By the Rev. Ellin Jimmerson
A factual certainty about the Bible is that the Old Testament was put together in the aftermath of the Babylonian Deportation of Jewish leadership. It cannot be fully understood apart from the central importance of deportation.
By the same token, there are theological certainties revealed throughout the Bible. One is the unique identity of God. King Nebudchanezzar, it insists, is not to be confused with God. Pharaoh and Caesar are not to be confused with God.
A related theological certainty is that the Kingdom of God and the National Security State constitutively can never intersect. Pharaoh’s, Nebudchanezzar’s, and Caesar’s National Security States are the antitheses of the Kingdom of God. At the Resurrection, God clarified that God and Caesar were not to be confused. God clarified that God was on the side of the Crucified Ones. The God Who Choses Sides clarified that God was aligned with the ethnicities, such as the Jews, who were offered limited protections in exchange for compliance with the Roman Empire. Those limited protections, however, did not extend to the thousands of crucifixions which were reserved for such “protected” ones but which no citizen could suffer.
It was no incidental detail of reporting, but rather a whopping theological claim when the Centurion boldly and subversively proclaimed, “Surely, this man was the Son of God!”
I recall a conversation I had with a Border Patrol agent on a flight out of Tucson a few years ago. Steve told me he had joined the agency because he wanted to help stop drug traffickers. However, after only one year, he was resigning. He told me the job was not really about stopping drug traffickers, it was about turning desperate people over to the government for removal. People who begged him for their lives. People whose background was too similar to his. An abandoned child in Honduras, he eventually had been adopted by American Mennonites. His family took seriously a belief that Caesar should not be confused with God, that the US military apparatus should be not confused with the Kingdom of God. Having turned in his papers, Steve said, “when we militarize our border against desperate people, we act like we don’t believe in God at all.”
On November 20, President Obama outlined his proposals for Executive Actions to further militarize the United States / Mexico border while funneling illegal immigrants into the deportation machine. Here are some of the facts of his speech, facts overlooked by applauding religious leaders. Despite the blowzy, sentimental opening, it took him 40 seconds to get to the heart of his Actions: “Families who enter our country the right way and play by the rules watch others flout the rules. . . . All of us take offense at anyone who reaps the rewards of living in America without taking on the responsibilities of living in America.” He went on to review his past immigration achievements. “When I took office,” he said, “I began by doing what I could do secure our borders. Today, we have more agents and more technology to secure our southern border than at any time in our history.” He lamented the failure of the House of Representatives last year to pass S. 744, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization bill saying that it would have “doubled the number of border patrol agents, while offering undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they paid a fine, started paying their taxes, and went to the back of the line.”
Not only were his words defamatory, they were factually inaccurate. As President Obama, a Harvard educated lawyer and former professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School surely knows full well, there is no back of the line, indeed no line at all, for those from Latin America, Africa, and most parts of Asia who do not hold title to land or have significant amounts of money.
Then, he outlined his Actions. The first item: “We’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do pass over.” Speed the return. Nation of laws. Must be held accountable. Play by the rules. Crack down.
“Here’s the deal.” A deal. Not liberation. Not the lifting of oppression. Not the recognition of humanity. A deal. “Here’s the deal”. (Now I’m going to paraphrase.) Turn yourself into the Department of Homeland Security, apply, pay heavy fines, and maybe we’ll grant you a temporary postponement on deportation. After which, we may indeed deport you. Or maybe we won’t grant you the deferment, but you’ll still be in the deportation system. “Nothing in this memorandum should be construed to prohibit or discourage the apprehension, detention, or removal of aliens in the United States who are not identified as priorities [for deportation] herein,” clarified the Department of Homeland Security on November 20. The National Security State wins. Every time.
But the Crucified One loses. The God Who Takes Sides loses. The Kingdom of God loses.
I am offended that the cruelty of this anti-Exodus was given duplicitous religious cover through the quoting of Scripture: “We were all strangers once,” Obama said, referencing God’s rescue of Pharaoh’s slaves.
The sad thing, the baffling thing from the perspective of those of us who are both close to the people affected and have religious or spiritual reasons for lamenting the Actions is that so many religious leaders and organizations ostensibly devoted to immigrant rights applauded so vigorously and so uncritically.
Have we given up on the Kingdom of God? Have we become so thoroughly adjusted to the National Security State that we have forgotten how to hear the cries of the oppressed?
Kim Ziyavo, a deacon of the United American Catholic Church at Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in Chicago’s inner city, works very closely with undocumented immigrants and homeless people. “I’m saddened to see so many religious leaders and advocates hailing Obama as a hero tonight for his Actions,” she said. “Are we Lazarus, the Poor Beggar, longing for a few scraps from the feast on the Rich Man’s table? Have we longed for those scraps for so many years that now a few moldy bits thrown under the table satisfy us? Are we supposed to be satisfied and declare the Rich Man to be a saint? Dammit! I’m angry to see anyone falling into that trap! Can’t we see? This is the very essence of oppression! Scraps are unacceptable and it is high time Lazarus barge into that banquet hall, his dignity intact, and help himself to the elaborate food that is on the table.”
Militarization cannot reasonably be understood as being somehow separate from deportation. The border was militarized in the first place to keep peoples displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement in their place, disproportionate numbers of which were indigenous. And militarization cannot reasonably be understood apart from the roughly 5,000 migrant deaths which have been an acknowledged part of the US Customs and Border Protection’s Southwestern Border Strategy.
Only recently has Texas’s Rio Grande area topped the lands of the Tohono O’odham, through which migrants have been funneled as part of the Strategy, as ground zero for migrant deaths. So consumed by paranoia is the National Security State that militarization already extends into the Pacific Ocean which could become ground zero if militarization is completed.
Militarization, death, encroachments on indigenous lands and culture, and deportation are the realities of President Obama’s Executive Actions. Bishop Dermot Rodgers is with the Evangelical Catholic Diocese of the Southwest. Bishop Rodgers, grew up in Belfast, Ireland, a city at war with itself. He often offers communion to people at the western end of the wall near San Diego who come to communicate for a few minutes through the wire mesh with loved ones they can only touch with the tip of their little finger. He has serious reservations about Obama’s Actions and believes some people may be put at greater risk of deportation. “I have doubts,” he says, “that the 5 million people said to be included in the plan will in fact benefit from these administrative actions. My heart aches for those families where one member will be spared from deportation while a parent, or grandparent, or sibling now faces an even greater threat of deportation.”
Practicing Catholic and immigration attorney, Carlos A. Batara, in Riverside, California also believes millions may face greater risk of deportation. Therein lies an ethical dilemma. “Let’s cut to the chase,” he says. “What’s my role as a lawyer? Do I decide to be cautious with folks’ futures and refuse to help them apply for the short-term benefits of deferment but which may expose them to potential long-term disaster through deportation? Or do I help my clients get temporary benefits despite the long-term risks?”
Chasity Alvarez, whose husband is in removal proceedings, is not celebrating either. The founder of Fair Unity, a support group for American families whose loved ones are in exile because of deportation or American citizens who themselves are in exile because of deportation, opposes the President’s Actions. “The word of Jesus contradicts them,” she says. “I would rather lose my political standing with those who are cheering than lose my soul. As Matthew tells us, one day the sheep will be separated from the goats.”
Rev. Todd Jenkins, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Fayetteville, Tennessee thinks along the same salvationist lines. Whether through the avenues of politics or religion, “we are in a struggle for one prize,” he says, “the soul of humanity. You can no more baptize politics with a light sprinkling of Scripture than you can sweeten the ocean with a few teaspoons of sugar. We need fewer people patching together scattered verses of Scripture and more people operating out of an anchor sunk deep in our sacred texts’ overarching theme. God’s historical predilection is for all those devoid of power, voice, influence, and control. Until that imperative is given a legitimate seat at the policy table, human and family need will continue to go unaddressed and unmet.”
What will we decide? Will we hear the cries of the oppressed? Will we confess that God and not Caesar is Lord? Will we long for the Kingdom of God or continue to applaud the aggressions of the National Security State? And will we claim any role at all in articulating the differences?
The Rev. Ellin Jimmerson, Ph.D., is Minister to the Community at Weatherly Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville, Alabama and the director of The Second Cooler, a documentary film narrated by Martin Sheen.