#DACA and the Failure of Atonement in the American Church

UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design
UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design

The wake of the DACA program’s demise leaves me once again demoralized by the cynicism and intransigence in our nation’s immigration policy. One of the few things that the US Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO agree upon is the need for comprehensive immigration reform that isn’t punitive but comes out of a rational conversation based on actual economic considerations. What has consistently sabotaged every attempt at bipartisan immigration reform is the moralistic fury of the white evangelical base of the Republican Party, for whom normalizing the status of undocumented immigrants amounts to “rewarding criminal behavior.” And that attitude is precisely what Jesus’ cross is supposed to save us from.

Right now, the number of H-2A visas issued for temporary blue-collar migrant labor is cynically low. There is currently room in our economy for about 20 million independent contractors doing roofing, carpeting, landscaping, plumbing, farm labor, and similar blue collar temporary jobs. Many of the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants in our country are employed as independent contractors, filling a legitimate niche in our economy in a brutal labor sector that few citizens are willing to enter (and all of those immigrants are consumers who spend most of the money they earn immediately in our economy which creates jobs for other people largely in the service industry). Currently, the US is issuing only about 75,000 annual H-2A visas to cover a field with 20 million jobs, because it’s easier to control and exploit immigrant workers when they don’t have papers.

A rational, pragmatic solution would be to develop a temporary worker visa for independent contractors which would enable them to travel back and forth across the border according to the ebb and flow of the job market. These visas would need to be issued in much higher numbers (i.e. 10 million, not 75,000) that actually reflected the job market. Currently, every illegal trip across the border is at least a $5000 investment, which means that returning to visit your family south of the border is inconceivable, which is what incentivizes emigrating your family to the United States completely instead of migrating back and forth while your family remains in your home country where the cost of living is incredibly less and the culture is familiar. A temporary worker visa would disincentivize emigration by making seasonal migration possible.

I don’t know if this is the perfect solution, but it’s the best one that I could come up with after decades of studying the issue. And the reason I could think in these terms is because I haven’t moralized immigration. I don’t see entering our country without authorization as a moral failing whether it’s to find work or to flee the drug cartels. Part of this is because I’ve spent most of my adult life in close relationship with undocumented immigrant families. They made me part of their family. So I’m definitely biased.

I can respect that there are boundaries and policies that have to be established to prevent chaos and provide the best for our country’s economy and safety. What I absolutely reject is any moralistic judgment of people for doing something I never had to do simply because I was born north of the Rio Grande. And the reason I reject this form of ungrateful, presumptuous moralism is because I’m a Christian who stands entirely upon the justifying grace of Jesus Christ.

When I accept Jesus’ sacrifice for my sins, what I am saved from is the meritocracy and self-justification that makes me toxic. If Jesus did in fact “pay it all,” then making sure that other people pay for what they’ve done should never again be a factor in my thinking. Insofar as Jesus’ sacrifice is retributive, it invalidates every other demand for retribution. The way the apostle Paul puts it is to say, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:23-24). If Jesus’ cross actually accomplished what Paul says it did, then no human being is illegal, no matter what. Living in the reality of Jesus’ atonement creates an entirely different, post-retributive framework for ethics going forward.

Jesus makes it very clear in his parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:21-35 that I cannot accept his payment for my sin without accepting his justification of every other human being simultaneously. And many Christians in our country are behaving exactly like the unmerciful servant in the parable, going around and finding other servants to jack up and collect debt. It’s not that only professing Christians receive God’s grace and everyone else doesn’t. It’s that professing Christians are supposed to have accepted the fact that everyone receives God’s grace, while people who haven’t accepted the post-retribution reality of Jesus’ kingdom continue to operate according to the premise that everyone has to “pay” for what they’ve done.

When Jesus’ atonement actually works on people, they cease to be concerned with making sure that everyone else gets what they deserve and instead concern themselves with making sure everyone else gets what they need. We need to be safe and we need to be loved. We need to have an opportunity to discover our gifts and worship God. Some people need to go to prison to be kept from harming others and receive the best social and psychological rehabilitation they can for the safety of their communities (which might actually happen if our citizens were not satisfied with prison being a profiteering industry with a strictly punitive role). In the post-retributive world order that Jesus’ atonement was supposed to create, there should be no place for moralistic judgment. There is only keeping people safe and helping damaged people find liberation and healing.

None of what I’ve said here should be controversial to even the most conservative evangelical. This is not liberation theology. This is straightforward penal substitutionary atonement which has failed catastrophically to shape the hearts of the white evangelicals who are keeping their legislators from enacting rational, pragmatic immigration reform. The punitive, retributive mindset of penal substitution’s most ardent enthusiasts is a far more devastating indictment of its theology than any philosophical consideration. It has mostly failed to do what Jesus said that atonement is supposed to do to people. Perhaps I will be surprised in the next six months and some of the self-professed born-again Christians in Congress will actually remember Romans 3:23-24 and Matthew 18:21-35 so that their politics can embody the mercy that is supposed to the chief fruit of Christian atonement.

Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity!

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