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The Bible Folks on Immigration

Friday, July 12th, 2013

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Jonah 3-4) transports me to to a press conference, where House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, not known for her eloquence in dealing with matters of faith, claimed broad support for the comprehensive immigration reform package passed by the Senate with this statement: The fact is that many Republicans in our country support comprehensive immigration reform. The badges, law enforcement community; the business community; the Bible folks – many of them are Republican. . . [are] getting impatient about Congress taking action. Predictably, her comments brought many of the “Bible folks” out of the woodwork to dispute her claim and demonstrate how the Bible teaches them to be against such immigration reform. There is quite the motley crew of Bible folks staunchly opposed to immigration, from the reputable Harvard chaplain Kelly Kullberg and her Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration coalition to the less than reputable Christian Identity white supremacy groups like Scriptures for America and many in between, including the natinalistic Numbers USA led by United Methodist Roy Beck, SBC leader John Killian, and Tim Wildmon of the American Family Association. What they have in common is a belief that the Bible would lead us to build bigger and stronger fences for border security and prosecute/deport the undocumented immigrants in our midst. Kullberg expresses their feelings in an open letter to Congress: Globalists . . . and their Islamist geopolitical allies have weakened indigenous democratic and Christian cultures. We, citizens of America, will not stand for this quietly. . . The bill likely hastens the end of our freedom as a democracy.

What Nancy Pelosi fails to realize, and what her detractors on the right fail to realize, is that the Bible itself records a long and protracted debate on immigration policy and the interactions between the familiar and the foreign. The Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration and other border security/deportation advocates have biblical backing from characters like Ezra and Nehemiah (see yesterday’s post). The globalists have characters like Jonah on their side. Many biblical scholars see the book of Jonah as a direct response to the fundamentalist nationalism and racism present in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, as they reinforced their walls and border security and split families apart in their expulsion of foreigners. The character of Jonah is a parody of these prophets, taking fundamentalist world views to their logical extreme. Focusing on the fishy part of the story, which our church culture has traditionally done, misses its powerful point. Jonah wound up in the belly of the fish because of his bigoted fear and loathing of outsiders. God had laid a call upon his life to go and preach to the Ninevites, the hated foreigners who threatened the well-being of his land. He sought an escape from that call, but even the fish was in cahoots with God, depositing the unwilling preacher on the shores of the foreign land. He surrendered to the call, realizing he had no choice, but his sermon was less than good news – Forty days and you’re all dead! God, who works in the most mysterious of ways, was able to use even this hateful and resentful sermon to reach the hearts of the Ninevites. They all changed their destructive and threatening ways and accepted the grace gift of covenant love. Jonah’s resentment only got worse when he saw that they had escaped the punishment due to them. The wideness of God’s mercy was not good news for this preacher. The book, ending as it does with God showing that this mercy extends even to the cows grazing in Ninevite pastures, is a wonderfully woven satirical slam on nationalism, on the fundamentalism of faith that morphs into the fortress mentality of racism.

The Bible folks of today are adept at keeping this long conversation going. The Scriptures for America folks battle it out with the Nuns on the Bus. The Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration folks battle it out with the Evangelical Immigration Table. Numbers USA folks battle it out with Sojourners.  Both sides have legitimate claims to the sacred story. Maybe that’s part of what makes the story sacred, is that it includes a part to play for people wired on both sides of the ideological debate. The more I get to know my fundamentalist brothers and sisters, the more I realize that they are not likely to ever morph into liberals and welcome the Ninevites into the tent, no matter what sacred story might point them in that direction. My liberal sisters and brothers and I are equally unlikely to become border agents, no matter what warnings we hear from Ezra and Nehemiah. Given my wiring, I’ll no doubt continue living into the Jonah story in response to fundamentalist fears. I’m happy to be able to point out to Kelly Kullberg’s Bible folks, even as I know it won’t have much effect, that Jesus found meaning in his life’s vocation by referencing the sign of Jonah, not the sign of Ezra. I’ll point out that neither Ezra nor Nehemiah made it onto the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; Jonah did. And I’m glad I’ve got parody and satire to play with, not to mention a big fish.

How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.

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