The (Criminal) Body of Christ

When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.

This country’s president and his supporters regularly criminalize entire groups of people, most obviously the immigrants who’ve been called murderers and rapists but also those from so-called shithole countries and the people the administration has labeled animals by dent of their association – actual or perceived – with gang activity. The repercussions of this consistent dehumanizing rhetoric is daily becoming more evident; the stories of children torn from the arms of their families – parents fleeing genuine violence and seeking asylum – are gut-wrenching. But when people are no longer people, simply criminals whose offenses against this country must be punished, we, the citizens of this aggrieved and apparently besieged country, do not have to consider the nuances of the actual human experience. We don’t have to admit our complicity in the violence that has forced these families to make impossible decisions. We don’t have to grapple with the Christian responsibility to love neighbors and welcome immigrants.

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Remaking people into criminals allows us the deception that flesh and blood is no longer human. Our response to other image-bearers of the living God is to slander, cage, and expel them.

When human beings are reduced to criminals, it is time for the church to become criminal as well.

Paul writes that the church is the “body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” This body has a history of being criminalized. Jesus’ life ended as a criminal- arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. It is this identity that rationalized his crucifixon, that allowed the religious and political powers to wash their hands of any guilt. The Galilean heretic and zealot got what he deserved. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, notes that the Roman Empire reserved crucifixion for insurrections and rebels. “It was a public spectacle accompanied by torture and shame – one of the most humiliating and painful deaths ever devised by human beings.” Criminals were crucified and the body into which we are incorporated hung on a cross, as a criminal.

Jesus also commanded his disciples to follow his example by taking up their own crosses as they followed him. We interpret his instructions to be about the sacrifices associated with discipleship, but we shouldn’t miss the meaning of the cross to those first disciples. To them it was a symbol not of spiritual self-denial but of societal criminality. Rebels, rabble-rousers, and young Galileans who fit the description were hung from roadside crosses by the hundreds, their expiring bodies a permanent mark of their non-human status within the empire. By instructing his disciples to pick up their crosses, Jesus was making them criminals in their society’s estimation. As Fleming Rutledge writes in her book about the crucifixion, a church that lives into its true identity is one which understands “itself as the community of the cross, the community that suffers-with (com-passion), the community that willingly bears the stigma of the passion in service to others.”

The church, as Christ’s body, is criminal in the eyes of empires and powers and its members willingly pick up the symbols of dehumanizing criminality in the pattern of our crucified Savior.

Today, though, it seems that American Christianity, at least of the privileged variety, avoids any association with the empire’s criminals in one of two ways. Some have associated so closely with partisan politics that they’ve come to see, through the empire’s eyes, criminals instead of people. And so we hear pastors and ministry leaders rationalize and spiritualize the administration’s violent policies. Others have created a moral high ground, a respectable and seemingly prophetic perch from which to lob sanctimonious pleas about justice without ever drawing near to those who are being oppressed. Identities are created by opposing the president and his supporters without incurring any actual risk. Racial privilege and class segregation keep these Christians safe from being joined together with those who’ve been criminalized.

What is needed in this time of pervasive dehumanization is for churches to reclaim our criminal status.  We must pick up our crosses – our border walls and jail cells – and follow the criminal messiah. We must trade our bland reputations for the fire of his gospel- freedom for captives announced by the crucified one. And we must associate intimately, to the point of being indistinguishable, with each person whose humanity has been made criminal.

“Forgetfulness is the easy way out…”

Innocent history is selective forgetfulness, used precisely to avoid the consequences of a more realistic memory…

Responsible remembrance, on the other hand, leads to responsible action. A clear example is the repeated injunctions to Israel: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21); “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19); and an even more radical consequence of that memory of pilgrimage, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). For white North Americans to remember that they are immigrants and that the land is not theirs would lead to an attitude toward the original inhabitants of the land, and toward more recent immigrants, that the present order cannot bear. Forgetfulness is the easy way out, just as it was for the children of Abraham who refused to remember their bondage in Egypt.

-Justo González, Mañana (1990).

“The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended…”

The revolution out of which our tradition came has not ended; it is accelerating. The movement of those forty million Europeans to the North American continent was only the beginning. There is not place on the globe today that can stand secure and changeless. It is all changing. It is changing before our eyes. No one can predict what will happen to global culture in even the near future. If you have come out of the pilgrim tradition of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the promised Land, and have used that magnificent opportunity only to become a Philistine, then take heed. Do you live comfortably behind high walls and bronzed gates, and worship regularly at the altar of Baal? Are you pleased with the prospects of Social Security and a special pension plan, or the apparent security of America’s nuclear deterrent and the overwhelming power of its society and technology? If that provides comfort, then live in fear and trembling, because it will all be taken away from you as surely as the security of our forebears. I proclaim it.

-Zenos Hawkinson in a sermon in 1978. Hawkinson was a history professor at my denomination’s college and he was addressing a people with strong immigrant memories.

#pray4reform

Immigration reform has been a regular topic on this blog over the years so it’s encouraging to see some genuine momentum in DC toward this legislation.  (If this is a new issue to you then you might  be interested in my two-part interview with Jenny Hwang, co-author of the very important book Welcoming the Stranger: part 1; part 2.)  Over the past few months I’ve sat in a room with one of my Democratic senators and listened in on a conference call with a Republican senator (from a different state); both of these men are in the thick of the effort to pass the legislation currently being debated.

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It’s also been encouraging to see Evangelical folks get behind these efforts.  Some friends have put together a campaign to encourage Christians to pray for the passage of reform legislation that will be just and hospitable to immigrants and refugees.  Check out the #pray4reform website for a bit more information and to commit to pray in the coming days.

Experience Matters

Another article I wrote for the Undocumented blog has now been posted.

“Many church members are too afraid to come to church anymore.”  I was attending a meeting of ministry leaders when the well-respected Hispanic pastor stood to share.  He told us how the police had begun parking near their church building on Sunday mornings, watching as church members came to the service.  “Some of our members have been deported,” the pastor said plainly.  Others, regardless of their immigration status, were afraid to risk an encounter with law enforcement and had begun skipping Sunday worship.

The debate about immigration reform is confusing and there is much about the technicalities that escapes me.  Here’s what was not confusing as I listened to this man grieve over those he has been called to pastor: experience matters.  The way he thinks about immigration is strongly shaped by his real life experience with it.  And if experience has shaped his perspective then it has no less shaped yours and mine.

Read the rest at Undocumented.tv.

Deportation Places Thousands of Children in Foster Care

Not that it was needed, but a report yesterday from the Applied Research Center provides yet more evidence of the devastation caused by our country’s deportation policy.  This time the focus is on the children of those deported, over 5,000 who are now housed in the foster care system with no clear pathway to reunite with their parents.

These children, many of whom should never have been separated from their parents in the first place, face often insurmountable obstacles to reunifying with their mothers and fathers. Though child welfare departments are required by federal law to reunify children with any parents who are able to provide for the basic safety of their children, detention makes this all but impossible. Then, once parents are deported, families are often separated for long periods. Ultimately, child welfare departments and juvenile courts too often move to terminate the parental rights of deportees and put children up for adoption, rather than attempt to unify the family as they would in other circumstances.

The current presidential administration has been incredibly aggressive when it comes to deportation and the rhetoric from most of the Republican candidates is equally ugly (see Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain).  Those of us whose faith compels us to side with the immigrant (with or without papers) are left wondering what courses of action outside of politics we can pursue that best serve the dignity of the voiceless.

How do you think about this issue?  Will immigration and deportation policy affect how you vote in the next presidential election?  In addition to advocating for policy change – a critical need – are there other actions that can be taken?