God Does Not Create Illegitimate or Illegal
By the Rev. Michael Mulberry
May 13, 2007 (Cycle C, Easter 6)
Text: Acts 9:36-43 (OL); 16:9-15
As a Muslim, Egyptian feminist, playwright, psychologist, activist, and former political prisoner, a woman who lived in exile for several years because of death threats, Nawal El Saadawi, speaks of a play she has recently written that conveys two distinct concepts of God. One, she believes, is spoken of in popular culture. The other understanding of God she learned from her grandmother, who came from a small Egyptian village. Her grandmother told her at a young age, “God is Justice, and we know [God] by our brain. God is not a book. God is not Scripture . . that people differ in interpretation and then kill each other.”
“So God is Justice,” Nawal El Saadawi went on, “and if we fight for justice, we are more religious than those who go to pray.”
What would a daughter give to such a mother as a gift? Her daughter, who is a writer and poet in her own right, asked herself could she possibly give her mother on Mother’s Day, a mother who believes and acts on the understanding that God is Justice? Her daughter, Mona Helmi, believed that shoes or a dress would not be appropriate.
So Mona Helmi set about solving the problem of two million illegitimate children in Egypt. In Egypt, according to State and Islamic law, if a child has no father, the child takes the name of the mother and is considered illegitimate with no human rights. The gift Mona Nawal Helmi gave her mother, Nawal el Saadawi, was to take the name of her mother in the hope that others will follow her. For if everyone in Egypt begins to take their mother’s name, the government will be unable to distinguish between what it means to be “legitimate” and “illegitimate.” By doing so, Mona Nawal Helmi hopes to omit the word “illegitimate” from Egyptian law and return human rights to all children.(1) What gift for Mother’s Day does a child give to a mother who believes in a God of Justice?
In our mainstream media, such stories of the God of Justice are rarely, if ever, told. Repetitive fear-mongering (“Hear how blood sucking gnats are killing local chickens!”), entertainment news (“Test results on who is the father of Anna Nicole’s baby are in!”), and natural disaster are commonplace. Not only is the fear-mongering repetitive, the fear-mongering is a choice that does not allow time or room for stories of the God of Justice acting in our world. Who will tell and retell the stories of the God of Justice, share them in such a way that we know how God has acted and continues to act throughout all of history or her-story?
We have two Biblical sources for understanding life in the early Christian community: letters undisputedly written by Paul (2) and the Acts of the Apostles. Conflicts exist between Paul’s accounts of early Christian events and events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul relates some of the very real differences and conflicts found in the early Christian movement—like his dispute with the apostle Peter. The Acts of the Apostles whitewashes all conflict to trumpet the glorious and world-wide spread of the Spirit-infused church. In this whitewashed history, Paul and Peter are the patriarchs and heroes, standing arm in arm, leading and interpreting the Holy Spirit acting in the world. According to Paul’s undisputed letters, the overwhelming majority of saints in the early churches were poor, very poor, or desperately poor. According to Acts, Paul is the only saint living at subsistence level and Paul interacts easily with wealthy elites. In Paul’s undisputed letters, however, Paul’s interaction with elite classes is when the elite classes beat him and throw him in prison.(3)
There is a Christian tradition and community which surrounds Jesus and Paul that recognizes a need for a God of re-distributive justice, calls into question the existing social order, and critiques the underlying causes of poverty. The Acts of the Apostles, contemplating inclusion of wealthy elites within Christian communities, suggests that poverty and great economic need can be assuaged by prophetic hospitality and charity.(4)
Women, in the book of Acts, are given short schrift, compared to the heroism of the twelve original disciples and Paul—particularly Peter and Paul. But women’s stories are remembered. Seeing how these women are minimized, and yet, still included suggests that these women were such an important part of Christian stories that the author of Acts could not forget them.(5) Reading between the lines, women leaders make Christian sanctuary and safe harbor possible. The stories of these women had to be told.
Dorcas is raised to life by Paul after the widows of the community show him the kind of Christian she is by holding out the clothing she has made for the poor. Peter, a fugitive from prison, is given prophetic hospitality, given sanctuary and safe harbor, by Mary, the mother of John, in Acts 12. In Acts chapter 16, Paul meets with a Philippian church that is comprised of only women. Thereafter, Lydia, shows outward evidence of her conversion to Christianity by pressing Paul and Silas to receive her hospitality and stay in her home.(6) Priscilla, in Acts 18, provides hospitality and accompaniment for Paul in the city of Corinth. What we often fail to remember as we read or hear these stories is that they are interwoven with texts where Paul and his companions were thrown in prison on a regular basis, persecuted and beaten by those who disagreed with their message, risked their lives (Acts 14:26). Offering hospitality to Paul and his companions is no easy thing. Peter and Paul’s activity is deemed as illegal, but Peter and Paul are greeted by Lydia, Mary the mother of John, and Priscilla with prophetic hospitality, safe harbor, and sanctuary. Though the author of Acts minimizes their contributions, the stories of these women could not be forgotten. The stories of these women had to be told.
In the late 19th Century, in the Evangelical Church, one of the four precursors of the United Church of Christ, a new ministry began. Women leaders founded the deaconess movement to provide care for the poor and sick, particularly for the 5.5 million immigrants, most of them from Germany and double the amount of immigrants from the previous decade, who had come into the United States in the 1880s. The work of women leaders in the Evangelical Church, Deaconess work, began in St. Louis, continued with the Evangelical Deaconess Home and Hospital in Lincoln, Illinois, Advocate Health Care the largest integrated health care delivery system in the United States based in Chicago, and the International Parish Nurse Resource Center, now working out of our UCC Eden Seminary, in St. Louis.
In the early 1980's, thousands of Central American refugees poured into the United States, fleeing life-threatening repression and extensive human rights violations by their governments. At the time, federal immigration policy would have denied the majority political asylum simply because their governments were allies of the U.S. Many of these refugees had actively participated in the liberation theology movement and naturally sought protection from congregations.
Many faith communities responded positively (some of the folks in this community of faith) -- offering these refugees social services and advocacy support as well as engaging actively in efforts to change federal immigration policy. These congregations, united under the banner of the Sanctuary Movement, also pledged that they would not reveal the identities of these refugees, even if they were arrested or jailed for doing so.
The Sanctuary Movement was ultimately successful both in changing national policy and in protecting tens of thousands of individuals and families, enabling them to start a new life in the United States.
Now, over 25 years later, religious leaders across a broad spectrum of denominations from 10 states are coming together to begin a New Sanctuary Movement to accompany and protect immigrant families who are facing the violation of their human rights in the form of hatred, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation. A major component of the New Sanctuary movement is a value in the unification and reunification of families.
We are once again being asked to tell the story—to provide prophetic hospitality, sanctuary, and safe harbor. Kim Bobo, the Executive Director of Interfaith Worker Justice out of Chicago, Illinois, said, “Under current policies, detention and deportation are ripping parents from children, husbands from wives and sisters from brothers. Through our sanctuaries, we can help change the laws to create policies that are effective and humane.”
During the first week of April or during Holy Week (about one month ago), the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided a Cargill slaughterhouse in Beardstown, Illinois, arresting 62 people. Last week I spoke with a woman from Beardstown who told me that the town is still traumatized by the raid. What will children now do separated from their parents? How will families now make it without their major source of income?
In New Bedford, Maryland, women were taken off the line and shipped to places like Georgia, separated from their children. These were women responsible for picking their children up after school. Some of the women were actually taken away from infants who were still breast-feeding. And so the children were left with their child-care providers, their mothers shipped off to Georgia. In Richmond, California women were detained and questioned just after they had dropped their children at school.(7)
And the hatred and violence against undocumented workers has been increasing. In Gaithersburg, Maryland a group of unknown individuals attempted to burn down a day-laborer center. (8) In Alabama, federal authorities revealed they had broken up a militia plot to attack a group of Mexicans living in a small town north of Birmingham. Last week, six members of the Alabama Free Militia were arrested in a series of raids. The Birmingham News reported police uncovered truckloads of explosives and weapons, including 130 grenades, an improvised rocket launcher, 2,500 rounds of ammunition.(9)
So at the back of what we call a “sanctuary” I am asking our congregation to once again tell the story, to remember women who long ago told the Christian story in the Acts of the Apostles. On the credenza you will find sheets that invite us individually and as a congregation to: 1) take a public, moral stand for immigrants’ rights, including the right to take sanctuary; 2) reveal, through education and advocacy, the struggles of immigrant workers and families under current laws; and 3) protect immigrants against hate, workplace discrimination, and unjust deportation.
Three other congregations in Champaign-Urbana are now deciding whether they shall provide prophetic hospitality for the families of undocumented workers facing deportation. What kind of statement would it make to our community, what kind of leadership would it provide, if we were the first to offer prophetic hospitality, sanctuary, and safe harbor? We are called to tell the story.
For this far-reaching issue in our country, however, we will need to go beyond the charity and prophetic hospitality found in the stories of women in the Acts of the Apostles. Charity and prophetic hospitality, the work of love, are desperately needed. But love only abides when systematic and structural change accompany the work of love. Love wanes and wilts when kept at bay by the wall of injustice. For love abides in the house of justice.
There is a Christian tradition and community which surrounds Jesus and Paul that recognizes a need for a God of re-distributive justice, calls into question the existing social order, and critiques the underlying causes of poverty. Our Christian faith calls us to walk with migrants so that charity and prophetic hospitality are not our only responses. For we know that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
On this Mother’s Day, we remember that God is Justice. On this Mother’s Day, we tell the stories of women throughout our faith history who refuse to see any child or immigrant as “illegitimate” or “illegal.” So I plead with you to begin the work of love, to tear down the wall of injustice, and build, with God, the house of justice. On this Mother’s Day, we are once again called to tell the story. Amen.
(1) “Interview with Egyptian Feminist, Playwright and Activist Nawal El Saadawi Who Defies Threats to Speak Out for Women's Rights, Democracy in Egypt,” Democracy Now! April 11, 2007. http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/04/11/1432237&mode=thread&tid=25
(2) Many of the letters attributed to Paul are actually not authored by him. Common ancient practice was to use an authoritative name to encourage community support of a message. The letters which are undisputedly written by Paul are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.
(3) Steven J. Friesen, “Injustice or God’s Will: Explanations of Poverty in Proto-Christian Communities,” A People’s History of Christianity: Christian Origins (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p. 254.
(4) Ibid, p. 255.
(5) Gail R. O’Day, “Acts,” The Women’s Bible Commentary (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press), pp. 305-312.
(6) Bob Deffinbaugh, “Paul in Philippi: From the Purveyor of Purple to the Purveyor of Pain Acts 16:11-40,” bible.org, http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=2147
(7) “Interview with David Bacon,” Democracy Now! April 27, 2007
(9) “Interview with Max Blumenthal,” Democracy Now! May 2, 2007.