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Christian Ethicist Says Churches Need Own ‘Immigration Reform’

An ethics professor says all Christians in the United States are “guest workers” with an allegiance to God that supersedes national or political loyalties.

Melissa Snarr, assistant professor of ethics and society at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, called for a special kind of “immigration reform” for America’s churches, where Christians assess whether their primary devotion is to their country or to God.

“We who call ourselves Christians are not the kind of immigrants we are supposed to be,” Snarr said Monday at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

Snarr–whose research centers on the intersection of religion, social change and social and political ethics–argued that amid talk of immigration reform in politics, it is also time for “a different type of immigration reform” in U.S. churches.

She challenged churches to recover teaching of classical Christian writers Tertullian and Augustine, who wrote in contexts of the reign and fall of the Roman Empire and remind that Christ’s followers in any era are supposed to be immigrants in any country where they happen to live.

“Our primary citizenship in Jesus the Christ is not in any state or boundary other than God’s,” she said. “This means Christians should live as immigrants–perhaps guest workers; at best secondary citizens–in human states.”

That includes America, Snarr said, where, “We do very little to fulfill the Christian calling to be immigrants in the political landscapes in which we live.”

Snarr said recovering the status of spiritual immigrant “calls us to a special place of witness” in secular immigration debate. As “citizens in the City of God,” she said, Christians ought to “stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable citizens.”

“We must undergo our own immigration reform, a recollection and cultivation of our identity, as we enter secular immigration debates,” she said. “Then, as part of our own immigrant status, we are called to stand in solidarity with political immigrants.”

That doesn’t mean that Christians should withdraw from or resist political authority, Snarr said, but, “Christian identity should never be the same as national identity.” She illustrated with an example of churches that fly the American flag above or at the same height at the Christian flag, a practice she said begs the question, “Where is their true political home?”

Snarr urged American Christians to avoid “the Constantinian temptation,” which she defined as the “seductive muse, which is coercive power.”

“When we seek coercive earthly power, our perspective on discipleship changes,” Snarr said.

She contrasted that with examples set by reformers like Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Caesar Chavez, who rather found in their faith traditions a different “way of being in the world” built around “siding with the least of these.”

Implications for public policy, she said, include seeking immigration reform that protects worker rights and changes current laws that result in the splitting of families.

Keeping undocumented workers outside protection of U.S. labor laws, Snarr said, has created “a second-class work force with fewer rights and lower wages.” This “subordinate labor class,” she said, also suppresses wages for documented immigrant and native-born workers. Fearing they will be fired and deported, undocumented workers do not speak up and demand better wages or working conditions, creating an economic incentive for employers to hire even more illegal aliens.

Snarr also urged fixing laws to “ensure family integrity,” calling for a moratorium on deportation of parents whose children are legal U.S. residents.

That problem, Snarr said, is behind a New Sanctuary Movement, where hundreds of U.S. churches are setting up sanctuaries for families at risk of being torn apart by deportation.

While the first sanctuary movement in the late 1980s was to respond to refugees from wars in Central America, Snarr said, the new movement reaches out to “victims of U.S. trade policies.”

Congregations are not asked to break the law–all families are publicly identified–but major focus is given to “how families are torn apart by deportation,” Snarr said.

The most famous case involves Elvira Arellano, a former cleaning woman at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport arrested in 2002 in a post-9/11 security sweep of America’s airports for having a false Social Security number. She sought sanctuary for a year at Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist Church to avoid separation from her 8-year-old son, a U.S. citizen.

When Arellano left her sanctuary to join a protest in California, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested her Aug. 19 on a Los Angeles street and deported her to Mexico.

Snarr challenged churches to “analyze the purposes of the coercive state and know when their purposes are not our own.”

“When the laws and practices of the state contradict the fundamental calling of Christians to love the least of these, Christians must invoke their citizenship in the city of God,” Snarr said.

Snarr’s address is the first in series of lectures on Christian ethics called “Performing Faith,” said Andy Watts, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Belmont and a frequent contributor to EthicsDaily.com.

Watts said the purpose of the series is to “ask important questions about the moral lives of people living in America” and respond not just by listening but by “a living response to those questions formed around the story of Jesus.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.