Christianity has been declared illegal in the United States of America. There’s no prohibition against professing one’s faith in Jesus. In fact, speaking the name of the Christian savior is in vogue with the current presidential administration as was evident in the multiple Christian-specific prayers offered at President Trump’s inauguration. Prominent religious figures even suggest the most recent election was guided by divine action. The Rev. Franklin Graham declared: “I believe God’s hand was in [Trump’s election].” But is the hand of God visible in the fruits of this presidency?
One of the central tenants of the Christian faith is the call to love the neighbor as oneself. The same teaching is also found in most of the world’s major religions. Life with God is not intended to be a means of escape from concern for others. An awareness of the Divine awakens the worshiper to the presence of a diversity of people, all dear to God. Jesus calls his followers to love their neighbors; he then defines neighbors as including those considered outsiders, even persons thought to be so questionable that they are best avoided. Life with God opens the believer to seeing the “other” as “neighbor.” This teaching led many early Christian communities to engage in ministries of compassion to persons dying from plagues, regardless of the religion or belief system of the ailing ones. Similar practices of self-giving are found in other religious traditions as faith is embodied not just in words that are spoken but in acts that are shared with neighbors.
On Jan. 25, the President of the United States signed an Executive Order entitled, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States.” Known as the “Sanctuary Cities Order,” the action seeks to penalize cities and towns that embrace the practice of “sanctuary” for the undocumented. The term “sanctuary” has historically been used to describe protection provided by faith communities for those under threat in times of trouble. A little-noticed provision in the executive order criminalizes the practice of loving one’s neighbor as oneself as understood in multiple faith traditions. In a section titled, “Civil Fines and Penalties,” the order states, “As soon as practicable, and by no later than one year after the date of this order, the Secretary [of Homeland Security] shall issue guidance and promulgate regulations…to ensure the assessment and collection of all fines and penalties…from aliens unlawfully present in the United States and from those who facilitate their presence in the United States.”
What does it mean to “facilitate” the presence of undocumented persons? If I give an undocumented person a ride while fully aware of their status, am I in violation of the law? If my neighbor, who is undocumented, gets sick with the flu and I prepare chicken soup and take care of her children while she recovers, am I in trouble? If my church prepares a gift box with food and clothing for an undocumented family, giving them basic foodstuffs in the name of Jesus, are we subject to fines and penalties?
In a word, yes. Or so it seems. The Christian mandate to love our neighbor as ourselves makes no exemption for those without papers. Indeed, our sacred text tells stories of persons who fled oppression, violence, and hunger, migrating to places of safety and hope. Child Jesus, under threat of death, fled his land and went to Egypt. Migration is a part of human history from our beginning. Persons of faith, motivated by the love they have received in their encounters with the Divine, are compelled to extend that love to others, especially to strangers and refugees, regardless of papers or documentation.
Church communities and other houses of worship will resist the executive order of the president by offering places of sanctuary for the beloved children of God who are subject to deportations. As they did in the 1980s as Central American citizens fled their countries in the midst of war, faith communities today will open their houses of worship to shelter the migrant, the stranger, and the undocumented, recognizing not only the broken immigration system as it currently exists in the United States but also the injustice that the current executive order inflicts upon the most vulnerable among us. People of faith have often participated in illegal activities for the sake of the marginalized: from Roman coliseums to lunch counters in the southern United States. Look for the stories of these communities throughout the country in the coming months. Join the sanctuary movement if your faith or good will compels you. Loving God and loving the neighbor often requires courage, especially in contexts where the very practice of faith is considered a violation of the law.