Preston Sprinkle recently interviewed John Garland and Dr. Rebecca Poe Hays on the subject of immigration in episode #95 of Theology in the Raw. John Garland pastors a church in San Antonio Texas where he is immersed in ongoing immigration issues. Dr. Poe Hays is Assistant Professor of Christian Scriptures at Baylor University.
The San Antonio area is home to several immigration prisons. Being in San Antonio means the immigration crisis is a daily reality for Pastor Garland, and his church has embraced its position in the world. For that reason, the media often comes to him for stories they can publish on immigration.
When they interview him, he says, they usually are looking for a story that fits a particular narrative. Garland says that most people doing stories on immigration have already developed their narratives when they come to him for an interview. Thus, they are typically looking for a story that fits that narrative.
That characteristic of the media is true on both sides of the political fence. Because of the media focus on certain narratives, Garland estimates that only about 5% to 10% of what we read in the news on immigration describes an accurate picture of what is happening.
Most news stories on immigration are developed according to prefabricated narratives.
One story that the news media doesn’t tell is that it involves the Church. In Garland’s personal experience, the Church is on both sides of the immigration crisis, and the Church is caught in the middle.
When there is crisis, there is often confusion. Soldiers talk about the confusion in the “fog of war”. When we experience crisis in our personal lives, we often lack the clarity, need the clarity that comes from counseling from others who can provide us perspective.
That clarity often comes from people who “have been there” and have wrestled deeply with the struggles we experience. John Garland is someone who “has been there”.
We don’t see in most media reports that the majority of the people coming across the southern border are Christians. Garland speaks from personal experience when he says,
“[The immigrants] are our Christian brothers and sisters, and 85% of them over these last seven years are evangelical Christians…. They sing the same songs as we do.”
The people that Garland and his church serve at the border read Scripture with each other and pray together every night. They worship and serve God. They seek a better life for themselves and their families. They seek safety and freedom.
Garland says that the immigration crisis is very much a 21st century version of the exodus of freedom seekers to the New World.
“This is not a political story, really. That is happening on the news…. It’s a story of the pilgrim church and how we, as a church in America, are receiving the pilgrim church, a persecuted pilgrim church.”
Garland has experienced this reality on both sides of the border. He has spent time in Central America where he watched Christian leaders being driven out by violence and persecution.
In San Antonio, his church is receiving pastors, social workers and Christian community leaders escaping the dangerous and volatile environments they have left behind as a last resort. Garland says,
“This story doesn’t fit into any of the prescribed political narratives that you are generally going to get from the news.”
In the remainder of this blog piece, I will relate the narratives that Garland has categorized in his dealings with the media. He says they boil down to three categories that are reflected in the questions he is asked over and over again.
Garland puts these questions in the context of the Church. The first question the media asks is about the law: Are the asylum seekers breaking the law? Is it legal? And from a church perspective: Are people Christians if they break the law?
The second question is always about resources: Why don’t they take care of themselves? Why don’t they take care of their own problems? Why should we help them? Why should we have to pay for them?
The last question is always about change: Is this going to change our economy? Is it gong to change our culture? Is it going to change the way worship and read Scripture?
John Garland speaks to the Church that sits north of the border on the immigration crisis. We are part of the story. We are very much part of the immigration crisis, though most of us may be more insulated from it than a church in San Antonio, TX.
As with any crisis, we face not only confusion, but fear. As followers of Christ, we know the answer to any crisis is faith. We must not give in to the fear that always accompanies a crisis.
The roots of the questions the media asks are fear, Garland says they involve fear of illegality, fear of limited resources, fear of change. Dr. Rebecca Poe Hays adds a key observation that these are very human concerns, and (most importantly) these are concerns that God addresses all throughout Scripture.
The concern about “legality” is a particular preoccupation and focus of Scripture, itself. God gave Moses Ten commandments, and the Mosaic Law was developed in the context of establishing the nation of Israel’s relationship with God. Jews in Jesus’s time and Christians today are preoccupied with a concern for following the law.
Following the Law is a key theme in Scripture from the point when Moses received the Law forward. It continued as a prominent theme in the New Testament when Jesus had many confrontations with the religious leaders in his day over interpretation and application of the Law.
Those confrontations are not unlike the tensions we see today in the immigration context. Entering the United States without a valid passport or visa and remaining in the US contrary to the applicable rules is illegal. How do we, as Christ followers, respond?
Jews were followers of the Law in Jesus’s day, and Christians are, likewise, respecters of the rule of law today. We need to recognize, though, that Jesus took issue with the way the religious leaders in his day conducted themselves in relation to the Law, and we should take heed to his response.
Pharisees tithed down to the minutia of mint, dill and cumin, but Jesus said they “neglected the weightier matters of the law, like justice, mercy and the love of God. (Matt. 23:23; and Luke 11:42) What do his words to them mean for us?
The religious leaders took issue with Jesus healing on the Sabbath because it didn’t fit into the exceptions they developed for keeping the Sabbath rest. The religious leaders took issue with the disciples gathering grain from the fields on the Sabbath for the same reason.
I believe we need to assess why Jesus took issue with their handling of the Law in this regard. I believe it has application to us today in regard to the immigration crisis
We run the same danger as the religious leaders in Jesus’s day that we might be dividing the law in the wrong way. We might be missing the forest for the trees. We applying the letter of the law when the spirit of the law requires a different application. As Paul said,
the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Cor. 3:6)
I will come back to this, as I believe this is a key theological issue fur the US Church on the immigration crisis. Our misunderstanding of the relation of the law to the immigration crisis creates a stumbling block that prevents the Church on this side of the border from responding to the immigration crisis as I believe Jesus would have us respond.
Jesus often challenged the people who followed him on the issue of resources. He urged people to seek the kingdom of God first. (Matt. 6:33) He urged them not to worry about resources, because God will take care of those who seek first His kingdom and His righteousness. (Matt. 6:25-34)
Jesus told the rich young ruler he must sell everything to follow him. (Matt. 19:21) Jesus told a man who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
Thus, we cannot prioritize resources over following Jesus. When we stand in front of Jesus, we do not want to hear these words:
I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. (Matt. 23:42-43)
John Garland speculates that some of these questions from “come from a place of feeling like we are doing pretty well right now, and we don’t want change”, but, Garland added, “Jesus loves change.”
One of the reasons the 1st century Jews didn’t embrace Jesus was because of their traditions; they were afraid to change. At the core of the rich young ruler’s response to Jesus (when he walked away sad) was a fear of change.
Those who followed Jesus when he invited them responded to the fear of change by faith. When Jesus called Peter to drop his nets and follow him, Peter responded in faith, and he followed. When God called Abraham to leave his home and go to a land he did not know, he responded in faith and went.
Rebecca Poe Hays notes that the prophets in the Old Testament are always rising up in times of change, when resources are short and the future was uncertain. She says those times of crisis and change test us more than the good times do.
We commonly see and experience God working in our lives most intimately in times of crisis and change. When we respond in faith to let go of what is familiar to us, God meets us and transforms us. The whole point of being born again is transformation. God desires transformation in us:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Rom. 12:2)
Thus, Paul urges us to put off the old self and the former ways we thought and lived and to put on the new self that is created to be like God, letting the Spirit renew our thoughts and attitudes. (Eph. 4:20-24) Part of this transformation is letting the love of God change us:
We love because God first loved us. (1 John 4:19)
Love is ultimately the measure of our transformation. Love is the standard, because God is love! (1 John 4:16) Thus John says,
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20)
If John Garland is right, and a key story of the modern immigration crisis is the Church, we might ask ourselves: How do we measure up?
If a majority of the people crossing the border are Christians – brothers and sisters in Christ – how should we respond? Even if they were primarily unbelieving masses, how should the body of Christ respond?
Do stand with the letter of the law? Or do we seek to understand and live by the Spirit of the Law?
In Jesus’s day, the law that concerned the Pharisees was the Law of Moses, but Jesus took them to task for neglecting the Spirit of the Law (the weightier matters of justice, mercy and love of God). Dogmatic adherence to the rules is not the end of the Law.
The Law of Moses was never an end in itself; it was only a guardian and a tutor; it pointed to something greater than the Law.
When we do that we miss the forest for the trees. When we focus on strict adherence of the letter of the Law, but miss the Spirit of he Law, we have missed everything.
When a matter is weightier, it has higher priority. Thus, Jesus is saying that justice, mercy and God’s love has higher priority to God than obedience to the letter.
Perhaps, this is because these things are at the heart of who God is! God is love. Justice and righteousness are the foundations of His throne. (Ps. 89:14) God says through the Prophet, Micah, that this is what He wants from us:
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
Today, we contend not with the Law of Moses, but with the law of the United States of America. Though the USA may be the greatest nation on earth, it is still only a kingdom of this world
We should respect authorities and render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, but we should not neglect weightier matters like justice, mercy and the love of God because those things are aspects of the timeless character of God.
In the companion piece to this article, I will explore the reality of the immigration laws in the US through the eyes of John Garland, who lives with them through his church in San Antonio. I will explore in more detail the relationship of the letter of the law to the Spirit.
John, and others like him, are living demonstrations of what it means to respond to the call of God to welcome strangers, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give water to the thirsty and to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. I believe this is a crucial moment in the history of the US Church. How do we follow Christ in the immigration crisis?