Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Should Christians Respond to the Immigration Debate?

Perhaps the most beloved story in the Gospels, and indeed maybe the favorite story for many from the entire Bible, is the story of Jesus’ birth. Even when it is not the time for Christmas, the familiar Nativity story lives on in our hearts and minds, narrating for us the incarnation of God into the world in the person of Jesus. Yet, while we celebrate and retell the story with feelings of warmth and comfort, from its beginning to its end the story is a narrative about the rejection of Jesus as a stranger and alien in a foreign land.

Luke tells us that when Jesus was born Mary laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for him in the inn. Matthew narrates a story about a young family having to live a nomadic life because of the threat of governing authorities. While these stories may not be entirely historical, both birth narratives reflect what Jesus knew to be true about his own life, “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Throughout his life, while Jesus did gather a small following, in most cases, he was rejected. The story of the incarnation, then, is a story about how the God of creation had entered into that creation as a rejected alien and stranger.

While the nation’s attention has been focused on health care reform, one of the most vital issues that has been and will continue to be debated is the issue of immigration. Indeed, the debate over immigration is closely linked to the issue of health care reform, as many have voiced there opposition to any government funded health care that treats persons who are in the United States illegally. Many others, however, have argued that we have a moral obligation to care for all, whether they are here legally or illegally.

I am ill-equipped to answer questions about immigration from a legal stand point, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of various positions on the issue. But as Christians who follow a Savior who himself lived as an alien rejected by his own, I am troubled that many folks are not concerned about developing a compassionate response to the immigration issue.

Since the horror of 9/11, xenophobia has once again raised its ugly head in our country. This fear of foreigners has grown out of a return to an entrenched and zealous patriotism that has gone too far in its understanding of America as the only culturally pure society. Yet, some blame must also be placed on our fear of not feeling secure and the perception that American culture is under threat. Such xenophobic tendencies may overtly or implicitly influence our feelings about immigrants and our political positions on the issue of immigration.

How might Scripture inform us as we struggle to formulate common sense and faithful Christian responses to the issue of immigration? First, we need to recall God’s commands to Israel regarding aliens in their midst. The Mosaic Law states that God is one “who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.” Moses goes on to command Israel to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find that followers of Christ are called citizens of the Kingdom of God, and alien and strangers to the world. The Christian movement negated ethnic differences and crossed boundaries of ethnic separation to welcome all into the Kingdom of God. Jesus consistently reaches out to the outcasts of society, even the Gentile, who were viewed as ethnically inferior by the Jewish religious leaders. Paul reaffirms the breaking down of ethnic divisions by stating that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as both have been joined together into one new humanity (see Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:14-22).

One thing we must keep in mind is that most immigrants we see and meet in our communities are not illegal immigrants. They are law abiding citizens who desire a better economic and political life for themselves and their families. We should remember that at some point in history our ancestors were immigrants to this country seeking exactly what immigrants to the U.S. seek today. Moreover, we cannot simply blame immigrants for problems such as crime, loss of jobs, or other social programs. These problems would exist even if there were no immigrants.

As people of faith, we should be informed about this important issue and voice our religious conscience. But if we claim to follow Jesus, we need to make sure our views are more informed by the compassion of our faith than the fear our culture feeds us. Our positions on the issues surrounding immigration must not only model the teachings of Jesus on welcoming the strangers and outcasts, they should also be views that see the person of Jesus in every human being. If they do not, we may find ourselves asking Jesus, “When did we see you as a stranger?” only to hear, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:31-46).

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Jesus, Christians and the Politics of Health Care

In recent days I have received and heard comments from folks who are against health care reform because, as they say, “Jesus would not worry about health care reform, because Jesus was not concerned with politics.” Most of these people stress that Jesus was about saving souls; that his message was strictly spiritual and focused on each person having a personal relationship with God. While this might be somewhat true, anyone who reads the Gospels should understand that Jesus’ spiritual message of salvation was only a small part of his ministry.

Such comments by Christians point to one sad fact about American Christianity: Many Christians are ignorant to the social justice message of Jesus. Preferring to see Jesus in only spiritual terms, and his message as only about salvation and heaven, we often miss the significance of Jesus as a political figure. But if we are to call ourselves Christian, we must broaden not only our understanding of Jesus’ message as having social and political ramifications, we must also be open to how that message shapes how we live socially and politically today. Certainly this should influence how Christians should treat the current health care debate.

But in being a prophetic and political voice, Jesus stood in a line of tradition extending back to the vocation of Israel’s prophets, who were called by God to confront the leaders of Israel with their injustices. God’s messengers were not simply proclaiming a spiritual message that had nothing to do with how the powerful treated the oppressed and marginalize. Rather, the messages of the prophets were deeply political, and they spoke judgment against those who did not side with the poor.

Israel’s leaders, who were to be the shepherds and caretakers of God’s people, were charged by God to govern people with justice, to strengthen the weak, to feed the hungry, and to shelter the displaced and homeless. These leaders were charged by God to be generous in their leadership, and they were judged by God when they kept their positions through political compromises with the rich and powerful. When Israel’s leaders failed in their God ordained responsibilities, the prophets served as the voice of God’s judgment.

It is this same prophetic and political message spoken by the ancient prophets and particularly by Jesus that must continually challenge the political leaders of our own day. In many respects, our government leaders have failed in their faithful roles as shepherds of the people, for they have failed to feed the sheep, to strengthen the weak, and to heal the sick. Like the political leaders judged by Jesus, they have cared more for themselves and their political agendas and careers.

At a time when our national leaders seem to be hesitating and playing political games over health care reform, we should be asking our leaders some very serious questions about their leadership. Why can’t the richest country in the world provide quality health care for all? Why do many of our leaders side with big insurance and pharmaceutical companies instead of with those who need quality and affordable health care? Why do they listen to the lunatic fringe of the right wing misinformation machine, instead of standing firmly on what is right and just for the vulnerable of our nation?

Yet, we must not place all the blame on these leaders, for many of the citizens of this country, and tragically many who claim to be Christian, are also standing vehemently against any sort of reform. What baffles me is that these detractors claim to be Christian, and in some instances use Christianity as a basis for their stance.

For example, in one video clip of one of those circuses some call town hall meetings there appears a woman pointing to her Bible as if to say that the Bible is against health care reform. In another one of those meetings, a man screams at Senator Alan Specter, informing the Senator that God will judge him if he supports health reform. Honestly, I am not sure these people read the same Bible as I do, and I am certain they do not follow the Jesus that we read about from that Bible.

If we read our Bible carefully, we will find that God is always on the side of the poor and vulnerable. If we are to be on God's side of the issue of health care, then we must side with the poor and vulnerable of this nation. We can and we must speak with greater authority, even if those who stand against health care reform continue to scream. We have the power to change things, if we only will.

Like Jesus, we need to have a sincere consciousness about the plight of people in our country, especially the vulnerable. We have a moral and godly responsibility to care about this issue and especially the people who are greatly affected by this problem. We must, if we claim to follow Jesus, speak up for the vulnerable of our nation; we must be the voice of the voiceless. If we are not, then we cannot claim to follow Jesus.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Are We Really Born Sinners?

Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist church, I was continually exposed to the well known practice of preachers, and especially those evangelists, who would annually slip into the town for “revival” services. Those revival meetings would offer a time in which we would sing the good old hymns of the church as a warm up for the hell and damnation sermons we would be subject to later in the service. Horror stories and fear tactics were the modi operandi of these preachers, as they warned the attendees about leaving the service with the chance of dying that very night and spending an eternity in hell.

Lengthy and gut-wrenching invitations were given, pleading to the emotions of those who looked for salvation from what the preacher promised would happen if one did not come to the front and confess one’s sins, through a correct structure of words already prepared for those who would come. The promise to those who did come forward was a place of eternal peace and tranquility when one did die. But to those not coming forward, there was only hopelessness extended to them.

I am sure my story is a familiar one to many, and it is still a story that is lived in many churches and through many well-meaning, but misguided, Christians who hold to the medieval idea of the complete depravity of every human being. Many churches are in the business of condemning people, and are more focused on making people feel guilty, than they are in living out their faith in Christ by loving others. James Joyce was perhaps correct in assessing that, “There is no heresy or no philosophy which is so abhorrent to the church as a human being.” The church does a very good job of telling us how sinful we really are.

No one can deny the fact that humans commit sin. The empirical evidence is clear. However, though we do commit sins, and at times some commit terrible sins, the view that people are totally depraved and under the condemnation of a judgmental God should be rethought from a critical approach to the biblical material.

The classic biblical text from which we can begin to rethink this issue is the Genesis story of the creation and fall. This symbolic story is a theological telling by early Hebrews of the creation of humanity in the place of paradise, and the eventual failure of the human figures of Adam and Eve to remain obedient to God’s command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil placed in the garden by God; a very interesting and perplexing twist in the story itself.

In the narrative, God creates both male and female in God’s own image. Though they are humans bound to space and time, the Imago Dei is given to them as a blessing from their Creator and as an abiding presence of God with them. Though they are part of the nature that God has created, these humans are differentiated from the rest of creation because they bear the mark of God as an expression of God’s very being and character. In this sense, humans express the very manifestation of God in their existence, and God declares this as very good.

But, as the story unfolds, the tranquility of the garden is disturbed by the human choice to sin. It is their choice to disobey God that causes them to be banned from the peace of the garden to enter a world of struggle, pain, and even death. The innocence of creation is broken by the human free choice to sin.

While this story is rich with symbolism, we must remind ourselves that this was Israel’s way of theologically explaining how the world came about and why humans do what they do. Starting from their understanding of God as existing with no rival, their monotheism led them to understand God as supremely benevolent and powerful. Thus, the God of Israel is the Creator of all that existed not only because God is powerful enough to create out of nothing, but because God is also benevolent in the act of creation.

God creates humans in God’s own image as a way of sharing God’s being with them. In this way, God enters into a relationship with humans not based on fear and power, but based on covenant love. God does not create those who obey out of fear, nor does God create those whose obedience is involuntary. Rather, God creates humans with free will, and obedience to God is a free choice to obey out of love and trust, not fear.

But the story tellers of Israel must deal with the reality of the human sin that they see in their own world. Sin for them, as it is for us, is not a theoretical concept, but one that is found in the reality of human existence. Thus, as the story teller tells of the creation of the world from a theological point of view, he must also tell of the origination of human sin from a theological point of view.

If God is perfect and benevolent, and if God creates humans in God’s own image, then God must create those humans as originally perfect and God must give them free choice. Thus the prospect of humans choosing sin is inherent in the act of creation itself, and therefore the creation is a divine risk, a risk that, according to the narrator, went awry.

But there is a question we must ask. Why does God not choose to start over? Certainly, it is because of love that God chooses to remain faithful to the humans God created, refusing to simply scrap them and start afresh. But by not choosing to start over, God holds out the possibility that humans will respond to God’s love through obedience. In other words, though the symbolic first humans, Adam and Eve, chose to sin, God, by not scraping the creation, holds out hope that future humans will respond to God’s benevolence through living as God intends for humans to live.

If this is the case, then we may need to rethink the idea that humans are sinful by nature. Yes, humans will continue to choose sin, but the human choice to sin is not in and of itself proof that we are natural born sinners. If it is true that we are born to sin, then how is it that humans can do good? While we can always point to the evidence of human choices to sin as a way of supporting the argument that humans are sinful by nature, can we not also point to the evidence of human choices to do good as a way of supporting the argument that humans are essentially good by nature?

Although the Genesis narrative tells of Adam and Eve’s choice to sin, it does not necessarily lead us to conclude that we are born with a sin nature. The image of God, the blessings of God’s being and presence is what is inherent in every person. And though we will continue to sin, God’s image continues to abide in us as that which can lead us to do good.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Refuting Lies About Health Care Reform

NOTE: The following is a "Letter to the Editor" that will appear this week in the Daily Siftings Herald, the local paper, in response to comments concerning health care reform made by local people interviewed by Dr. Bill Downs that appeared in the paper on Monday, August 3. You can probably gather the kind of comments made from my wording.

I read the comments in Dr. Bill Downs’ Monday column from people who expressed their displeasure at the current push to reform our health care system, and I must say that I found some of the arguments unsatisfying and erroneous. I thought I would offer rebuttals to some of the remarks.

First, the idea that this is an example of the “government gaining control of our lives in every way possible,” and that it will “erode our liberties,” is a great example of irrational thinking; the kind of irrationality that fear mongering commentators on Fox News and conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh are using to cloud and stall the issue. For them, the issue is not health care; it is their bruised pride over loosing the presidential election.

The reality is that the options being seriously considered by lawmakers would allow those who have coverage to keep their coverage, if they so choose. They will not be forced into a government run health care, and this is not a secret plan to socialize health care or for the government to take control of our lives.

Second, the argument that the private sector can solve this crisis is ridiculous. They have had their chance, and yet health insurance premiums and health care costs keep rising. Health insurance companies are paying for less and less care, and there are growing numbers of people losing their health insurance. While some argue that government managed health care would mean that bureaucracy will stand between us and our doctors, the reality is that this is already happening. The insurance companies, who are in business to make a profit, are the current gatekeepers deciding who and what gets covered.

Third, if we are going to use the Preamble to the Constitution as an argument against health care reform and universal health care coverage, then we best pay close attention to the statements that speak of establishing justice and promoting general welfare. Would not justice be more fully established and the general welfare of all people in this nation be improved if affordable and quality health care is provided for all?

While many make the argument that universal health care will impinge upon our freedom, this claim is only a pretext for securing what we truly worship: Prosperity. We are concerned more for the economics of the issue, and by this we mean our own personal prosperity. But we must come to realize that governmental budgets are moral documents, and sacrificing to ensure that those without affordable and quality health care are covered is the moral thing to do, even for “the alien in our midst.” In fact, not to do so is immoral. It is interesting that those who are adamantly against universal health care are those who have good and affordable health care. Why worry about our neighbors who don’t have such care?

Furthermore, the idea that “It doesn’t work, it costs too much, it will bring down this nation,” is the most ridiculous thing I have heard someone say in this debate. No rational thinking person should jump to such conclusions, and again, this is a position based on misinformation provided by those same fear mongers.

The real economic argument is not that it will cost too much to reform health care. Indeed, the very opposite is true. If we do not take this opportunity to reform our health care system in this country, then we will continue to see costs rise, insurance premiums become unreachable even for those who have health insurance now, and insurance companies continue to refuse coverage even as they rake in billions in profits each year. Estimates suggest that before we reach mid-century, over 30% of our GDP will be consumed by heath care costs ( Moreover, research indicates that 60% of bankruptcies in the U.S. are due to health care expenses; a percentage that is sure to rise if we maintain the status quo (

Concerning the claim that it doesn’t work, there have been commentators who have cited the health care systems of Britain and Canada as evidence for their position. But most of those who make this argument don’t really know what they are talking about. They have focused on a limited amount of evidence to prove their point, but have failed to truly investigate the overall experience of those who live in these countries. As one who lived in Britain for two years, with a spouse and three young children, I believe I can speak with greater authority on this issue than those who simply guess.

Though we were not British citizens, we were afforded the same health care Britons received. My kids’ prescriptions were free, and my wife and I paid a minimal amount for any medications we needed. When any of my children were very ill in the middle of the night, we did not have to go to the emergency room or wait until the next day to visit a physician; a doctor came to our house in the middle of the night to treat our children.

Both my wife and my oldest son had surgery while in Britain, and both were well cared for. In fact, my son needed surgery after he injured his face in a fall at school. His lip was so torn that the hospital called in a highly respected plastic surgeon to do the surgery. Without this surgery his lip would not have healed properly. Moreover, during his hospital stay he was given overwhelming attention from the hospital staff; more attention than he would have received at most hospitals in America. All of this care was given to us free of charge. Without the availability of this care, I am not sure what we would have done.

Are there problems with the British and Canadian systems? I am sure there are. But I am also sure that their problems do not come close to the problems we have right now in our health care system, and yet their systems cover everyone.

In my view, the health care issue is the most significant economic and moral crisis we face in this country. But crises are always times of opportunity. The question is whether we will take this opportunity to reform this system so that all can be covered, or whether we will maintain the status quo and continue to talk about the 46 million people who do not have adequate health care as if they do not exist. This is a disgrace on our national conscience, it fails to live up to our creed of justice for all, and it puts us in a place of shame in this world.