On Fifth Sundays at Open Table, a member of our congregation plans an abbreviated service and shares a story from her or his own faith journey. Then we gather afterward for a relaxing potluck dinner. In lieu of my weekly sermon, I'm posting the address I gave in Fairhope, AL, on Tuesday evening in support of those being injured by Alabama's House Bill 56. I wish I could share the stories of those who attended this rally and gave voice to the specific ways their lives have been harmed by this bill.
Address delivered at Prayer Vigil for Immigrant Justice in Fairhope, AL, April 24, 2012
Several months ago a minister wrote an editorial for the Mobile Press-Register criticizing other clergy in our state for—as he put it—trying to make the legal issue of immigration into a moral one.[i] I respectfully insist immigration is a moral issue. And being neither a legal, political, nor economic expert, I am speaking this evening from a moral/religious perspective. I am calling on our state legislators to repeal House Bill 56 because fear and prejudice are its origins and its products. I am calling for the repeal of fear and hatred.
I’m a pastor. I’m no lawyer. But I do know that not every law is just. I do know our country and state have at times made laws that favor some people over others. Existing laws—like HB 56 or the extensive and complicated federal immigration laws—cannot be justified simply by saying “it’s the law.” If we unthinkingly play the “law and order” card, we imply that anyone questioning the fairness or effectiveness of a law is “soft on crime.” Which is to play upon peoples’ fears.
I’m a pastor. I’m no economist. I hear some folks claiming that noncitizens are taking jobs from citizens, using our resources, evading taxes. But others explain persuasively that immigrant workers are doing the jobs others in Alabama will not do, are creating new jobs, and are paying taxes. They say there’s a net economic benefit to having immigrants living and working in Alabama. I haven’t done the math. But I do know that in hard economic times, people often look for a scapegoat to blame for their woes. Which is often done by blaming a minority group. Which is to play upon peoples’ prejudices.
I’m a pastor. I’m no politician. But I know that once upon a time in Alabama, Jim Crow laws made it legal to mistreat another person just because of his or her race. Some politicians in our state, past and present, have pandered to racism in order to position themselves as the protectors of “our way of life.”
I’m a pastor. I’m no pollster, policy wonk, or rhetorician advising politicians on how to frame the immigration issue. But I do know there are folks on both sides of the aisle who are paid to do just that. According to an article titled “How the Right Made Racism Sound Fair—and Changed Immigration Politics”[ii] we learn: “In the decade since the September 11 attacks, there has been a steady increase in language that frames unauthorized immigrants as a criminal problem. References to ‘illegals,’ ‘illegal immigrants’ and their rhetorical variants now dominate the speech of both major political parties, as well as news media coverage of immigration.”
This trend was evident in a recently televised interview with a sponsor of HB 56 who spoke in seemingly coded language. For instance, the senator mentioned the “threat of terrorism” while discussing the immigration issue as if associating migrant workers in Alabama with the terrorists of 9/11. He speculated on the number of immigrants who might be violent criminals. He complained that “very large liberal groups” from “out of state” are opposing HB 56, which sounds similar to charges segregationists once used against “outside agitators.” And in this legislator’s assurance that Alabama is “taking the lead” in the nation’s headlines on immigration, I heard the echo of the old battle cry for states’ rights.[iii]
I’m a pastor. I’m actually less concerned about laws that are on the books than about the laws written on our hearts (to use an image from Jeremiah 31:33).
I believe within the human heart is written a universal law of love, and it should be the source of all other laws. Of course we need objective, effective laws for protection and fairness. Specific to this topic, we need legal reforms to support a logically consistent and comprehensive and just policy regarding our national borders.
But the public’s discourse and the politicos’ rhetoric on the topic of immigration in Alabama is charged with fear and prejudice. Where is compassion? Where is faith? I want to believe our leaders are not using this issue to grandstand. I want to believe that HB 56 was founded upon a sincere if mistaken desire to protect Alabamians. I can appreciate that impulse. But an intention to defend some does not require that we offend others. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing something out of love for those for whom we bear responsibility when in fact fear or ego may be the driving emotion—or we may act out of a selective love for a particular group of people, which is really prejudice, not love. Defense of my rights, property, safety, and freedom does not have to come at the expense of kindness to strangers, appreciation for difference, and compassion for the most vulnerable.
I’m a preacher. I’m no political speaker. So I remind you that Jesus said the greatest commandment, the most important law in his tradition, was love. Jesus—who was not a legal citizen of the Roman Empire he inhabited, whose parents illegally crossed a border into Egypt to protect their child, who continually traveled as an adult into different territories, who was eventually executed as a criminal—this Jesus urged his followers to start from a place of love. If we have made laws grounded in genuine love for all, everything else will follow.
Let’s repeal fear and prejudice!
Que el amor de Dios sea con ustedes.
[i] Johnson, Rusty. “Morality vs. Immigration: It is Not Un-Christian to Deport Illegal Trespassers” Mobile Press-Register (8 January 2012) 14A.
[ii] Thompson, Gabrielle. “How the Right Made Racist Rhetoric Sound Neutral and Shaped Immigration Politics” in ColorLines: News for Action (13 September 2011). http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/09/how_the_right_made_racist_rhetoric_sound_neutral--and_shaped_immigration_politics.html .