Monday, July 25, 2011

Speaking of Immigration

After the last (Texas) legislative session and the raft of anti-immigrant bills, I’ve been thinking more about immigration lately—in particular, the wave of Hispanic immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Since many of the laws have been proposed by legislators who flash their Christian credentials, I’ve wondered whether one could really argue that harsh anti-immigration bills are Christian. (By the way, the sub-title of this blog could be: “How to Talk with your Fundamentalist Brother(Sister)-in-law about Immigration.”)

So I picked up a neat book, Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible, by M. Daniel Carroll R., who teaches both at Denver Seminary and El Seminario Teologico Centroamericano in Guatemala, a Christian scholar with feet in both worlds, for some guidance.

Christians at the Border offers an overview of Hispanic immigration in the context of other immigrations to the U.S., especially in terms of its impact on cultural identity, economics and the church. This is followed by a survey of what the Bible has to say about immigration. There is, after all, a surprising wealth of material in both testaments about immigrants and refugees. He concludes with some implications and hopes for the future.

If you’re looking for something that lays out where we need to go legislatively or that recounts in detail the social and economic impact of Hispanic immigration, you’re not going to find it here. Carroll has a much more focused, but no less important purpose.

Christians at the Border,” he says, “above all else strives to motivate believers of the majority culture and Hispanics to begin thinking, talking, and acting as Christians in regard to immigration” (138). Given the heightened rhetoric of the last couple of years, perhaps Carroll might have reconsidered the notion of getting Christians to behave like Christians.

So how does this thesis actually play out? Let’s jump right to the heart of the matter, to the whole question of undocumented immigrants. Many Christians have argued that these folks are here illegally, they’re breaking the law and they should expect to suffer the consequences. As Carroll puts it at one point, “What is it about illegal that you don’t understand?”

However, Carroll rightly points out that the law, in this case an argument from Romans 13, is not the starting point for Christians. We begin with an appreciation of the myriad migration experiences of God’s people and the history in practice and in law of hospitality toward strangers and sojourners in the Old Testament. Then we look to the ministry of Jesus, particularly his ethic of compassion toward the hated Samaritans, as a model for how to behave toward the immigrant. While none of these Biblical examples translates into a particular law, the weight of the Biblical witness certainly tilts the table in a clear direction, toward grace and compassion.

After all of this as context, Carroll hopes that when we finally return to the issue of law, to the "confused contradictory and unfair set of laws" that constitutes our current immigration laws, we might be moved to ask a different question, namely, about whether we need a new set of laws based on theological, pragmatic and humanitarian concerns.

I hope that Carroll’s book gets a wide reading, especially in the conservative evangelical world. It’s always a good thing to remind those of us who call ourselves people of the book what the book actually says.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dust-up in the Evangelical Blogger World

Sometimes my listening, pastoral side gets the better of me. The side that wants to hear people out, even if it’s something that I completely disagree with. For example, I’ve heard people say for years that the church—in this case the mainline church (that frankly needs a new name, because we’re really not “mainline” anymore)—must move beyond the issues of lesbians and gays. That there are more important issues out there. That calling lesbians and gays, many of whom are white, upper middle class, marginalized is a stretch. And so on.

And then I came across this. Mark Driscoll, hugely popular evangelical pastor of Mars Hill mega-church in Seattle, posted this little “gem” on Facebook: “So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed?”

I kid you not. It’s 2011, and a formidable leader in the mega-church world actually posted this question on his FB page, receiving 87 likes and 610 comments.

Rachel Held Evans, an excellent emergent Christian author, took Driscoll to task on her blog: “Mark Driscoll is a bully. Stand up to him.”

“Mark has developed a pattern of immaturity and unkindness that has remained largely unchecked by his church. In evangelical circles, he’s like the kid from high school who makes crude jokes at every opportunity, uses the words “gay” and “queer” to describe the things he most detests, encourages his friends to subject the unpopular kids to ridicule, and belittles the guys who aren’t “macho” or “manly” enough to be in his club.”

In a non-apology that followed his being called on the carpet by a host of angels in the evangelical blogger world, Driscoll explained the source of the question. His elders asked him to do better, to talk about “real issues with real content.” Which is an odd response in itself. Is the issue of gender identity and sexual orientation not a real issue? Are we not talking, after all, about real people who attend our churches?

After skimming my way through this strange exchange, I came away convinced that “the issues underlying the issues,” as Driscoll dubs them, are issues that most of us, evangelical and mainline, would love to shove under the carpet. We don’t really want to talk about gender and sex in the church, because, you know, they’re not polite topics. And there is so much shame associated with them for so many of us, that we have to move mountains even to engage the conversation. And so instead we join in “creative” theological rationalizations to shove the issue aside, claiming it’s not worthy of serious conversation. (By the way, Driscoll promises more talk about the issues and I have to give him credit for addressing them. However, based on what I’ve seen and heard, I have little hope that his take will move beyond exclusion and bigotry.)

However awkward and out of place this may feel in the church, this is a conversation that’s absolutely necessary. It’s a conversation that’s not going away and one where, frankly, culture is way of ahead of the churches. And it’s no more or less important than the dozens of other issues that the church is unwilling to face. Economic injustice and the growing obscene gap between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans. The untouchable U.S. Defense Budget and the growing prospect that we will have to start eating tanks. Ignoring our homeless brothers and sisters, most of whom are baptized Christians. Just to name a few.

We may need first to back up and create a safe space for conversation. But let’s not avoid the conversation altogether in the interest of preserving some kind of fake peace and unity that masks deeper divisions in the way we look at the world and that obscures the Biblical call to mercy and justice. My guess is that welcoming and affirming (reconciling) churches of every stripe, rather than being an unnecessary duplication of what every church should be or perhaps on some level already is, will be critical in the creation of that safe space for real dialogue about difficult issues.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Going Fast in Reverse

I’m a huge fan of Car Talk, both because I have a weakness for cars and I love to laugh. Some time ago, a “puzzler” was shared in which a guy with a very ordinary car challenged a local hotshot with a souped-up muscle car to a race. Somehow the regular car won. How? The race was run entirely in reverse and the regular car was geared such that it was able to outrun the muscle car.

I’m intrigued by the picture of two guys barreling down a street, necks craned around, running full speed in reverse. Sometimes I think that’s what the church, particularly the mainline church, has been doing for the last 100 years or so. Most of our movement is in one direction, toward the church.

Several weeks ago, we were sharing in a group of pastors about the calling of the church, and one Catholic layman said, “We have two movements in the church. Gathering and sending. We only do the first one fairly well and the second one we do poorly or not at all.”

What is the mission of the church? Surely it’s God’s mission, not ours, first of all. And it’s about the world, not the church. Ross Olivier put it well: “The real question is not whether the church can find its mission, but whether God’s mission can find a church.” We are not the end, but the means to the end, which is God’s good news to the poor, release for the prisoners, sight for the blind, releasing the broken and proclaiming God’s favor, to paraphrase Luke 4.

How are we doing at University UMC on those two movements? Are we just about gathering, or we about gathering and releasing for God’s mission?

The Church Council is engaged in a season of planning and reflection on our goals and objectives as a congregation for 2012. Our mission and justice ministries are meeting to discern where we might engage the movement of God’s justice. You’ll hear more about all of this later this summer. For now, I invite all of us, as followers of Jesus, to consider which way you’re moving.

It’s something I wrestle with each day. How can I get out of the office, away from the computer screen and engage in ministry? Over the past year, I’ve felt led toward our homeless ministries at UUMC, but also toward finding long term solutions for homelessness with Austin Interfaith and other pastors here in Austin. I have to carve that time out each month, protect it from encroachments by all kinds of good things and then show up with my sleeves rolled up ready to work.

What I’ve found is that the gathering-sending loop becomes the realm of blessing but only, and not surprisingly, when I actually enter the loop. Worship is enriched because I have spent time with others who hurt, and ministry with others becomes a holy time because I’ve been in worship.

I invite you into the loop of gathering and sending. And if you’re there, invite someone to join you. And be prepared for the surprising, transforming grace of God.