Friday, June 25, 2010

What Paul might teach us about illegal immigration

I have made a stumbling attempt in some prior postings about thinking, as Christians, about illegal immigration in ways that transcend the various political views that seem to dominate these kinds of discussions. So, after a phone call this morning with one of my daughters, I was inspired to consider how a very short letter in the New Testament might help with this conversation.

The letter of Paul to Philemon is quite short, and it's a wonder that it was ever preserved in the first place. Paul is in prison in Rome and he is appealing to a fellow Christian, a man named Philemon, to receive his slave Onesimus in a way that transcends the requirements of Roman law.

Most scholars would say that Onesimus was a runaway and had become a Christian in Rome, where he was somehow connected with Paul. Roman law permitted severe punishment for the slave when returned to the master, and strong penalties for those who had harbored such runaways. Paul was in a ticklish situation.

Paul's letter reorients the issue away from the requirements and benefits of Roman law to the requirement of love. Paul would have likely held in tension three strains of thought: Roman law (he was a Roman citizen), Jewish law (which allowed the harboring and protection of runaway slaves), and the new ethic of love based in Jesus Christ (which would shift all perspectives and transcend all other laws).

Not only would Philemon (and his church, also addressed in this letter) be called upon to live out the implications of Christian love in showing mercy to Onesimus, but he would also need to live in a reoriented relationship with his slave, receiving him as a brother in Christ. This theme is picked up by Paul elsewhere, where he speaks of a life in Christ in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (see I Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3:11 for examples).

As Roman citizens, both Paul and Philemon could have taken politically-based opinions: Philemon could say that conforming to Roman law was an obedient action and therefore the right Christian response. Paul could say that Roman law was wrong and it should simply be violated. We don't know how Philemon responded, but we do know that Paul didn't take either route.

Paul not only doesn't challenge any sort of legal claim that Philemon might have, he also doesn't address the issue of slavery at all. He seems to accept it as a social reality. Instead, he calls upon Philemon to respond to Onesimus in a new, transformed way. Their reunion is not to be characterized by harsh punishment, but rather by forgiveness and love. Onesimus might still be a slave (we don’t know if he was an indentured servant or a spoil of war), but he would have a new relationship with his master because both had new relationships in Christ.

As we ponder our own contemporary issues, including illegal immigration, Paul's call to live out human relationships in the ethic of the kingdom of God is important to us. Our response has to transcend either the baptizing of our preferred political positions or the embracing of lawlessness. As followers of Jesus, we have to recognize that our relationships to other human beings cannot be limited by national borders or boundaries. Nation-states may be compelled to guard and secure their borders, and perhaps with good reason. But Christians are not in that business. We are not in the business of political/military power, of fostering fear, or of lawlessness. We are in the business of love.

Like the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus--master and slave, now brothers in Christ--we also have sibling relationships with people beyond our borders. Are there illegal immigrants in the US who are our brothers and sisters in Christ? Does that change anything for us? That is not to limit our love to only those who share our faith, but it should cause us to stop and reflect on how Paul might advise us in this situation.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

First Review of Shadow Meal


A Review of Michael McNichols, Shadow Meal: Reflections on Eucharist. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010.
by Gregory Holmes Singleton, PhD, OFR
Community of St. Francis, Chicago

Just as C.S. Lewis presented Mere Christianity by transcending denominational and theological fine distinctions (or flew under their radar—choose the image that works for you), so Michael McNichols wisely brings us into reflective encounters with Eucharist as experienced rather than wrangle with dead-end debates on how real “Real Presence” really is. In place of static definitions, McNichols places the Eucharist in the context of the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions of daily life. Conversely he also puts the complexities, ambiguities and contradictions of daily life in the context of the Eucharist. In so doing, he invites us to think about this “Shadow Meal” as a place where we meet one another in Christ, a place where we meet Christ in one another, and where we experience a foretaste of the feast to come.

McNichols is an Evangelical theologian with considerable pastoral experience. The theologian is certainly present in these reflections, but the pastoral spirit dominates the substance and the style of this book. Some of McNichols fellow Evangelicals may have some problems with his mystical and downright sacramental perspective on Eucharist. Conversely, some Western Catholics, particularly those with a bent for scholasticism, may have difficulty with the lack of dogmatic definition. This Western Catholic Christian reviewer (with a slight touch of Eastern Orthodoxy in him) found the book both a delight and wonderfully instructive. I found food for thought at every page. Like the “Shadow Meal” itself, I was nourished not only when I partook, but the nourishment remains as I continue to contemplate the varied (and often humorous) reflections offered between the covers of this slim volume with huge implications

Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Solution to the Undocumented Worker Presence in the USA

After reading Joel Stein's article on the last page of my current TIME Magazine, I was inspired to come up with a workable solution for dealing with the presence of undocumented workers in this country. I share it with you now.

All undocumented workers would get a special residence card, giving them legal status in the US. They could be hired as employees with no problem, they wouldn't have to fear being stopped by the police for looking like a Central American, a Canadian, or a Lithuanian. They would take a loyalty oath, and then make one crucial and non-negotiable promise:

To spend money like a person possessed by consumeristic, demonic monkeys.

Here's how it would work: In the first year of legality, each person would promise to spend a specific sum of money on non-essentials during that year. So, over and above food, toothpaste and gasoline, they would also have to buy gummy bears, glow-in-the-dark shoelaces, and annual Disneyland passes. Each year, that required sum would increase. So, for example, in the first year, they might have to spend $1,000, $2,000 the next, and so on. Just to make sure they were really serious, along with their special residence card, they would also have to wear an ankle bracelet that kept track of their purchases, like the one Lindsay Lohan has to wear to keep track of her boozing. If they came up short in one year, the deficit would carry over to the next.

After five years, the ankle bracelet would be removed, full citizenship would be granted, and a credit card with a $30,000 limit would be issued. From that point on, consumer spending would be guaranteed, high interest rates would fuel the financial services sector, and the GDP would have new citizens to crank it up, right along with Christmas spending, which of course is what religion is all about (hence the connection to the above image).

I think I've said enough. You can plainly see that this is the best of all possible solutions in the best of all possible worlds.* If you can't chase them out, then suck them into the vortex of spending and debt. Heck, it's the American way! If it works for those of us born here, then it will work for the newcomers.

*With apologies to Voltaire.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Immigration as an electoral catapult

Today is the primary election for governor in the state of California, where I reside. The front-running Democrat is strategically silent about immigration while the Republican candidates spar over who is tougher on the subject. There will be more rhetorical blood on the wall once we get past the primary. The issue has become a catapult to thrust the candidates into the spotlight.

I've posted previously about how churches might consider a response to the immigration issue in a way that doesn't simply sanctify a preferred political position, but rather engages with immigrants (both legal and illegal) with an ethic that reeks of Jesus. See my prior posts for details.

But our country does need to reform its immigration policies. Just building stronger, longer, higher, and more patrolled walls is an insufficient response. Some have suggested amnesty for undocumented workers, and the angry responses make the idea seem as outrageous as recommending euthanasia for people suffering from seasonal allergies (please be disturbed, both my liberal and conservative friends, that the suggestion of amnesty first came from former US President Ronald Reagan in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986).

One thing that needs significant reform is our own nation's self-righteous attitude about the state of undocumented workers in this country (I'm not talking about heinous criminals, so settle down). We have allowed sloppy border security and closed our eyes to the practice of companies hiring illegal immigrants at poverty wages (good, capitalist practice, of course), but then screamed in protest when we suddenly became aware of the millions of people who have taken advantage of the opportunity to crawl out of poverty. We, as a nation, are culpable in this problem, and we need to own up to that. It's a shameful situation, and we Christians ought to be the first to confess the sin, and then offer leadership to our government in responding appropriately.

Neither the words "Democratic" or "Republican" are satisfactory adjectives to precede the word "Christian." And I mean it.