As we continue to talk about the intersection of faith and social justice over this Lenten season, I can’t help but remember a time in my first congregation. I was having a discussion with a member when out of the blue, they volunteered, “I don’t like talking about social justice.” Of course, I asked why and she responded, “Because it’s too hard.” It was an interesting answer, and while she was the first, others have shared the same sentiment. For her, what was too hard about the discussion of justice was the fact that often what was just went against everything she knew. At one point she said, “I don’t like that if I have to be just, I also have to be vulnerable and get hurt.”
For me, that was one of the most interesting insights I ever heard about justice. It made total sense! Psychologically, even though we understand that people live in different realities than our own, our first thought is always that people all share the same experiences, and we use that as our baseline. To admit that our way is not universal forces us to be vulnerable, and more importantly, admit that we might actually be causing harm to another by being complicit with in our status in society.
This is very true when it comes to the issue of immigration. One can make the distinction between legal and illegal entries and stays in the United States, but immigration happens when there is a market for workers. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where illegal immigration happens because the markets love the resulting underpaid labor that produces many things that the majority community enjoys, especially as it relates to our food.
This is something that the church made great pronouncements on at the last General Assembly. In fact, we see this as a real crisis of faith. With overtones of racism, classism, and slavery connected with the issue of illegal immigration, as people of faith, we cannot stand by and watch some children of God being treated differently than others based solely on their social position.
Think about how easily the term “illegal immigrant” rolls off the tongue. What most people don’t think about is that what it says is that they are illegal people. This raises the question, how can a person be illegal? Actions are illegal, but can people be illegal? The fact is, in our system, an undocumented person typically has done something illegal, such as overstaying a visa or crossing the border illegally. Although they have done something illegal, they are not illegal people. Otherwise, most Californians who drive on Highway 101 would be illegal people, since most are going illegal speeds!
It is important for us to recognize this. This is not a political discussion. It is a faith discussion, because our faith calls us to reach out to the vulnerable and make sure that the truth is being spoken. Unfortunately, what has become the image of the undocumented person is a thug. But the reality is that families make up the majority of undocumented people. Regardless of their immigration status, they are children of God who deserve to be treated as such, no matter how it makes us feel.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen