The Idolatry of Nationalism and the Injustice of Immigration Enforcement
Daniel was born in the United States; his father Samuel was not. When Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) came for his father, they took refuge in CityWell Church in Durham, NC where they sought sanctuary. They lived in the Church for a year, and then Samuel was called to the ICE office for a routine visit. Fearing a potential trap, Daniel went with his father to the meeting, along with 30 members of the church. When ICE took Samuel into custody, Daniel tried to come to his aid and was arrested for assaulting a federal official. Daniel was taken into custody too. When they dragged Samuel into a waiting van, the church members surrounded the van to prevent them from taking their beloved Samuel. Ten of them were arrested. They met for a year as they went to court. Each of them shared their personal relationship with Samuel and his family. Their hearts would break as they sat up an empty chair for Samuel in every meeting to feel his presence. In their commitment to welcoming and supporting Samuel and his family, in their willingness to stand with him even as he was being kidnapped by the State, in their single-minded effort to lift up the issue of dehumanizing border laws through their witness in the Courts, they taught me something fundamental about faith in practice.
Sanctuary Beyond Walls
On September 13, 1858, a runaway slave named John Price from Maysville, Kentucky, was arrested by a United States Marshal in Oberlin, Ohio. Under the Fugitive Slave Law, the federal government assisted slave owners in reclaiming their runaway slaves, and local officials were required to assist.
As soon as residents heard that the U.S. Marshal had taken Price, a group of men rushed to save him. After peaceful negotiations failed, the rescuers stormed the hotel and found Price in the attic. The group immediately returned Price to Oberlin, and then to Canada via the Underground Railroad. A federal grand jury brought indictments against 37 of those who freed Price. Among them was a free black man, Charles Henry Langston, who had helped ensure that Price was taken to Canada rather than released to the authorities.
Charles was convicted for aiding an escaping slave, and he gave an eloquent condemnation of the immorality of the law at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Cleveland, on May 12, 1859. He told the court, in a long speech, “The [Fugitive Slave Law] under which I am arraigned is an unjust one, one made to crush the colored man, and one that outrages every feeling of Humanity, as well as every rule of Right. I have nothing to do with its constitutionality; and about it I care a great deal less. I have often heard it said by learned and good men that it was unconstitutional; I remember the excitement that prevailed throughout all the free States when it was passed; and I remember how often it has been said be individuals, conventions, communities, and legislatures, that it never could be, never should be, and never was meant to be enforced. I had always believed, until the contrary appeared in the actual institution of proceedings, that the provisions of this odious statute would never be enforced within the bounds of this State. … Being identified with that man, by color, by race, by manhood, by sympathies, such as God has implanted in us all, I felt it my duty to do what I could toward liberating him. I had been taught by my Revolutionary father — and I say this with all due respect to him — and by his honored associates, that the fundamental doctrine of this government was that all men have a right to life and liberty.”
When Martin Luther King, Jr came out against Vietnam in a speech at Riverside Church in New York, April 1967, he explored the spiritual idolatry of nationalism and border enforcement. He said, “This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls ‘enemy,’ for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
What are these “allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism,” and patriotism? If we take seriously the instruction to “love our enemy,” then we cannot support military preparation and we cannot support armed conflict to defend our borders. If we take seriously “welcome the stranger,” we cannot support the criminalization of people crossing borders for a better life for their families. Looking through the lens of loving our enemy and welcoming the stranger, we see that the waving flags and singing anthems of sacrificial blood for country and freedom are nothing more than idolatry. We’ve made a False God of a Country that justifies the mistreatment of our brothers and sisters traveling here for a better life.
The members of the CityWell church who took Samuel into their church to live in sanctuary, who traveled with him to the ICE office and were arrested for trying to disrupt his arrest and deportation, they understood in their body and bones what it means to find the Divine in the stranger. They demonstrated that no document of human hands, no unjust law, no arbitrary border in the sand, could make Samuel and his family anything less than their own family. And they stood with them when the State came for them.
“I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
The righteous then ask, “When did we see you, a stranger, and welcome you?”
Christ replies, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you did it unto me.”
You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.