Friday, June 24, 2011

From a Birmingham Jail to Georgia and Alabama

Guest blog: Lessons from “A Letter from Birmingham Jail”
From Robert Chao Romero

“I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all’… I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South's beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?’… Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church.”
 These words, penned by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, still ring unfortunately true today. In his day, Dr. King was the leading Christian voice protesting the unjust Southern laws which enforced unbiblical segregation between blacks and whites.   Citing St. Augustine, Dr. King asserted that unjust laws are not really laws at all because they stand in contradiction to God’s eternal Law.   He found himself deeply disappointed with most evangelical and fundamentalist churches of the South because they failed to  publicly   challenge the southern segregation laws which stood in direct opposition to the biblical truth that all men and women, regardless of ethnic background, are made equally in the image of God.  

Many applications from “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” can be made with regards to undocumented immigration issues in the South today.   The state legislatures of Alabama and Georgia have once again penned some of the most hateful and unbiblical laws targeting ethnic minorities—in this case, undocumented immigrants from Latin America.   These laws are like Arizona SB-1070 on steroids.  The Alabama laws, passed earlier this month, bar undocumented immigrants from attending college, prohibit undocumented immigrants from applying for or soliciting work, and criminalize the rental of residential property to undocumented immigrants.  The Georgia legislation, signed by state governor Nathan Deal in May, authorizes police officers to question individuals about their immigration status in certain criminal investigations and threatens to fine undocumented immigrants $250,000, or send them to jail for 15 years, for using fake identifications in search of employment. 

This mean-spirited racist legislation from Alabama and Georgia violates both the letter and spirit of several biblical principles: 
  1. God commands that immigrants are not to be mistreated or oppressed.  Exodus 22:21
  2. God loves immigrants.  He provides for their needs.  Deuteronomy 10:18;
  3. God calls us to advocate for immigrants and to defend their rights.  Proverbs 31:8-9
  4. Jesus teaches that if we love him we will love immigrants.  When we love immigrants, we are actually loving him.  Matthew 25: 34, 35, 38, 40

 It is immoral and unjust to benefit from the labor of undocumented immigrants and simultaneously to blame them for all of our society’s social ills.   Undocumented immigrants contribute more than 2 trillion dollars to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product every year.  Our economy is entirely dependent upon them.   They pick our fields, raise our kids, and clean our homes.  They mow our lawns, fix our drywall, and renovate our homes.  They cook our food at American, Chinese, Japanese, and Italian restaurants, and when we’re done they wash our dishes as well.  They work in our factories, coffee shops, and every fast food establishment you could imagine.  They clean our workplaces and office buildings long after everyone has gone home to have dinner with the kids.

It is a sin to be ungrateful.  I think that it is especially a sin to benefit from all of the hard work and economic contributions of undocumented immigrants  and at the same time to scapegoat them for our nation’s, or our state’s, economic woes.   This is biblical mistreatment and oppression.  

It is also immoral to deny a university education to the children of undocumented immigrants.   Although this may be a popular position in Alabama, such denial of educational opportunity is utterly unbiblical and unjust.  A fundamental biblical principle is that no one should be punished for an action for which they had no control  (Deuteronomy 24:16).   To use a biblical analogy, if the parents eat sour grapes the children’s teeth should not be set on edge (Jeremiah 31:39).

In the same way, undocumented college students should not be punished for  crossing a border when they had no decision in the matter.   Most undocumented college students were brought to the United States when they were just small children or infants.  In fact, 60,000 such undocumented students graduate from high school each year in the United States.   Many of them are valedictorians and at the top of their class.  Tragically, thousands of these students are denied a college education because of state laws which bar them from the university.

As in Dr. Martin Luther King’s Day, I ask, where is the Southern Church?  “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of [Governor Deal] dripped with words of interposition and nullification” in May? “Where were they when [Governor Bentley] “gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred” less than two weeks ago?

Like Dr. King, I weep for the Southern Church.  I am a pastor and the grandson of a pastor.  I love the Church. My heart breaks, however, when I see the name of Jesus misrepresented by Christians who support or fail to challenge unbiblical laws such as those recently passed in Alabama and Georgia.

On a positive note, I am encouraged by the Southern Baptist Convention, which recently passed a resolution in support of  "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country."  The resolution falls short of explicitly condemning the racist laws of Georgia and Alabama, but it is a step in the right direction.   As the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and a prominent religious institution in the South, the Convention’s statement will hopefully prompt many Southern Christians to reconsider their perspectives on immigration in light of the biblical admonition to love immigrants and speak out on their behalf.

Robert Chao Romero is an Assistant Professor in the UCLA César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies.  He received his J.D. from U.C. Berkeley and his Ph.D. in Latin American History from UCLA.  He is the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 and various articles related to race in Latin America and the United States.   He is Founder and President of Christian Students of Conscience, a ministry devoted to training and mobilizing university students around issues of race and justice from a biblical perspective (  
Please note that the views expressed by guest bloggers represent their own personal views, and not necessarily those of everyone associated with Loving the Stranger or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.