Strangers and Pilgrims

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.
What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain.

Isaiah 10:1-4

I want to be open and vulnerable with you for a moment here at the beginning of this post.

This is really hard for me.

On one hand, I don’t think it’s a pastor’s job to preach politics from the pulpit. I’ve been in situations where pastoral authority has been abused, and I know how dangerous it is. But on the other hand, just spend 10 minutes with the Hebrew prophets, and you’ll be Googling where the nearest protest is.

So here I am. The Spirit compels me to prophesy against unjust powers, but my sensibilities urge me to be careful with what authority I use to prophesy. So that is the purpose of this post. It is my explanation why I feel it is necessary to speak out and act up. These words are my own. My actions are my own. The demonstrations and protests that I choose to support are my own. They are not taken on behalf of my church or my congregation, and I have no doubt that many within my congregation appreciate not being associated with me in this. No, this is on behalf of myself and with the authority vested in me by my calling and ordination as a minister of Jesus Christ.

This crisis matters. 

I use the phrase “this crisis” very deliberately because before the “zero tolerance” policy on our southern border went into effect in May, we did not have a crisis. We had a problem, but it was no crisis. In fact, it wasn’t even a severe problem. Border crossings have been decreasing every year since the early 2000’s, and despite what you’ve been told, undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a much lower rate than citizens do. That makes sense, right? If you’re already here illegally, wouldn’t you want to keep a low profile and stay out of trouble? Every undocumented person that I have known has shared that sentiment with me too. They just want to work and keep their heads down so their kids can have a better life. From his very first speech until today, our president has tirelessly ignored this reality and has, instead, focused solely on instances of crime. He even made an entire department (VOICE) devoted to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He has said it so many times, that we have subconsciously started believing that our problem is a crisis, and crises demand bold action.

I could give you statistics about how nonviolent refugees are or how immigrants and refugees actually help the economy, but I won’t. I will save my charts and graphs and scientific data. I will spare you the history lessons and the fact checking, because none of that seems to matter. We have moved so far beyond facts at this point, that I’m not sure how to communicate anymore. One of the major talking points from this administration for the past month was, “Obama, Bush, and Clinton all separated families too. Why weren’t you angry then?” The truth is that they did separate families occasionally. Maybe once every few months when there was concern for the safety of the child, but to compare once every few months to 2,000 in less than a month is absurd. It’s insulting to our collective intelligence, but the terrifying thing is that it worked. It was a good line that appealed to our desire to see our opponents as hypocrites, and it didn’t matter if it was misleading. No amount of facts can oppose a good story that we want to be true.

I will also spare you the fascinating and disconcerting science of cognitive bias and logical fallacies, and I will resist the delicious temptation to ramble on about psychology and sociology because this isn’t about that. This isn’t about competing truths. This is about competing narratives.

Hannah Arendt, a German refugee and philosopher wrote,

Factual truths are never compellingly true. The historian knows how vulnerable is the whole texture of facts in which we spend our daily life; it is always in danger of being perforated by single lies or torn to shreds by the organized lying of groups, nations, or classes, or denied and distorted, often carefully covered up by reams of falsehoods or simply allowed to fall into oblivion. Facts need testimony to be remembered and trustworthy witnesses to be established in order to find a secure dwelling place in the domain of human affairs. From this, it follows that no factual statement can ever be beyond doubt – as secure and shielded against attack as, for instance, the statement that two and two make four.

It is this fragility that makes deception so very easy up to a point, and so tempting. It never comes into a conflict with reason, because things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were. Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.

Here’s what I want to present, a new narrative, driven by a moral imperative found within the pages of scripture and the history of the Church.

About 30 years after Jesus died and the Church was founded, there was a great fire in Rome that burned for six long days and nights. Thousands of people died and countless homes and businesses were utterly destroyed. In the aftermath, people wanted answers and whispers started floating around that Nero had started the fire to clear space for his own construction projects. The Roman Senator/Historian, Tacitus recalls it like this,

Consequently, to get rid of the report [that Nero started the fire], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.

I love reading about the Church from non-Christian sources in the first couple of centuries. Before we weaseled our way into power, people did NOT like us! Pliny the Younger, in a letter to the Emperor said,

Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition… For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it.

Christians were/are a stubborn lot. We refused to blend in and lead respectable Roman lives. We wouldn’t join the Roman army or Roman government, and we wouldn’t honor the emperor like good citizens. We followed Paul’s advice in Romans 13 to not be overly rebellious against the government so that we could survive to evangelize another day, but when the rubber hit the road, we resisted the empire like no one else. Our allegiance has always been to the Kingdom of God first and to secular authority second. And worst of all, we were Jewish which Tacitus called, “the most degraded out of other races”.

So a bunch of foreigners from a sh**hole country who refuse to integrate and who celebrate their differences come into the heart of the Roman Empire and start spreading. Surely, Nero was worried that if they weren’t stopped, they would someday have enough power to take over the way that Pharaoh feared the Hebrews in Moses’ time. So Nero blamed them for the fire and used that as a justification to label them as dangerous deviants who needed to be exterminated as brutally as possible.

But you can’t stop the Church by persecuting her. She emerged from the ashes stronger and more determined than ever to spread the good news of freedom in Jesus Christ. Our Christian faith was forged in the fires of Roman persecution, and since then, the Church has always been a haven for the outcast and the outsider. We’ve been on the wrong side of history plenty of times, but for the past 2,000 years, we have also been on the side of the sick, the displaced, the homeless, and the forgotten.

It’s not just what we’re supposed to do.

IT’S WHO WE ARE! 

WE are the displaced. WE are the homeless. WE are the nationless.

1 Peter 2:9-12 Common English Bible (CEB)
9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. 10 Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

11 Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives. 12 Live honorably among the unbelievers. Today, they defame you, as if you were doing evil. But in the day when God visits to judge they will glorify him, because they have observed your honorable deeds.

If we insist on pledging that we are “One nation, under God“, then we need to take a serious look at how we treat the outsiders. Jesus was crystal clear on this point. How you treat the “least of these”, the ones who can offer you nothing, the ones who are difficult to care for, however you treat them is how you treat Jesus. Ezekiel 16:49 puts it this way,

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen”.

Christians care for the outsider because it’s who we are. It shows up thousands of times in the Bible. The first official church office was “deacon” as we read about in Acts 6. The Church installed deacons because they were taking care of not only their own widows and orphans, but Greeks also, and they needed full time staff to oversee so much generosity. We preach repentance and practice compassion. It’s kind of our thing.

So forgive me if I’m not impressed by the religiosity of a government that boasts about saying “Merry CHRISTMAS” and “In GOD we trust” but treats homeless refugees like squirrels in the attic.

Isaiah 1:13-20 Common English Bible (CEB)
13 Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
14 I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
15 When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
16 Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil;
17 learn to do good.
      Seek justice:
      help the oppressed;
      defend the orphan;
      plead for the widow.

18 Come now, and let’s settle this,
says the Lord.
Though your sins are like scarlet,
they will be white as snow.
If they are red as crimson,
they will become like wool.
19 If you agree and obey,
you will eat the best food of the land.
20 But if you refuse and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.
The Lord has said this.

There are better, more cost efficient, more effective solutions to our immigration problem than imprisonment. There was a pilot program in the waning years of the Obama era that had a 98% success rate of people showing up to their trials and cost $36 per family per day. If we wanted to solve this, we could, but politicians know that it is better to appear “tough on immigration” than to find humane and mundane solutions. That’s something that every president since Reagan is guilty of. I’ve protested outside the Berks Family Detention Center during the Obama era as they were holding families seeking asylum for years in terrible conditions despite not having a permit to hold children. This is not a problem that Trump invented. He did not light this fire, but he has made it much worse. ICE is talking about increasing the number of undocumented immigrants in detention centers from about 3,000 to 30,000 by August. The stories that come out of the Berks Detention Center are horrific and the thought of that practice increasing 10 fold makes me want to vomit.

So it is for those and many more reasons that I am attending a protest in Harrisburg on June 30th to do whatever I can to speak truth to power. Now, you would think that with the oldest family detention center in the country in my own back yard, I wouldn’t have to travel that far to attend a demonstration. However, an alarming amount of people in my area support the detention of these people, and there wasn’t enough groundswell to organize anything. Reading is such a complicated place. This city and its surrounding boroughs were established by German refugees made homeless by various wars and persecutions. Until recently, many churches in the area still had German worship services. We’re proud of our German heritage! However, as the businesses and industry left the city and those with money fled to the suburbs, Reading became more and more Hispanic. As of the 2010 census, Reading is now 58% Hispanic and increasing quickly.

The amount of people who have told me that “those Spanish people” are ruining Reading is astounding. It happens constantly. I hear about “those Spanish kids” who come from the city to play on our basketball courts and probably sell drugs. I hear off-color jokes, outright bigotry, and scapegoating all the time, and it breaks my heart. Somehow, we have forgotten that humans are not cockroaches. We are all children of God! I can’t help but wonder at the irony of all the UCC churches we are closing that are being reopened as Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches that are bursting at the seams. Are we citizens of the Kingdom of God first? Or have we let our National identity supersede what really matters?

So on June 30th, I am marching on our state’s capital to protest this administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. I am protesting previous administrations’ dehumanizing of the outsiders. I am protesting the continued imprisonment of asylum seekers in my own backyard. I am protesting the flood of lies and disinformation that muddy the waters. I am protesting every deliberate attempt to make me believe that my brothers and sisters are my enemies. I am protesting because the Holy Spirit within me compels me to speak and will not rest until I do. So please join me in conversation. Do not let yourself become numb to the fact that these are human beings, created in the image of God. Any policy that doesn’t start there needs to start over.

Proverbs 31:8-9 Common English Bible (CEB)
8 Speak out on behalf of the voiceless,
and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.
9 Speak out in order to judge with righteousness
and to defend the needy and the poor.

5 thoughts on “Strangers and Pilgrims

  1. proud of you Zack, very eloquently written, stand by your beliefs they are true and needed. The world needs more people like you, who are not afraid to voice their opinions and back them up with truth. I will be with you in spirit and love.

    Like

  2. Praising God for your boldness and conviction Zack! May I and more believers stand for our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted!

    Like

  3. VERY impressive writing Zack! While I completely understand why this would be your opinion, I do not support your protest of the administration’s policy. As the US Attorney General stated, if you don’t want your children separated from you, don’t come here! Let’s not forget that these are ILLEGALS…

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  4. hello our modern day prophet. I appreciate what you have written and trust you to continue to Magnify God as you help to mature His people. Glad to know ya! send me notice of new posts if possible

    Like

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