The No More Deaths base camp near the town of Arivaca, Ariz., which is featured in EthicsDaily.com's documentary, "Gospel Without Borders." (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)
Editor's note: Cliff Vaughn is co-producer/director of EthicsDaily.com's upcoming documentary on immigration, "Gospel Without Borders."
When some church folks discuss faith and immigration, there's a big hole where the faith is supposed to be.
It's as if Christian Scriptures had nothing to say about those who cross the U.S. border out of desperation. Faithful churchgoers either forget the greatest commandments or never learned them.
A few folks, however, do try hard to keep the Bible in their arguments - even arguments for a hard-line approach to immigrants.
"The Bible tells us to 'go thru the gate,'" wrote one gentleman in an online forum for Baptists. He said he believed in "the narrow path" and that immigrants who are here without papers need to return to their country of origin and wait for approval.
(I wonder if he knows it might take 20 years to get through the gate - a long time with hungry children.)
He was referring to Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount, quoted in Matthew 7:13-14: "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."
I think his application is all wrong because I have a hard time imagining, given everything else in the Gospels, that Jesus would have us use those words to deny life to God's children.
I also think the preceding verse might be relevant: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12).
Certainly, application of a text is key. While talking to faith leaders who advocate for immigrants, many quoted Jesus' famous "sheep and goats" passage, found in Matthew 25.
Here, Jesus says he will one day "separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." Sheep to the right, goats to the left.
The criterion for division is which choice the people made: Did they feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger in, clothe the naked, look after the sick, visit the prisoner - or not? Sheep to the right, goats to the left.
The night before we left Tucson, Ariz., for a shoot deep in the Sonoran Desert, a Presbyterian pastor who provides humanitarian aid to migrants in the desert suggested that the Matthew 25 passage describes those desert wanderers almost perfectly: hungry, thirsty, a stranger, often sick from the elements, incarcerated if caught.
The next day, we found an exhausted 17-year-old named Juan in the brush. Or he found us. Matthew 25 assumed a new relevance.
Not so fast, according to another Baptist in that same online forum. He was upset about constantly seeing Matthew 25 cited as a reason to help care for migrants.
"The improper use of this passage has become the basis for all sorts of liberal non-sense about the duty of Christians to support socialist redistribution programs," he wrote.
"Mt. 25 has nothing at all to do with indiscriminate charity to the poor; it speaks to us of the saving benefit of receiving Christians (Christ's brothers) into one's heart and care," he lobbied.
His privatized reading is attractive because it calls for low sacrifice on our part. But again, that seems at odds with the life of Jesus the Nazarene.
A North Alabama man vented some anger recently about those who want to help take care of immigrants.
In his letter to the editor, he wrote: "Nowhere in the Bible is it written we are to harbor criminals, provide them with food, shelter and transportation, or administer religious sacraments. To the contrary, the Bible is filled with decreed punishments for criminals."
He then rammed his point about undocumented migrants being not only criminals but ones with food stamps, credit cards and "fine automobiles."
I wonder if his Bible was missing Matthew 25.
Regardless, some folks are editing a mean Bible for the stranger in our midst. They're fashioning a Jesus who doesn't love me or you or Juan or anyone else very much. That Jesus is a stingy legalist with low expectations, and as far as I can tell he wouldn't be worth following.
It's hard to walk away from all of this without concluding that much of Christian America has absolutely nothing to do with the Jesus in the Gospels. The life of Jesus has failed to transform the hearts of many who say it has.
The hatred, ill will and hardness of heart in the pews are staggering.
Those who would vote to hang the Ten Commandments on every light pole think it's just fine, if their own behavior is any indication, to bear false witness against their neighbor.
Making "Gospel Without Borders" put me on the trail of some ordinary people following the extraordinary Jesus.
It also illuminated for me just far down the list Jesus is for many Christians, including me, when we think through an issue. I know this observation is saddening; I'm unsure if it's startling.
Jesus is trumped daily by habit, money, tradition, culture, pride, fear, embarrassment, greed, jokes, inertia. And the hymns of a hundred Sundays apparently matter little.
Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.
Watch the trailer below for "Gospel Without Borders," and click here to learn more about it.
"Gospel Without Borders" Trailer from EthicsDaily on Vimeo.