“Centering immigrants in our Christian response to immigration means that we make room for their integration but do not pressure them to assimilate. We recognize that people are allowed to bring their full selves into every space even as they are adapting to a new country. The act of speaking another language, eating the food of one’s homeland, and listening to music from our cultures is not a threat to the host country’s way of life.”
This is a major theme of Karen Gonzalez’s new book, Beyond Welcome: Centering Immigrants in Our Christian Response to Immigration.
Gonzalez uses the example of Rahab, from the Old Testament – a sex worker whose life “challenges everything the Israelites believed about goodness, worthiness and inclusion.” Despite this reality, Gonzalez points out that: “[U]nlike many of us, she does not seem to question whether she is worthy of inclusion. She seems to know deep in her soul that her status as a human being is enough to make her deserving of belonging.”
Gonzalez challenges the dominant (white) culture’s view. “I do not know any good immigrants. Good immigrants, according to American mythology, work hard and keep their heads down, never dreaming of accessing public benefits. They are eternally grateful for admission to this great country and never critique it. They speak English fluently without an accent, and fully assimilate into American culture…”
And as they perform jobs nobody else wants, “they are invisible but essential.”
In describing pitting immigrants with DACA status vs. other immigrants, including those with disabilities, Gonzalez asks: “…[I]s it biblical or even practical to think of people as good or bad immigrants?”
As Gonzalez continues to challenge the dominant culture’s view of immigrants, she brings up an interesting point. Many (white) evangelicals and fundamentalists use the bible to quote scripture to defend their views, claiming that the bible is the word of God. Says Gonzalez, “Many of us were taught that the Bible itself is the Word of God, but John’s Gospel opens with a clarion declaration: Jesus is the Word of God.”
So, it would seem, especially to a Christian, how Jesus treated others would be much more relevant than a scripture quote.
Gonzalez is very good at describing the linguistic tightrope the U.S. uses to define its immigration policy.
“Refugees flee a place because their lives are at risk… Refugees are literally running from persecution, violence, or the threat of death. It matters very much whether we call people ‘immigrants’ or ‘refugees,’ whether we think they are coming because they might have a better life here in North America or because it is the only way they will have any life at all…
"[W]hen you tell refugees to go away they suffer, and they die.
"We don’t like to think about that, so we change our language, calling these same people ‘immigrants’ or worse yet, ‘illegals’ – nameless, faceless immigrants without the legal right to be in the United States. Never mind that ‘illegal’ is an adjective and not a noun – it allows us to reduce a human being to their legal status, thereby absolving ourselves of all responsibility for our neighbors in need.”
The issue of who is more sovereign, God or the Bible, is actually a reflection of a bigger question. Gonzalez writes: “For many Christians, the challenging part of becoming recovering ethnocentric people is that most of us do not realize that our expression of faith also carries a culture… When we do not pay attention to how God has been present in another culture and how the Spirit is revealing God’s very self in local cultural expressions, we will then impose our own Christian culture on others.”
Gonzalez offers a different type, called reciprocal hospitality. “What I am referring to,” she writes, “is the kind of hospitality that is truly engaged, where nonimmigrant Christians listen and learn at the feet of immigrants they have welcomed to their countries… the kind where their [immigrants’] dignity and choices are respected and decision are not made on their behalf.
“When hospitality is not reciprocal, those belonging to the dominant culture unconsciously begin to think of immigrants as having less in every way."
Gonzalez quotes Dr. Christine D. Pohl who describes the danger of ethnocentrically driven hospitality. “There is a kind of hospitality that keeps people needy strangers, while fostering an illusion of relationship and connection. It both disempowers and domesticates guests while it reinforces the hosts’ power, control and sense of generosity. It is profoundly destructive to the people it welcomes.”
Hospitality founded on the expectation of assimilation or payback isn’t the hospitality that Jesus practiced.
“In Jesus’ understanding, Christian hospitality should extend to those who could not benefit you in any way – those who were poor and others on the margins…”
Gonzalez goes on to reflect on the original meaning of “Mi casa es su casa.”
“It is an expression that is well known in English – almost like a hospitality cliché. But like many expressions that have become cliches, we do not think about what they are expressing or the deep truths found within them: what is mine is also yours. Make yourself at home because you are in your own home. There is no mine and no yours, only ours.
“How does that phrase reimagine the way we think about hospitality to strangers and immigrants? How does it move us beyond the host and guest dichotomy and into reciprocal hospitality?”
Taken further, this idea opens us up to wonder: who owns the land in the first place?
At this point, Gonzalez turns to the example of Native Peoples’ culture.
In this worldview, “The land cares for humans, and the humans care for the land. People and land are different but equally valuable in this worldview because they need one another.
“Furthermore, the land does not belong to human beings – it belongs to God, the Creator.”
Unfortunately, the history of the earth seems to be one in which many dominant cultures treat the earth as something to be exploited for commercial gain, with no thought of relationship; without thought to consequences.
And under this mindset, the earth is artificially sectioned off into countries and borders between them.
Which leads Gonzalez to pose the question: “Perhaps rather than condemn immigrants who enter the country unlawfully, we should applaud them for subverting an unjust system, for obeying God’s laws above human-made ones.”
Rather than throw up her arms in dismay, Gonzalez offers hope. “Change can and does happen, but it requires us to take the first step of reimagining the world and changing the narrative… [W]hy is it radical to believe in open borders? Why is it radical to proclaim that the earth is the Lord’s?”
For anyone interested in pursuing a thoughtful discovery of immigration from a theological point of view, Beyond Welcome: Centering Immigrants in Our Christian Response to Immigration by Karen Gonzalez is a must-read.
Beyond Welcome: Centering Immigrants in our Christian Response to Immigration
By Karen Gonzalez