Saturday, September 22, 2007

What was old is new again

Ok, it's been another three-ish weeks since my last post. At least I'm consistent. The problem I run into is that I see a headline or something comes to me and the wheels in my head start turning. I spend a lot of time doing research, I get distracted, I don't get online for a long time, and when I finally do get a minute either I've forgotten what had me so riled up in the first place or the headline that caught my attention is no longer relevant. And then here we are, three weeks later.

Most recently, I was wanting to post about Elvira Arellano and the use of churches as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. I was studying my Bible about the role of sanctuary cities and a word study on refuge. Then time flies, and while the illegal immigration debate is still going on (and likely will so long as it continues to be politicized without any desire from either side for a real solution) this story kinda went away. Well, other than the president of Mexico offering to send her to the US to be an ambassador and would therefore be afforded all the rights and privileges of a Mexican citizen in the United States. But the post wasn't going to be about her, but about what role should our churches play in this debate? And that issue has come up again.

This week, the city of Simi Valley sent a bill of $40,000.00 to a local church for the police required to keep order during a protest outside their doors. The protest wasn't organized by them, wasn't planned by them, and really wasn't even participated in by them. But the rationale was that since their actions, by allowing an illegal immigrant to seek refuge in their church, they incited the protest and that they should be the ones held responsible. Yeah, that makes perfect sense.

If this holds up, it sets a dangerous precedent for the church. Would a church be held financially responsible if there's a protest on their stance against homosexuality? Or what if a synagogue is vandalized with anti-Semitic tagging, would you hold them responsible? Fortunately, from what I've read most agree that this is an infringement on that church's First Amendment right and a ploy to passive-aggressively stake their ground on the illegal immigration debate.

But that's not really the point of this either. Is this something we, the church, Christ's ambassadors, should be getting involved in? There's no legal standard for a church being a sanctuary for fugitives. Rather it's an unwritten rule, kinda like fighting on Holy Ground in Highlander. But what's the history behind it? Obviously our country began as a refuge for many seeking religious freedom. The motivation behind the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment was to keep the government from dictating a state religion so any faith could be practiced freely. Churches were central as sanctuaries pre-abolition just as they were involved during the Civil Rights Movement. So there's historical precedent. But is there Biblical precedent?

When settling in Israel, the refugees from Egypt were given instructions by God to set aside "sanctuary cities". These were cities where one could flee if accused of murder so that their case could be heard by the elders before they were killed in revenge. The fine print though, was that they had to be innocent. Romans instructs us that we should obey the law of the land because every authority on Earth is there but for the grace of God. So is it right for a church to be a sanctuary for someone breaking the law, even if we don't agree with that law?

Another refugee from authorities wrote many Psalms about God being his only refuge. David was being hunted down and though he lived in caves and some towns let him hide, he knew that his only refuge was God Almighty.

But we are also commanded not to "oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." (Exodus 23:9) And let's not forget about the Good Samaritan, a foreigner. We also read in James, "15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (James 2:15-16)

So what should we do? Where's the line between giving to a "foreigner" in need and giving them employment? Where's the line between being sympathetic to illegal immigrants and offering your church as a sanctuary? First, we need to heed to existing laws. Second, we need to reach out to meet the needs of those who are here illegally. They're here for a reason, after all; the economy in Mexico is an absolute mess. Finally third, we need to be careful not to skate on the thin ice of the hot political topic de jour. We need to let our lights shine, be the salt of the earth, and represent Christ in all we do. My question for all those "safe churches", are you doing everything you can to enable the immigrant you're harboring to get on a path to citizenship? What are the circumstances of him or her facing deportation (immigration officers have their hands too full to want to deport someone 'just because')? Are you just seeking headlines?

Yes, families are affected and depending on where you live, chances are there's someone in your congregation who is here illegally. But the church as an institution exists to meet the needs of its parishioners. In this case, that means helping them gain citizenship, legally. Sanctuary in the Bible requires innocence, and unfortunately none of us on either side of this debate are wholly innocent.

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