. So, they will listen for Mexican accents and look for brown skin (though anyone who has spent time in Mexico, as I have, knows that Mexico has just as wide an ethnic diversity as does the U.S.–from blonde hair and blue eyes to brown skin and brown eyes, to persons of African descent, etc.). And if they don’t, the law allows any AZ citizen to sue the police for failure to comply.

The law is probably unconstitutional on several grounds: 1) The 1875 Supreme Court decision which says that immigration policy and enforcement is a strictly federal matter. 2) The racial profiling violates civil rights of individuals including freedom of movement. By presuming people are guilty of being in the country illegally until and unless they can prove otherwise, it violates the “due process” of the 5th Amendment–which, among other things, guarantees that everyone, citizen or not, is presumed innocent under the law until proven otherwise–not the other way around.  3) The 14th Amendment applied the Bill of Rights to the states.

But what should we think of this law, not just as Americans or people of good will, but as Christians?  I suggest that we who are Christian should be even more horrified than others about this law.  The Bible promotes fair treatment for foreigners, immigrants, and resident aliens throughout.  The practice of “hospitality to strangers” is made normative in both testaments.  Consider just a few texts:

“Do not oppress an alien.  You yourseves know how it feels to be aliens; for you were aliens in Egypt.” Ex. 23:9

“When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born.  Love him as yourselves for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” Lev. 19:33-34, emphasis added.

Christians are to consider themselves not really at home in ANY earthly country, but as “aliens and strangers on the earth.” Heb. 11:13.  This theme goes back to the founding of ancient Israel. God did not, as commonly said by many, GIVE the land of Canaan to the Israelites. Rather, he let them use the land–a land God claimed for God’s own and in which the Israelites were to consider themselves God’s guests (Lev. 25:23). Actually, this theme has even deeper roots–in Abraham’s call to leave Ur to follow God in faith to some other country “that I will show you.” Wars, famines, plagues–and the call of God–have always led to migration.  (This reminder that the land never BELONGED to Israel would also give a different shape to Mid-east peace talks, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Finally, we must remind ourselves that we meet Christ in the stranger–including the stranger from another land (Matt. 25:35). So our treatment of immigrants and resident aliens, including our perspective on immigration laws, should flow from a desire to treat the resident alien we meet as we would treat Christ–Christ who was, because of Herod’s massacre, a refugee in Egypt for some of his childhood according to Matt. 2:14-16.

In an age of terrorism, it is, perhaps, unreasonable to have completely open borders.  I do not advocate only amnesty.  But I do think the AZ law is an unjust overreaction that no Christian should support.  We need comprehensive immigration reform that brings most undocumented workers out from the shadows and gives them a path to citizenship. We need to remind ourselves that ending wars and working for economic development and a just political order globally reduces many of the reasons people flee to the U.S. (Next time someone gets angry at aid to Mexico, remind them that if they want most Mexicans to stay in Mexico they had better help them form a stable and just nation.) We also need easier LEGAL immigration–importing the skilled and unskilled workers that we need–and making it easy for people to keep their families together, too.

Crime and violence, such as currently rocks Arizona and other border states, must be suppressed–but not by a presumption of guilt by anyone with an accent, with a Latino/a name or certain skin-color, eye-color, hair-color. 

A personal final word: I resent it when people refer to Latino/as as “prone to crime,” lazy, of loose morals, etc. Not only does this insult many of my friends, but it was said about every other immigrant group when they first came to these shores.  The sweeping generalization (i.e., “lie”) hasn’t improved any with time.

UPDATE:  It seems I gave Gov. Brewer too much credit in hoping that she was motivated to sign this draconian law mostly out of fear of cross-border crime.  But the Arizona Republic has done some old-fashioned investigative journalism, today.  They found that, contrary to claims by Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan and by John McCain, it’s NOT about the violence since there is no increase in violent crime along the AZ border in the last decade!  So, for Gov. Brewer, this has to be a continuation of her voter suppression efforts  (of LEGAL Latino/a citizens in AZ) as AZ Secretary of State in order to make GOP electoral victories easier.  And for State Rep. Pearce, this is part of his continued efforts for white supremacy as documented above. 

Racism is alive and well and rampant in AZ–and trying to come to a state near you as more states seek to copy AZ’s law.  So, we have to step up efforts to push Congress for Comprehensive Immigration Reform–this year, before the November elections.  Take voter registration cards to every rally for immigrants’ rights.

UPDATE II: The Washington Post has a good, brief, article on Five (5) Myths About Immigration that is well worth reading and sharing with others.

A CALL TO ACTION:  Join in any local marches for immigration reform and solidarity with immigrants that you can. Bring voter registration cards to every march or rally.  Write, call, & email your senators urging comprehensive immigration reform THIS year.  Support the Schumer-Kerry framework.  Boycott AZ, especially tourism in AZ, until the racist law is removed.  I cancelled our family’s planned trip to the Grand Canyon this summer as soon as Gov. Brewer signed the law.  Contact Gov. Brewer’s office and the AZ Bureau of Tourism and let them know that you are boycotting their state.  Write letters to your local paper against the AZ law.  Contact the Dept. of Justice and urge them to block enforcement of the AZ law as unconstitutional.  If you are clergy, please preach on the “hospitality to strangers” theme that should undergird Christian perspectives on immigration and condemn the racism of most anti-immigrant views.  Thank-you.

UPDATE III:  Arizona’s legislators and governor are not even PRETENDING that this is about illegal immigration anymore. It’s about turning Latino/as, especially Mexican-Americans, into permanently Second Class Citizens.  The state legislature has just passed (and Gov. Brewer signed) 2 more “anti-Brown” laws.  1) No one who has a “foreign accent” will be allowed to teach English in the public schools!  2)All courses in Latino studies are hereby banned.  Neither of these laws has anything to do with immigration. They are blatant attempts to promote white supremacy and a legal (nonlethal) form of ethnic cleansing! 

May 2, 2010 Posted by | civil rights, ethics, justice, oppression, racial justice | 6 Comments