Can ICE and Immigrants Worship Together?

Can ICE and Immigrants Worship Together? November 24, 2018

CityWell church members blocking an ICE van

Yesterday my friend and mentor Brian Zahnd got a lot of flak for tweeting about his church having both ICE agents and undocumented immigrants in its pews. The same day, dozens of members of the CityWell church in my hometown of Durham, NC were arrested for blocking an ICE van when ICE agents captured a church member who had been living in sanctuary in the church for almost a year. So what does it look like to be a faithful church in a country whose government is aggressively tearing apart immigrant families?

Can ICE agents and undocumented immigrants worship together in the same congregation? The only way to answer that question is to ask whether the ICE agents can put their allegiance to the kingdom of God above the duties of their job and whether their fellow congregation members would stop them from harming immigrant families if they need help submitting to Jesus’ authority.

Ever since Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon released Resident Aliens, moderate evangelicals have been preaching about putting God’s kingdom above national politics. In a divisive society, the Eucharistic table is supposed to bring both sides together. A church that’s doing its job ought to be purple instead of red or blue. Creating a space where political differences are set aside for the sake of recognizing our common humanity is itself a valid and important aspiration.

But has the Eucharistic table really done its job if its only accomplishment is to create a space for an hour a week where Republicans and Democrats sing songs and share crackers and grape juice? If it’s really working, then it actually reorients our entire understanding of who we belong to and which rules we need to follow. This is precisely what Zahnd argues in Beauty Will Save the WorldInstead of orbiting an axis of power, we are drawn into orbiting an axis of love.

If we define ourselves primarily as the body of Christ, then we heed the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 12: if one part of the body suffers, then all parts suffer with it. So if one member of a church can be ripped away from his family and have them thrown into chaos and poverty, then the other members of that church are not going to step back and let it happen without putting their physical bodies on the line.

When Jesus says that his disciples must be willing to take up their crosses and follow him, he immediately clarifies that this actually involves risking your life. Taking up your cross is not the same thing as being a compliant rule follower who simply adds a set of Christian “Thou shalt nots” to the other laws you obey. Taking up your cross means stepping enough out of line from the duties of imperial respectability when God’s mercy compels it that you risk being stripped naked and nailed to two pieces of wood on the side of the highway.

The way that the kingdom of God is established on earth as it is in heaven is through empire-defying cruciform discipleship that the Eucharistic table is supposed to inspire. Whose authority do Christians ultimately accept? Is it just a vague sense of “law and order” that merges the official authority of the state and the institutional church? Or is it the naked, gasping divine human on the cross who said plainly that he is with whoever else is being crucified? If your compliant respectability blocks you from specifically disobeying Caesar in order to defend those who are defenseless when the Holy Spirit commands it of you, then your authority is law and order. If your authority is the crucified Jesus, then your obedience will be manifested in the risks you have taken.

When Christians block ICE vans from tearing apart immigrant families and destroying lives, they are embodying the kingdom loyalty that Stanley Hauerwas writes books about. At the same time, I don’t think that kingdom loyalty requires banning ICE agents from your congregation. Isn’t it better to have people trained in cruciform discipleship in such roles? An ICE official whose heart is changed by his or her exposure to the kingdom of God is going to cause less harm than one who is not.

Not everyone is in a place in their discipleship journey to do what CityWell did yesterday. Nor is everyone called to that specific form of solidarity. CityWell has an important witness to share and so does Brian Zahnd. Because our kingdom ethic is not about ideological purity, but about creating a different axis for our reality. What’s relevant to me is the challenge to go deeper in my journey toward discipleship.

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