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Monday, December 27, 2010

Dropping the "I" Word for the "B" Word

Not long ago I was asked to visit with the director of Numbers USA, a group committed to ending all forms of immigration. The Director is a United Methodist and wanted to see if there was some room for agreement. There is not.

Numbers USA asserts that it is different from its sister group, Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) which has been accused of being a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (and whose founder, John Tanton, also helps fund Numbers USA). Numbers claims it is against "immigrant bashing" and so in our discussion, I made a simple request that I felt (and feel) should be easily honored by a group that claims to be committed to treating immigrants humanely. I asked that Numbers USA no longer refer to immigrants as "illegal" but rather, as "undocumented" in its mailings and announcements. I did not ask them to change their policies (though I vehemently disagree with them and they are opposed to what the United Methodist Church stands for), but rather, I asked them to use a term that is used by all organizations I know that also are committed to treating immigrants with integrity.

The director recognized that the preferred name by immigrants themselves is undocumented, rather than "illegal." Yet, when I asked him to use the term undocumented rather than "illegal" he ultimately declined (though he said he needed 3 weeks and to check with his lawyers for some reason).

Why was he - why are so many - opposed to using the term, "undocumented" rather than "illegal?" In using a different term, there is no challenge to currently held beliefs about the issue. It is simply a term that is not pejorative or dehumanizing. Could it be that that is precisely the point? Names define and frame. Names have implicit messages and meanings. Could it be that we as a nation, and sadly, we as a church, prefer to marginalize and dehumanize by the names we use?

Jesus certainly knew the power of names when he gave Simon the name of Peter and announced that upon Peter's confession of Jesus as the Messiah Jesus' church would be built. (Matthew 16:15-19) Jesus recognized that so much can be said through naming - we define and frame that which we name. In a sense, the object or subject being named is owned by that name.

Thus, in calling someone an "illegal" we are defining the entirety of that person by one action they committed. It does not matter what else they do, how they might contribute in any capacity to the larger society, to their local community, to their church or faith community - they are "illegal" and none of that amounts to anything.

Moreover, we do not need to listen to their stories, to any extenuating circumstances or context that might shed light on why a border was crossed or a visa overstayed. Their illegalness marginalizes them and we are not constrained to listen. "If they just weren't 'illegal' we could listen," some say, proving their high respect of "law and order" while making countless excuses for those they know who also commit civil offenses (crossing the border or overstaying a visa is actually not a criminal offense even thought it has become something equivalent to an act of war for some).

Of course, we neglect to remind ourselves that it was precisely those who were marginalized whom Jesus listened to and redemptively responded. For instance, the Pharisees brought a woman who committed adultery (John 8:1-10) and Jesus redemptively responds to the woman rather than to the Pharisees. Now, it should be pointed out that the Pharisees were legally correct - the woman should have been stoned to death in order to maintain "law and order" (and so should the man though the Pharisees mysteriously forget to bring him before Jesus - funny how we subjectively treat some as "illegal" but not others).

But Jesus does not join with the Pharisees in their strict focus on "law and order." Jesus seems more interested in knowing the context and not so much in joining the Pharisees in defining the woman by this one act. Instead, Jesus provides an opportunity for her to walk in righteousness. He provides mercy and grace - something the Pharisees of his time (and ours) are short of.

(And an interesting side note that corresponds with this passage. Like the Pharisees who refuse to bring the man with whom the woman was committing adultery with before Jesus to be stoned, for those so opposed to illegal immigration and so committed to calling undocumented immigrants "illegals", why is it the same level of marginalization is not levelled against businesses that hire the undocumented or the U.S. government whose policies have exacerbated illegal immigration? That's for another post, but should at least be mentioned here.)

So, if I may, I would like to ask a favor for those so committed to calling people "illegal." Since you are committed to defining someone because of one action they have committed, please let the rest of us know if you have ever lied to someone else for then we can call you "Liar." Or if you have ever lusted after a woman in your heart, which according to Jesus is adultery (Matthew 5:28), we will call you "Adulterer." For the same manner you deny mercy and grace to others, so should it be denied you. The same manner you define and name others for one action they commit, so should you be defined and named for all the world to hear.

Or, if you want to share the same grace and mercy that God gave to you with others, we can drop the names altogether and just get to know one another personally. Isn't that a significant aspect of our mission as followers of Jesus? You are more than a "Liar" or "Adulterer." You are a child of God, loved and created in God's image with a fascinating story of how you have grown in God's love and grace.

So are your immigrants' sisters and brothers, regardless of their legal status.

For those of us who do not wish to be defined by one action without any context perhaps we should use terms that are not so socially and politically charged. Perhaps we can use a term, such as undocumented, that is not dehumanizing and marginalizing.

Or, if we want to go even further and see undocumented immigrants as God sees them - or who sees all people regardless of any immigration status - then we can use the term that God chooses. We can call one another "Beloved." Now that's a b-word I don't mind being called.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What Would the "Deserving" Affluent Look Like?

As Congress finally put the finishing touches on an unpredictably busy lame duck session on this past Wednesday, and as President Obama took his victory lap, gloating not only over the last few weeks but over the last two years in what is being called one of the most accomplished Congressional sessions in history, I still feel very let down this Christmas.

Why dare I stray from the liberal talking point of boasting of the legislative accomplishments of the Obama administration? Because even with the flurry of activity, this administration and this Congress has often failed to bring necessary relief for the most vulnerable and defenseless in our society.

In Jefferson Cowie's excellent book, "Stayin' Alive: the 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class" Cowie asserts that in the 1970s there was a dramatic shift in the political focus that helped bring the Republicans into power under Ronald Reagan, and caused the Democrats to shift their focus as well under Clinton that continues under Obama. And that shift, to be brief, occurred with a focus away from the poor and marginalized groups and toward the welfare of the middle class.

Democrats, in their efforts to regain power from the Republicans (who had shifted themselves in the 1970s to cultural issues as they recognized their views on the economy did not benefit most of the middle class), began to talk less about poverty and about those on society's margins, and instead, focused on the "needs" of the middle class. In other words, the Republicans established the playing field of the debates between the two parties and the Democrats have happily followed along (as has the Church, but that is another posting).

And so who is the loser in the power plays between the current two-party competition for attention to the middle class? The poor and marginalized.

In addition, when talk about the poor and marginalized does occasionally spring up, it is a discussion trapped in the framework of "deserving" vs. "undeserving" poor.

One perfect example of this is the debate around the DREAM Act. During the debate in both the House and Senate, numerous members of Congress (as well as those of us who advocated for its passage) who spoke in favor of the bill, often said that DREAM Act students were brought into this country "through no fault of their own." In other words, they were "deserving" poor and were inherently distinct from the "non-deserving" poor, i.e. all other undocumented immigrants.

The Church will do well to avoid these frameworks and put forward our vision that all undocumented immigrants are made in the image of God and many of them were forced to cross the border illegally, or stay past the legal time on their visas, due to economic and foreign policies of the United States. In other words, the distinction between "deserving" and "undeserving" immigrants is blurred, if not entirely invisible.

I find it utterly hypocritical that the public, and even more so, the Church, harshly insists on separating the "deserving" vulnerable from the "undeserving." And let us not ignore the fact that the requirements placed on the "deserving" poor are quite strenuous. In fact, I think a better framework would be "perfect" poor vs. "imperfect" poor.

Funny how these requirements are not made on the middle class. We do not talk about the "deserving" affluent vs. "undeserving" affluent.

But perhaps we should use these terms. What if, in the insane extension of tax cuts for the affluent (and yes, if you make even in the neighborhood of $250,000, you are affluent!), we also established some stringent requirements so that we can distinguish between the "deserving" affluent and the "undeserving" affluent. What if, in order to receive the extended tax cuts, "deserving" affluent were those who had a member of their immediate families serving in the military. In doing so, they could receive 50% of their tax cuts. The rest of the tax cuts could be earned through a combination of:

-maintaining either a one-parent household or a stable marriage;
-holding stable employment (and changing jobs would prevent tax cuts from being received until the current job had been maintained for at least 6 consecutive months);
-those who receive tax cuts would be subject to surprise visits by social workers employed by the newly created government bureaucracy, the Earned Tax-Cut Incentive Agency (ETCIA). ETCIA workers would verify that the recipients' marriage was stable, that they were being responsible on their job and were not committing any infractions identified by their employer which would immediately stop payments on any tax-cuts, that they were not using any alcohol or non-prescription drugs, that they were participating in their community and could provide several references to support their citizenship in good standing.

We would dare not apply these standards to the affluent in this country because we assume that all affluent people are "deserving!" But yet, if you are poor, or on the margins, you are mandated to not be "deserving," but "perfect." Hypocrisy.

So, while President Obama and others celebrate the number of achievements made by the 111th Congress, I must continue to lament the frameworks used that preference the affluent and condemn the poor and marginalized. My prayer for the new year is that the Church lead the way in seeing the poor and affluent as all children of God, while joining with God's Kingdom preference for the poor.

Until then, I pray we all have a Merry Christmas.