Into the Deep and the Power of Refusal:
Toward Humane and Just Treatment of Refugees and Immigrants
Exodus:1-12; Luke 5:1-11
Rev. Loren McGrail
February 7, 2010
"It behooves north American Christians to realize now what the German churches learned too late…it is not enough to resist with confession; we must confess with resistance." --William Sloane Coffin
"But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them" (Exodus 1:17). The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, feared God. Before Moses and the burning bush or the great exodus to freedom, or even the baby in the basket rescue, there were two women who did not say, “Our leader right or wrong”. They were two women who worked as a team to help bring new life into the world. We know their names but not their identities. Their names are Semitic but it is unclear if they were Hebrew or Egyptian. What is clear is that they held a position of some power. They could move about freely. They had access to Pharaoh. They were subjects in the court but not of the court. They did not do as the king told them; they feared God. Fear of God meant exercising compassion.
They, women who assisted other women in bringing life into the world, refused to give into being agents of death or violence. They acted against the powers of the world (Pharaoh) because of their fear (or taking seriously the call) of God.
Centuries of scholars have been concerned about the way they obeyed God’s call to obedience. Augustine and Gregory the first were deeply concerned that the midwives were rewarded for lying while Luther considered their actions a model for Christians living in a time of persecution. They may or may not have lied out right. They exploited Pharaoh’s fears that the Hebrews were breeding like animals, too fast for them to get there in time.
They capitalized on this derogatory stereotype and used it as part of their defense.
Shiphrah and Puah stood in the royal chambers and defied a king; they “let pharaoh” go in order to follow their own life giving ways, God’s ways. They resisted the temptation to go against their own values. They refused to kill the children, to let the children go. Their non-cooperation with authority paved the way for a mass resistance movement. Some say they are the first practitioners of civil disobedience. Some say we should be like them and refuse people or institutions, powers or principalities that seek to rule us or enslave others. But this requires us to know who the pharaohs are? The national pharaoh’s who want to convince us that our security is dependent upon supporting laws and policies that deny some people their rights, people who don’t look like us, speak like us, come from another country. These pharaohs wish us to support policies and laws that deny others human rights like the right to migrate to feed your children, the right to due process under the law, the right to be paid fairly, the right to not be separated from your children. These pharaohs tell us that we need bricks for our temples of consumption that it is fair to create trade policies that deprive people of their livelihood, their ability to earn sustainable wages to stay in their own countries. These pharaoh’s say we need to build walls, miles of walls, to keep out these brown people, force them to cross in the desert and maybe die, collateral damage. Death as a deterrence policy?
These are some of the pharaoh’s I know and wish I didn’t know but once you accept that call to go out into the deep, there is no going back to the safer shallower waters. In this call story from Luke, the Gospel lectionary for today, we are invited to go out beyond our comfort zones, follow a guy who almost got thrown over a cliff from people from his own hometown. Like those first disciples, ordinary folk, we are called to go out and cast our nets into the deep and trust even when we have already tried or are certain that there is nothing more to gain. The call is to move away from what we are certain of toward possibility, freedom. We are called to resist what we think we already know in favor of something beyond our wildest imaginings from a guy who eats with tax collectors, touches unclean women, disobeys Sabbath laws, and on top dares to give to Caesar only that which belongs to Caesar, which isn’t much by his standards.
This is the one who is calling us today into the dark deep. He is calling us not to save souls like fish, to catch people in our nets. He is calling us to practice resistance to injustice. To proclaim and live it, practice it like he does.
According to Theologian Curtiss Paul De Young, Jesus practiced resistance to injustice by creating relationships, transforming culture, and through public protest. The purpose of this faith inspired resistance to evil and injustice is to witness to God’s desire for peace, reconciliation, and social justice.
One of the greatest injustices happening in our country today revolves how we treat immigrants and refugees in our communities, at our borders, and in our detention centers. The atrocities and horrors are extensive from over 3,000 having died already in the desert to over 100 people in our detention centers. From nursing women being separated from their babies or thousands of US citizen children missing one or both parents due to workplace or home raids. From asylum seekers being locked up for months at a time even though they may have just fled torture and persecution in similar jail cells. From others simply living fearfully in the shadows hoping not be noticed or picked up by the police for not having a driver’s license, a license they cannot get in our state. From young people who were not born, who have little hope for a future because they do not have documents--- documents that would allow them to pay instate tuition or have dreams of a career.
The question is how does this call to resist, as practiced by the midwives and Jesus, provide us a base or guidance in how to respond to all of these inter-twined injustices? We begin by tending to community says UCC minister and United Seminary theologian Chris Smith. We begin by building relationships with persons at the margins and try to see injustice through their eyes, people who have been victimized. By listening and paying attention to the people and their stories, we might better be able to pinpoint the underlying causes and then better know who or what to resist. We do this by listening to the stories of the immigrants in our communities like some of you will be doing tomorrow at the Latino Voices presentation.
At the Ramsey County Adult Detention Center on the first Sunday of every month, a group of us come to listen to these voices too, to pray for the families and their loved ones detained inside. In the course of our listening we learned about two unexpected issues, issues that demanded our advocacy. One was that detainees were being charged co-payments for medical care and the other was that they were cold. We heard these complaints each Sunday and set about trying to do something. The co-payment issue required getting the jail to follow Immigration Enforcement Control (ICE) standards. ICE pays co-payments. We learned that not all the guards knew this or that the detainees were made aware of this right We contacted the sheriff’s department and ICE and have made information brochures, Right to Know information for the detainees. The story of raising the temperature is a good lesson in the power of being obnoxious with suggestions or persistence. We went to the county commissioner’s office and told him about the complaints. We offered to knit prayer shawls and buy long johns. We offered until the man threw up his hands and said enough. Then I said softly, “How about raising the temperature?” He made one phone call and it was done. Persistence and resistance to accepting things as they were paid off in one small degree of warmth. Lord, when did we feed you, clothe you, offer you warmth?
The second practice is transforming culture as resistance. Jesus included in his sermons and parables many positive images of people considered outsiders or outcasts, women and Samaritans to name a few. It is an important part of the justice work to resist our cultural norms and it begins with the language we use or don’t use. You must have noticed by now how I don’t call people ‘illegal aliens” or “illegals” or “criminal aliens” like the government does. Those of us in the movement try to use words like “unauthorized” or “undocumented.” This afternoon Luis will be leading our small but passionate band of vigilists in singing a song we learned from the vigilers at the Broadview Detention Center in Chicago. The chorus goes like this:
There are no illegal people, we are sisters, sons, and wives.
There are no illegal people. All are precious in God’s eyes.
There are no illegal people; we are all created in the image of God.
And so we stand with those who have been criminalized for being here without documents, a civil offense. We say no to raids, and racial profiling, and no to more detention beds. Jesus, our exemplar, calls us to see the Christ in all of God’s people, especially those who are the least of these.
The third practice of resistance is public protest. Jesus did this when he cleared out the temples of the moneychangers or when he led a protest march on what we now call Palm Sunday. Churches throughout our country are doing this by offering families who are at risk of deportation shelter in their sanctuaries. The clergy in New York who lay down in the middle of the street to protest the detaining of one of their church members, a community leader did this.
Sometimes our protest takes the form of writing letters or postcards--- asking for reform or temporary protected status. Sometimes it takes the form of mass protests like the ones in 2006 when thousands took to the streets to protest the possible passage of a draconian piece of legislation that would have not only criminalized all the undocumented but the ones that provided shelter or service. Protest sometimes also takes the form of a jug of water left in the desert on purpose for a migrating person to drink so they don’t get dehydrated. It means going to jail like Walt Staton who refused to accept community service for his act saying,
I do not believe that the federal statue regarding littering is unjust, and I do not wish to challenge or change that law, as civil disobedience would suggest. Instead my actions are better classified as “civil initiative:” When a government fails to respect and protect basic human rights---or worse, it itself a violator---it is the responsibility of citizens to act in defense of those rights. It is my belief that the United States is in violation of international human rights.
All of these forms or resistance are the marks of our costly discipleship that we have been called to. I’d like to close with some verses from a prayer I wrote for the first vigil at Ramsey. The prayer begins with these words from the late Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga from Brazil who spent many years in prison for his liberatory theology and practice.
What path will we take
to heaven, other than earth?
If we let Hope and Truth
yield to Empire’s sway,
who will tell the mystery?
of the fullness of freedom?
Holy One of compassion and mercy,
grant comfort and dignity
to the immigrants and asylum seekers
in detention here and throughout our country.
Grant wisdom and kindness to their keepers.
Holy One of justice and liberation,
come with your power to save and free
those held captive by our oppressive immigration policies.
May the doors of this detention center---
Ramsey Adult Detention Center
swing wide to release all held within.
May the rusty hinges of our own hardened or numbed hearts
open wide to those who have come to build
new lives here with us.
Let us kindle hope through
our stories of lament and resistance
our prayers and statements
our acts of conscience
our shared belief that another immigration system
another world breathing already
with the mystery of the “fullness of freedom.”