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Preaching Two Kinds of Justice

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Defend immigrants and welcome strangers are prominent Biblical calls. Yet, a 2010 Pew Forum survey reports that 88% of white Evangelicals’ views on immigration are primarily influenced by concerns other than Christian faith. Only 16% of white evangelicals had heard about immigration from their pastor or other clergy.  

Why do these Biblical themes have just a minor influence on white evangelical views? One response could be that since there were no political borders in ancient Israel and since strangers were typically people passing through a territory as opposed to modern day immigrants who come to settle in the U.S., that the Bible doesn’t actually talk about immigration--at least not in a way that relates to our current context--much at all.

During Church Between Borders workshops participants offer a different response. They are astounded by the level of dysfunction in U.S. immigration policy. “No one has ever told me about this,” is a common reflection. Minor debates about how the OT word “immigrant” might apply to current issues dissipate and the Micah 6:8 words, “do justice,” come into focus.

To preach about justice within the context of our broken immigration system requires recognizing two dynamics that bring about justice in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word for justice is mispat--it is about taking action and rendering to others their due. The Hebrew word for righteousness is sedeq. It is an attribute of being pure or right--it often refers to the condition of one’s heart.

Psalm 89:14 says, “Righteousness [sedeq] and justice [mispat] are the foundation of your throne. These are the two dynamics of OT justice: right hearts and right actions. (Combined they produce the necessary conditions for peace [shalom]).

In Christian Principles for Immigration Reform Michael Gerson suggests three very specific principles for having a right heart. One of the principles says, “Whatever our policy views, the dehumanization of undocumented workers is not an option.”

In addition to Gerson’s principles I would offer three suggestions for preaching right actions.

First, change only comes for the most vulnerable when people with influence are willing to speak up in the face of the status quo. Change comes last to Washington and a sermon application that calls us to defend the oppressed can even include exhortation to contact Representatives and Senators to ask for reform.

Second, invite the congregation to take time to give the facts a chance. The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 was supposed to be a temporary measure, but it proved to be a permanent turning point. Previous to 1921 5-10,000 immigrants per day passed through Ellis Island. Currently, the quota for low skilled workers is set at 5,000 per year.

Trying to understand every justice issue is a tall order. But when the food we eat and even the grapes for our communion wine come through the hands of immigrants, who were never truly offered a feasible way to enter the U.S. legally, we do well to invite our congregations to listen to facts and their stories. (98% of undocumented immigrants surveyed say they would like to work legally in the U.S. if they had the option to do so.)

Third, the church is a body so we should remind our congregations not to act alone. The Evangelical Immigration Table, the CRC, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, and many other organizations are working to make the U.S. a more welcoming place for immigrants. Their work is bi-partisan, highly respected, and they have lots of suggestions for how you can join with them.   

As the people of God we are called to have right hearts and to do right actions. Right hearts come through faith in Jesus. Right actions are empowered by the Holy Spirit. I fear that if we don’t preach both dynamics of justice of we will implicitly preach another version of two kinds of justice--that some issues matter to God and some issues don’t.

In my opinion, if we do preach about action on at least some specific justice issues congregations will begin to understand more completely what it means to defend the vulnerable and they will transfer that learning to other specific issues and maybe even take action. When that happens God will be glorified and the world will see the truth of Jesus’s message.

[Image: Flickr user spacepleb]

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