Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners) is to many a spiritual hero, and being such isn’t unjustifiable. He’s legitimately and biblically contested the presuppositions of both the right and left on the political spectrum, and the liberal and conservative portions of the Church. When he puts his mind to something, he does it. When he acts, people do listen. His latest undertaking, Fast4Families, has involved fasting for immigration reform, with legitimate logical reasons – not the least of which being that even a majority of conservative politicians feel reform is somehow necessary. Initially, after reading his letter, I felt very much like-minded with him on this new project.
So why did I hesitate?
When it came time to undertake fasting according to the announcement, on Giving Tuesday, I felt ready. Barring a few previous non-negotiables, I’d start the liquid-only fasting on Wednesday at sundown. And I did start. And I prayed for and about both the cause and those affected by the injustice that in fact exists in our country’s immigration system.
Then I read the fasters’ declaration, and looked more closely at how things were being practiced, and a concern grew within me. The details of that concern are as follows:
1) We may be confusing Israel with the United States. Last I checked, Israel the nation was delivered from Egypt with a great many obvious signs and wonders wrought by God directly, and only after decades of wandering then fought to establish their own territory against people who already inhabited it. While not unjustified in my view, the American Colonists simply chose to exercise their right to independence of their own collective will. The last time I checked, the only other group with logical validity to the name of “Israel” is “spiritual Israel,” and that would be the Church (Romans 9:6-8). And the last time I checked, most people undertaking this kind of fast for immigrants were not exactly in favor of legislating morality in other, more conservative, avenues.
2) We may be assuming, therefore, that U.S. officials are under the same obligations as the kings, prophets and officials of Israel. The invalidity of this correlation probably appears obvious by now, but what about the danger as well? Do we really want to perpetuate the idea that some people with top priorities or responsibilities to things and people other than God are to be responsible for overseeing our well-being or ethics? The unfortunate fact is that these officials already recognize this. For example, the declaration reads: “We will fast and pray until the bonds of families are no longer broken. We will fast and pray until immigration reform is no longer a notion, but a reality. We will fast and pray until citizenship is no longer a dream for 11 million aspiring Americans.” Yet after 22 days (which is certainly a long time to fast with water only, but doesn’t exactly seem like a deliberate number of days), the original fasters had to “pass the baton to us in the faith community.” The unspoken truth behind this is that the politicians simply waited the fasters out, and if they did it then they will continue to do so. My expectation is that the fast will have to be modified, or Jim and his cohorts will have to “fast in shifts.” (UPDATE, 12/5 @ 7:35p.: The previous sentence was written at ~10:30a.; currently, the fast has indeed been modified for the public with the term “#prayforreform”.) Either of those options is acceptable, but not in accordance with the original declaration, and therefore only undermines the opposition’s ability to take the activity as seriously as necessary.
3) We may be unintentionally fostering “Old Covenant” thinking. This includes the now pervasive idea that, for example, international relationships, wealth of citizens (made recently public thanks to Dave Ramsey), and national worship of God all correlate to divine favor and/or retribution. I don’t think we want to hop on the bandwagon that claims things like Katrina are God’s wrath, do we? Yet we seem to be presupposing that God has a similar covenant with our country. And we certainly do not nationally worship God; the last time I checked, Saturday or Sunday was not a national weekly holiday for the sole purpose of going to a place for monotheistic worship.
Approaching the fast for immigration reform on purely spiritual grounds therefore seems to feed improper assumptions. Fear not, though, I can hear the contention now: “What exactly do you propose we do, then?” It’s a legitimate contention.
The first action which seems more preferable to do would be to approach those who oppose immigration reform on their own terms. This isn’t exactly unprecedented, as God chose to take on incarnation. One way this would look would be (if appealing based on purely a Judeo-Christian outlook) building relationship with those in Congress who held the same values. That means encouraging, discussing, and predicting ways of common value agreement with those who are opposing the measure — either directly or indirectly, through those members of Congress who both agree with our outlook and the reform. (UPDATE: See note given within point 1, above; the modifications to the fasting include appealing to a level of “faith” for the opposition.) Another way this would look would be simply using the political system to uproot those who oppose the measure – in other words, finding a way to remove or otherwise invalidate their arguments, clout, position, authority, etc.
The second action which seems more preferable to do would be to take on the reform ourselves, in actual churches. This would mean exercising our right to civil disobedience by opening deliberate ministries, avenues, shelters, funding, etc. to those who are affected by specific points of injustice in the system – instead of leaving them open to fending for themselves. And yes, I do believe that without specific and unified church action like this, we are indeed saying, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill” (James 2:15, NRSV).
Hear this: I’m not advocating that fasting is not a good idea. It is, and it has immeasurable Christian precedent. In this case, it’s also gathering mass publicity. I’m also not advocating unruly citizenship; we are called to be dutiful citizens of the nation we are living in, as far as what is regarded as moral and just behavior (Romans 13:1-7). Exercising that kind of citizenship means, in part, understanding the distinction between the divine and the state. Should we fast and pray for these immigrants? Absolutely. Should we as the Church insist that righteousness be done in our country, whichever country we as Christians are living in? Absolutely. Should we expect that any such country can and/or will behave like the Church? Hmm.
The bottom line is that we cannot presuppose (publicly or not) that a non-Christian institution should and/or will behave as if it had made a covenant with God the Father; what we must remember and insist upon, for the issue of immigration and any other unjust system, is that the Church should and will behave in accordance with its own covenant in Christ.