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Locking up Jesús

June 24, 2018 GMT

Once, a few centuries ago, two parents arrived with their child at the border of another country. They had fled their homeland because of the violence directed toward children like the infant they held in their arms. It had been a difficult journey across the desert, but the hope of safety for their child compelled them to keep walking.

There’s no record of what happened at the border, but the refugee family must have been welcomed, since they were able to stay in the new country until the terror in their homeland ended and it was safe for their child.

The parents were named Joseph and Mary (José y María, in Spanish). The toddler, of course, was Jesus, or Jesús in Spanish. Mary and Joseph were probably not the only parents who walked across the desert to find refuge in Egypt. King Herod’s reign of terror threatened every toddler boy under 2. Who wouldn’t flee such violence for the sake of their children?

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Given that Jesús is a popular boy’s name in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala, a lot of infant, toddler and adolescent Jesúses are at the border of our country as their families have fled violence in their homelands. But unlike Jesús of the Bible, these Jesúses, along with thousands of other children, have been forcibly separated from their parents and put in detention centers.

Whether we call them Mary, Joseph and Jesus or María, José y Jesús, the biblical refugee family’s story is at the heart of the Christian faith. It should also be in the heart of every person — including every political leader — who claims to be Christian. How we treat refugees, how we welcome the stranger, how we love and care for those in need — all of that is informed by the life of the one who himself was a refugee, who grew up as a stranger in a strange land, who knew what it was like to be in need of the kindness of others.

As a Christian pastor and a U.S. citizen, I am a firm believer in the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. However, when political leaders use religious texts to justify government policies — as both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders did last week — then religious leaders need to respond. Hence this article.

To legitimize the administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy, both Sessions and Sanders quoted the apostle Paul’s injunction in his “Letter to the Romans” to obey the government and its laws. Like all scripture, the passage needs its context. For one, Paul’s letter was written for the Christian church in Rome, not as law for all citizens. Two, Paul was a pragmatist, living under Roman oppression. The empire’s leaders, like Pontius Pilate or Herod, never hesitated to crucify dissenters of all religious traditions. Paul’s injunction to obey the law was a survival technique for the early Christians, not a basis for public policy.

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Moreover, if either Sessions or Sanders really knew their Christianity, they would know that Jesus himself broke political and religious laws time and again in order to obey the greatest law of all — to love God and love neighbor. In fact, had either of them kept reading a bit further in Romans 13, they’d seen that Paul affirmed Jesus’ teaching. “All the commandments can be summed up in this word,” Paul wrote, “ ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to the neighbor, therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

If political leaders are going to quote Christian scripture, they need to get it right. The heart of the Christian faith is to have the heart of the One who taught us to love our neighbor and care for the stranger. The One who was a refugee and found welcome in a new land.

The Rev. Talitha Arnold is senior pastor at the United Church of Santa Fe.