Immigration Reveals the Many Faces of Jesus

In my office hangs a postcard depicting Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, but instead of Jesus looking longingly up at the sky as he kneels before a rock in the garden, Jesus is taking aim with an AK-47 at some enemy off in the distance. The postcard, at once, makes me laugh and gives me a chill. I laugh because I can’t imagine someone thinking this way about Jesus—as a macho, gunslinging, NRA member who will mow down infidels without a second thought—and a chill because I know of far too many people who do see Jesus that way.

These differing images of Jesus have come into sharp contrast for me recently as I read about Arizona’s new immigration law, and the question of how to treat immigrants who come to America.

That gun-toting Jesus comes into play for Bryan Fischer from the American Family Association, who swears that Jesus, if he were in charge, would sign the Arizona immigration measure into law “in a heartbeat.”

Why, I asked rhetorically? “Because of his compassion.”

This compassion is for the citizens of Arizona who are subject to home invasions, out-of-control drug trafficking, human smuggling, the constant threat of kidnappings, and a $2.7 billion price tag for all the social problems caused by illegal aliens. The costs of education, welfare, medical care and law enforcement may wind up bankrupting the state. The compassion of Jesus goes out to Arizonans who live with constant social disruption and suffer a steady drain on resources which should be available to take care of their families. And all because politicians have failed to use the authority God has delegated to them to “carr(y) out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4)

The compassion of Fischer’s Jesus, however, doesn’t seem to extend to undocumented immigrants, only to those who are affected by “all the social problems” they cause. There’s no compassion in Fischer’s piece for those, who because of other social problems like abject poverty, are forced to leave their homes to seek work in the States—work that Americans aren’t willing to do in their own country.  Fischer is also quick to conflate illegal immigrants with drug dealers and those who are carrying on turf wars around the border. Someone coming into this country illegally to pick lettuce so they can send money back home has no interest in invading homes, kidnapping people, or trafficking in drugs. They simply seek to support their families. Fischer uses the border drug war to continue to inflate fears about our brown-skinned brothers and sisters.

Another view of Jesus emerges from Deborah Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute. In an op-ed at the Washington Post, Haffner outlines why welcoming the illegal immigrant is imperative to understanding Jesus and his message.

The Bible actually includes almost 120 passages about welcoming, taking care of, and loving the stranger. Early on in the story of God’s covenant with Abraham, three strangers come to Abraham and Sarah’s home and they are welcomed in with a lavish meal. The strangers turn out to be angels from God who bless them with news that they are to have a son at their advanced age. When Jesus is asked in Matthew 25 who will get into heaven, Jesus offers these criteria, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you took me in.”

That’s a far cry from the “compassion” of a Jesus who would turn away the stranger because the stranger might be dangerous.  As Haffner admits, welcoming people is difficult because “it means resisting the fear of difference and moving to a place of radical welcome and inclusion. And that means embracing people who are different than us without trying to change them. We can celebrate our diversity and our difference.”

It also means that we have to stop dividing the world into “us” and “them.” Author Brian McLaren has, in the past, outlined the many ways we divide our world into “us” and “them,” but ultimately, he says the only way to tell the story of our world is “it’s some of us for all of us.” This is the not just the story we must tell about our own world, but it’s the only way to understand Jesus. He embodied a message of “it’s some of us for all of us” and calls us to practice that by loving our neighbor as ourselves—and yes, those illegal immigrants are our neighbors— seeking what we all seek: security, a livelihood, a chance to survive and thrive in this world.

Jesus’ compassion extends to us all—even those drug dealers who are raiding homes, and kidnapping and killing people. They, too, are our neighbors—seeking what we all seek, even if it is in a violent and unfortunate way. Instead of seeing them as “wrongdoers” in need of “God’s wrath” it would be more helpful if we understand that they are victims of circumstance just like those peaceful immigrants seeking work.  If we truly understand Jesus as someone who believes “it’s some of us for all of us” then instead of passing draconian laws against the “other” we’ll seek to disarm our vision of Jesus and find remedies to the social ills that force people to cross the border whether seeking work or to do violence.

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