The social justice issue of our community and in our ministry is a broken immigration system that forces immigrant men, women and children into the shadows, separates families through deportation, and has denied college access to young leaders who have grown up in the U.S. It has been a flagrant issue in Arizona since 2003; and has been the instrument in the hands of God to develop skills in us and in our organization to deal with the power structures that are oppressing our friends. We became community organizers; we moved from a strict focus on doing holistic ministry as an expression of our understanding of preaching a whole gospel and added public advocacy to our Christian work.
We engage in the work of social justice because we love our neighbor, and we love our neighbor because we first loved God. Our justice work is a direct link to loving our neighbor. Though it might look like politics, it is really just love. Seeing the extension of love like this has opened us up to the Kingdom of God and its reign and rule.
The doctrine of the Kingdom of God is meant to be the teleology of the entire faith because that is what Jesus himself taught! The Kingdom is both present and future, ‘always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action.’ It is a vision of ‘humanity organized according to the will of God.’ Thus it demands something of all of us. It demands that we press for a just social order. It demands that there be progress in the love of God and neighbor, not just with individual persons, but in the way we organize our common life together. This love finds its highest expression when its members begin to hold in common those things the super-personal forces of evil urge us to grasp and hoard, i.e. money, property, capital, personal rights, affluence, power, and control. This progressive reign of love should move each person toward the “other” in ever increasing unity. (1)
MLK, Jr. in his “I have a Dream” speech keeps reminding us that love can’t wait. There is the fierce urgency of Now. (2) Immediate action, that’s what is required so often with love, the act that can’t stay suppressed because of the pain of the one loved. The house is burning down. Something must be done. The work of social justice at Neighborhood Ministries is the action of love inside the injustices affecting our community in real time. Jacques Ellul spoke to my generation and taught us that:
…there are moments when history is flexible, and that is when we must put ourselves inside to move the works. But when the atomic bomb is dropped, it is no longer the moment to attach a parachute to it. It’s all over. I don’t believe in a permanent determinism, in the inexorable course of nature. Fate operates when people give up; when the structures of and the relationships between groups, special interests, coalitions, and ideologies are not yet rigid; when new facts appear that change the rules of the game; then at these moments we can make decisions that direct history, but very quickly everything becomes rigid and mechanical, and then nothing more can be done. One of my greatest disappointments is the extreme incapacity of Christians to intervene when situations are fluid and their habit of passionately taking sides when it is too late for anything but fate to operate. They are pushing the wheel of a vehicle that is already rolling downhill by itself. (3)
Describe the One You Love – Imago Dei and Human Rights
I recall an incident when I was working in our local public school. I can still see clearly where I was standing. I was discussing a student with a teacher. I loved this particular kid; the teacher hated him. That was the moment I realized that our society could just throw a person away; that some human beings were considered disposable, expendable. How it must disgust God, our creator, that in our cultures and human societies we behave this way and find justification for it. “We must fully recognize that as any group of people is deemed disposable or expendable, any popularized American notion of ‘liberty and justice for all’ will remain nothing but a myth…a big lie.” (4) Susan has also had one of these reckonings. She says:
I never knew there was so much injustice in America until I came here to NM. I used to believe that justice prevailed. I have watched such serious injustice done to people in our community by people in power, that I no longer believe it. It is a sad loss. I have watched it from a doctor’s office, where a white family gets preference and our family is ignored, to seeing the way our families are treated in a broken immigration system. And lately our eyes have been opened to the way people are treated in the criminal justice system. I have said in the past, that social justice work gets our attention off of God, trying to put so much attention on the issues, but as we read The New Jim Crow, the first chapters were overwhelming, and then after reading more, I saw that everywhere I turn this is all happening around me. The very fact that I have some special standing, being white, offends me so much. I don’t know what it all looks like, I don’t have a vision for what can be fixed, but I have to be educated about it, I have to be willing to do some hard things that are outside my comfort zone, and to cry out to God for justice. What is needed is a changing of men and women’s hearts from the inside out, a revelation. Just like it was for me. One thing, once you know, you can’t pretend you don’t know anymore. You see so many things. You can’t go back to the way it was before, your eyes are opened.
There is a biblical and God-centered view of humanity that counteracts the disturbing human propensity to discard and make invisible “the other”. It is the theology of Imago Dei, the stamp of the image of God on all human beings. Jurgen Moltmann, in God for a Secular Society grasped this:
Theologically, the human being’s likeness to God is not based on the qualities of human beings. It is grounded in their relationship to God. That relationship is a double one. It means God’s relation to human beings and the relation of human beings to God. Human beings’ objective likeness to God subsists in God’s relation to them. This is indestructible and can never be lost. Only God can end it. The dignity of each and every person is based on this objective likeness to God. God has a relationship to every embryo, every severely handicapped person, and every person suffering from one of the diseases of old age, and he is honored and glorified in them when their dignity is respected. This list can be expanded to all humanity…those in prison; those citizens of countries were we are engaged in military conflict, etc…. Without fear of God, God’s image will not be respected in every human being and the reverence for life will be lost, pushed out by utilitarian criteria. But in the fear of God there is no life that is worthless and unfit to live. (5)
Our theological underpinnings protest all dehumanization. We are required by obedience to the Creator God, who made all human beings in his image, to embrace a common humanity. But, social forces being what they are, beginning sometimes at birth, assign one’s identity formation. Instead of being of infinite worth, a person becomes part of the societal hierarchy, and based on a position in this hierarchy, can be launched into a process of dehumanization. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire calls dehumanization “a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human [and] the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.” (6)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” says the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.…” Every human being is a person endowed with inalienable human rights. We declare this, as Americans, but first and foremost, we must declare this as biblical (or Abrahamic) people. Again as Jurgen Moltmann so beautifully says:
In the ‘prophetic’ religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the liberty and equality of all human beings is derived from belief in creation … the fact that all human beings are made in the image of God is the foundation of human dignity. …In their relationship to the transcendent God, human beings become persons whose dignity must not be infringed. The institutions of law, government and economy must respect this personal dignity, which is the endowment of all human beings, if they claim to be ‘humane institutions’ (7)
God desires that we afford all human beings dignity and equal respect or consideration; these are some of the ingredients of a Christian ethical ideal of the common good. We can’t help but remember that the human beings who need this most are those whose basic rights are most imperiled. As the Bible says: “He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; then it was well. Is not that what it means to know me? Declares the LORD (Jer 22:16).” Marcos educates us:
As someone who the church became the voice for, it feels joyful, less discouraging, knowing there are people [as much as minorities get racially profiled] – a community of Mexican Americans, whites, African Americans – who help out. It makes me feel loved and accepted, regardless of how authorities feel about us. Some minorities are uninformed, and because of their ignorance, they tend to get a bad end of stuff, they don’t know their rights, they don’t have someone to call. If they knew their rights, maybe not as an American citizen, but human rights, they’d know that they deserve dignity and respect. I see us as the church that is not silent, about unjustly racial profiling, which is very inhumane. When the church members become the voice for them, other ministries should follow our example. It just takes one to make a difference, as a community, as a ministry. What is happening in our city and state is inhumane and how can someone, (not my place to judge those other Christians), how can you say you are of God and you see things that are hurting people and don’t speak up. But as members of Phoenix, the presence of the Lord is at work advocating for people. We have to remind our country that we are, after all, a nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all. That has to mean that if you’re not an American, you can’t be treated like an animal, when our nation was founded by immigrants.
What are the basic human rights that biblically ought to be afforded to undocumented immigrants, given that most have significant need, and many have particular vulnerabilities, e.g., women and children. People of God must respond with obedience to these decrees: offering hospitable treatment to those seeking work, supporting people fleeing harsh and even mortal consequences of staying in the homeland, nurturing children who are separated from their undocumented parents who are in detention facilities, and speaking out against threats of massive deportation. Panda adds:
I think that we should be fighting for the rights of people; it’s wrong that people are accused of things that aren’t even crimes. Being discriminated against, getting stones thrown at you for being Mexican is wrong. As a church that’s our job, it’s what God wants us to do. We are obligated to do something, to not just watch what is happening – the majority of us are Mexicans here – brown skinned – it just shows the love we have for God that our little church won’t be silent, we have a desire to do his will.
Recognition of the “stranger” or “alien” as neighbor attests to what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls a common “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.” (8) Under the International Bill of Rights, human persons are never divested of moral standing, and should never rhetorically be effaced as “illegal.” Non- citizenship status does not equate with non-citizenship in the world community, in the Kingdom of God and in the church. Our immigrant friends carry a story that compels us to see, hear and act on their behalf, to redress the “oppression, intimidation, violence, and terrorism” that all too often induced them to migrate against their will. (9) “Who is my neighbor,” the lawyer asks Jesus. Today’s immigrant (especially those that are undocumented) can easily be the one beaten on the road and also the one the religious walk on by. In solidarity with migrants, the disciple of Jesus could be heard to say, “What must I do to live”? “Turn to the world of the poor, of the half-dead stranger…,” in the martyred Archbishop Romero’s words, “becoming incarnate in their world, proclaiming the good news to them even to the point of sharing their fate. (10)
Marcos, Alex and Francisco, go back and forth about our need to be in solidarity with migrants. These are some of their thoughts:
I thought that the U.S. was the land of the free, but once you’re here, nothing is free. The U.S. wants their crops picked. The immigrants that come here want to build houses, get a job, just to come and work; the U.S. wants the labor, but throws them back. To protect the immigrant is like protecting the poor. They are the poor. God is saying to these poor, ‘come with me and I will take you to a better place.’ They want to come here, work with the crops, and have a family. We all believe in one God, but this world is so cruel. It’s like they are blocking God. One thing God has said, “Remember my people, the poor”. And instead they are rejecting them. We should welcome them, they are our neighbors.
1) Tim Suttle, An Evangelical Social Gospel, (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011), 87. The two quotes come from Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel, (Louisville: John Knox, 1997).
2) Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have a Dream,” Speechhttp://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.html (accessed March 22, 2012).
3) Jacques Ellul, trans. Lani Niles, In Season Out of Season, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982), 106-7.
4) Antonia Darder, Reinventing Paulo Freire, A Pedagogy of Love, (Cambridge: Westview Press. 2002), 15.
5) Jurgen Moltmann, 84.
6) Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: The Continuum Publishing Group. 1970, 2006),
7) Jurgen Moltmann, 122.
8) Preamble to Resolution 217 S (111), “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” adopted and proclaimed in the General Assembly of the United Nations, December 10, 1948. http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/. (accessed May 18, 2012).
9) John Paul II, Redemptor Hominis, 17 (1979). Cf. Drew Christiansen, “Movement, Asylum, Borders: Christian Perspectives,” International Migration Review 30, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 7-17.
10) Archbishop Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless, The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, (New York: Orbis Books. 1985), 184.