Sermon: No Human Being is Illegal

No Human Being is Illegal

Rev. Loren McGrail
April 26, 2009
Text: Isaiah 10:1-2; Romans 13:1-7; Mathew 15:21-28

I want to talk to you this morning about dignity and rights, about mothers and children, about belonging, about being excluded, about resistance and conscience, about enemies and borders, about people who are undocumented, about all of us being “resident aliens” and “alien citizens”. I want to talk to you about how the Word is made flesh, how we are not asked so much to be like Jesus but to see others the way he sees them, to see him in their faces. I want to talk to you about immigration and the humanitarian crisis we are in and how we are called to be critical of authorities that demand the rule of law but then don’t apply it to themselves. I want us to keep asking, whose law counts? Whose laws need to be obeyed? Which law needs to be resisted and changed?

Let’s begin with this strange Gospel story about Jesus acting in a very non -Jesus like way, throwing racial slurs at a mother asking for healing for her daughter: “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Yes, he is calling her a dog. It’s important to know that this story takes place on the border of the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon. It’s important to know that this Canaanite woman was from an enemy tribe. Judeans used this ethnic slur against their enemies such as the Canaanites and so Jesus shows us that he too is a product of his culture. But the woman calls him out, “Yes Lord, even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” The mother contends that even if the words are true, even dogs should be able to eat table crumbs, so who are you to deny me? His comment back is a retreat back to the center, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and it is not accepted. Her refusal to leave, give up on the possibility of healing makes her appear bold. Jesus is changed by her audacity, her faith. She holds him to who he says he is and what he came for---inclusive love for all. It is the unclean, the enemy, the other who pushes Jesus to be true to himself.

So, the question is, if even Jesus, sometimes stands in need of correction, a mercy check, who is calling us out? Who is calling us out of our Christian dogmas and creeds? Who is calling us to move away from the center of our comfort zones, our socio- economic constructed rule bound norms, away from our prejudices into unknown territory? Who is calling us to leave the safety of our church sanctuaries to become living sanctuaries? Who is calling us into relationship so that we can affirm the sacredness of human dignity, theirs and ours? What people in our midst or on our borders deserve more than table scraps?

On December 12, 2006 in Worthington, Minnesota, a young American born citizen lost his parents in a raid.  They were detained along with 200 other immigrants who had come to this rural community seeking a better life for themselves and their children. Returning home from school, Miguel discovered his mother and father missing and his two-year-old brother alone. For the next week, Miguel stayed at home caring for his brother, not knowing what had happened to his parents. Not until a week after the raid, when his grandmother was able to make her way to Worthington to care for her frightened grandchildren, was Miguel able to return to school. According to his teacher the once happy little boy became catatonic. At the end of the school year he was not able to advance to third grade with the rest of his class. 

Miguel and his brother are U.S. citizens. They are but two of the millions of citizen children of undocumented immigrants placed at risk by increasingly aggressive immigration policy and enforcement. They are our children and they have become discounted, left behind, or forced to leave. They have no mother to advocate for them. They have only us and we have only our faith and our laws. In 2007 Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) deported more than 220,000 people. Most of these people broke the law by coming into this country without papers or by overstaying their visas.  They came to work and feed their families. They were given jobs and then rounded up, detained, and charged as criminals. Some were taken away after a raid in their place of work like Miguel’s parents; others were taken from their home or from the parking lot of  a store. Some were collatoral damage--- picked up because they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still others have been picked up for minor traffic violations or even fishing without a license. Picked up by police working with ICE and then sent into our detention system. Even Nursing mothers have been separated from their babies. Children and whole families are living in detention centers sometimes up to a year.  And people are dying due to medical negligence. The list goes on.

In remembering our biblical ancestors as a people who came into being through a migration experience when God called Abraham to leave his homeland and venture forth into new and unknown territories where God’s promises would be revealed, Rabbi Kranz of NYC’s Interfaith Network warned recently, “We cannot criminalize hope for opportunity. We cannot criminalize hope for freedom.”  Our Judeao-Christian faith is rooted in the movement of a people from oppression to liberation, from the land of slavery to the Promised Land. We are all “resident aliens” here and we are also “alien citizens” of God’s earthly and heavenly kin-dom.

We are spiritual migrants and yet citizens of a nation state that has borders and laws. In Romans 13, we are told that every person must allow himself or herself to be subject to the governing authorities because God has instituted these authorities. Much has been written about these short verses over the years by a variety of scholars. Some believe that Paul couldn’t possibly have said this because Paul himself was often in trouble with the authorities and spent a good bit of time in jail. For others, Romans 13 is simply a theological offense as we can’t help but read these lines in the shadows of Auschwitz knowing that what Hitler did in Germany was sanctioned by the authorities as “legal.” And finally, as we still live in Easter time, we remember that Jesus was hung out to dry at Calvary because He chose grace’s moral correctness over the Mosaic law’s legal correctness, because he gave to Cesar what was Cesar’s and it wasn’t much.

So how can we tell good laws from bad laws? How can we advocate breaking some laws and obeying others? In a wonderfully crafted pastoral letter from US and Mexican bishops after 9/11 called Strangers No Longer, one can find a detailed discussion about the relationship between civil authority and the common good. Civil authority is said to exist to promote the common good, and by extension natural rights.  The common good is the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment. Natural rights are things like just  pay, fair treatment under the law, food, clothing, housing, and the right to join labor unions. The Catholic church recognizes the right of humans to migrate so they can realize their God given rights and it allows for a sovereign state to impose reasonable limits on immigration. However, the common good is not served when the basic rights of the individual are violated. Civil authority is no longer legitimate when this happens and thus, must be resisted.  This is why Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angels, a few years back, t asked his church leaders to commit civil disobedience rather than obey the law that Congress had passed that made it a crime for people and organizations to serve people without papers.  God’s law trumpeted human law and needed to be obeyed.
In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King answered the question by drawing a distinction between two kinds of law: “There are just laws and there are unjust laws. A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” This is what Dr. King went to jail for, for challenging the unjust laws of segregation and discrimination. He chose jail cells over legally sanctioned Jim Crow terror cells.

So what stands between chaos and us is not laws but good laws, laws that uphold or protect human dignity and rights.  The Civil Rights Law of 1964 was such a law but was the Fugitive Slave Act? Was it legally wrong for Negroes to be in the Promise Land as run away slaves? The answer is yes. But were they morally wrong? Is it legally wrong for Latinos to cross our borders without visas or documents? The answer is yes.; it’s a civil violation (not a felony). Are they morally wrong? Are they to blame for NAFTA and  CAFTA or  the internal politics of globalization that have negatively affected their ability to stay in their country and earn a living and feed their family?

And finally, I invite you to reflect with me on some lingering questions. If goods and capitol can cross borders, why can’t workers?  How is the common good being served by denying immigrant workers rights?   Why are immigrants the sacrificial lambs, the disposable ones, the ones called “illegal” and not the ones that created the policies that drove them off their land or out of their countries in the first place? Where is the justice? What mother’s voice is crying out and not being heard?  Who will bring forth the healing? The repair of our broken immigration system? Who will demand that the laws be just, that they uphold the common good and protect natural rights? Who will boldly speak up, talk back?

Caring, Just One, you have prepared us to be living sanctuaries for love and justice. May our solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters be a transforming power in the world. May we work together to restore and rebuild your beloved communities. Amen.