Alan Cross blogs at Downshore Drift and delivers devastating nominating speeches!
Admittedly, this is just going to be one side of the story. And, I am used to not getting my way or have people listen to me, so that is not the issue here. But, today, I submitted a resolution to the Alabama Baptist Convention during our annual meeting that sought to address the balance between our duty to obey the law of the land and our duty to obey God’s law in loving all people and helping them, despite whether they are here legally or not. It did not make it out of committee and I wanted to explore some possible reasons as to why. Here is the text of the resolution:
RESOLUTION CALLING FOR THE AFFIRMATION OF ALABAMA BAPTIST CHURCHES TO PROVIDE A WELCOMING, HOSPITABLE ENVIRONMENT FOR THE IMMIGRANTS AND ALIENS IN OUR MIDST
WHEREAS, the people of God are always considered aliens and strangers in the land (1 Peter 2:11); and
WHEREAS, God commanded the people of Israel to “not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21); and
WHEREAS, We are commanded to be hospitable “to strangers, for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2); and
WHEREAS, Many of the immigrants to our state from other nations, both legal and illegal, have many physical, financial, and social needs; and
WHEREAS, Jesus says in Matthew 25:40 that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him; and
WHEREAS, Alabama has enacted some of the strongest laws in the nation in response to illegal immigration to our state;
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, we the messengers to the Alabama Baptist State Convention meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, November 13-14, 2012 affirm the call for Christians to show hospitality, Christian love, and care for immigrants and aliens in our presence; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that though we are to submit to the governing authorities and live quiet, peaceful lives (1 Peter 2:13-17; 1 Timothy 2:1-6), we are to first show love and concern for all people according to God’s higher law as we love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36-40); and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we encourage Alabama Baptist churches and individual Christians to care for all of those in need as God places them in our path whether they are here legally or not; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we share the gospel of Jesus Christ with all people in all circumstances praying that all come to salvation in Christ; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that we seek to make disciples of all nations, including the immigrants of the nations that God has sovereignly brought to our state through various means according to Matthew 28:18-20; and
BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that we seek to be good citizens in our state and nation only because we are first citizens of the Kingdom of God who represent Christ as His ambassadors.
So, that was it. I wrote it up and submitted it today at the convention (which is allowed) thinking that this would be a good, non-controversial way to affirm our requirement to obey the law of the state while also valuing the command of God as the higher law. I wrote this because Republicans in Alabama enacted the nation’s toughest immigration law in 2011 and this law was largely supported by Southern Baptists in the state. Or, at the very least, it was not opposed. The political lobby of Alabama Baptists is closely supportive of Alabama Republicans on a host of issues. The majority of Southern Baptists in Alabama also support the Republican Party, so there is a place of influence there. I thought that it would be helpful for Alabama Baptists to speak to this issue and declare that yes, we understand and will obey the law. But, we should first and always seek to minister to people in need, whether they are illegal immigrants or not, because we are to first obey God’s law requiring us to love others sacrificially.
My simple hope was that we could send a clear message to Alabama Baptists that when they met a Hispanic person in need, they should first seek to love and minister to them instead of worrying about if they might get in trouble with the State if that person is here illegally. We could have done that today.
Here is the law, called the Hammon-Beeson Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act:
The Wikipedia page on the law provides a helpful summary of the law and the controversy surrounding it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alabama_HB_56
After declaring that illegal aliens would not be provided services, education, employment, or any other benefit from the state of Alabama, the law also states:
(f) Every person working for the State of Alabama or a political subdivision thereof, including, but not limited to, a law enforcement agency in the State of Alabama or a political subdivision thereof, shall have a duty to report violations of this act. Any person who willfully fails to report any violation of this act when the person knows that this act is being violated shall be guilty of obstructing governmental operations as defined in Section 13A-10-2 of the Code of Alabama 1975.
I asked a couple of lawyers if I was reading this right and they confirmed that I was. It appears that every state employee is Alabama is required by law to report any violation of this law and if they do not report it, then they are guilty of obstructing governmental operations. This is very problematic for churches and Christians, in my opinion. Our church is in the state capitol of Alabama. We have a lot of state workers who are members of our church. If our church is helping a Hispanic family in need, are the state workers to try and figure out if the people are here legally or not? If we do ministry in a nearby community that we know has illegals living in it, will the state workers not engage in the ministry for fear that they might come in contact with illegals and be forced to report them or report other church members who help them in any way? Even though the law does not say this, will confusion arise if our church is giving food or shelter to a Hispanic family who might be here illegally causing state workers in our church to think that they must report this or face prosecution? My concern is that Christians be free to help people in need who live in our community without fear that they are breaking the law. There should exist a reasonable expectation that those living in our community are here legally and private citizens, whether they work for the state or not, should not be called upon to act as law enforcement or as an immigration agent.
When clergy in Alabama challenged this case on the basis that the law would keep Christians from obeying God’s Word in ministering to people in need, Judge Sharon Blackburn of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama, ruled that the clergy had no “standing” in the case and that no harm had yet been done. But, it should be understood that religious speech and activity is protected speech and activity according to the First Amendment of the Constitution and it cannot be overruled by a state law on immigration. So, my resolution fits both the Biblical requirement to minister to the stranger in our midst and to those in need and it also fits the legal requirement of being protected speech and activity according to the Constitution. There really should not be a problem.
But, there was a problem for the Resolutions Committee of the Alabama Baptist Convention, it seems. I spoke to several people as to why the resolution was dismissed. It appeared to me (and this is just my judgment – I might be wrong) that the concern for the law of the state might have higher than concern for God’s command to actively love all people, regardless of the consequences, in this context. It also appeared to me (again, I could be wrong) that some might have been more concerned with having political access to Republicans than they were with clearly affirming a path of action for Baptists to obey the clear mandate of Scripture to love their neighbor as themselves. I am not saying that all on the committee thought this as I believe that some wanted to approve the resolution. But, it seems that the voices against it were louder than the voices for it since the resolution did not make it out of committee. There might have been other reasons it did not make it out and I was not in the deliberations, so, admittedly, I am left to speculate from piecing together things from here and there.
I affirmed that we should respect the law and obey it as long as it did not cause us to disobey God. This is a classic Christian ethical argument calling for submission to the authorities up until the authorities force us to sin, at which point we are allowed to engage in civil disobedience. To see a brother in need and not help him is to sin. 1 John 3:17 says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” In talking with the representatives of the committee after the decision had been made, I told them that I was trying to demonstrate how Alabama Baptists should affirm the civil laws while being sure to help all of those in need who are in our neighborhoods in obedience to God’s higher commands.
Instead of making a prophetic statement on this issue that appealed to God’s higher law over man’s law whenever it came into conflict, we took a pass for some reason. It is sometimes easier to affirm our place of power in society by maintaining the status quo that benefits us than it is to consider the needs of others and be willing to suffer alongside them. And, we sometimes think that it is more beneficial to try and make sure that we do not confuse our political allies or enemies about where we stand than it is that we send a clear message to Christians about how they should conduct themselves Biblically in a complicated situation. The irony is that what I was calling for in the resolution was both Biblical and legal. What was controversial about what the resolution said? If there was a concern for political access, this gets back to my constant call that we be prophetic on issues instead of political so that we can bless good wherever we find it and address wrong wherever we find it, irrespective of what political party we find it in.
We must not work to affirm our “way of life” at the expense of others and we must always seek to obey God rather than men – if conflict arises between God’s law and man’s. I know that the committee believes and affirms this. But, as Christian leaders, we need to chart a clear course as to how we are to do that, especially on issues like immigration. While I believe that strong laws regarding illegal immigration are important, I also firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the Christian to provide for those in need and to care for the poor. The Alabama immigration law actually does not forbid this, but confusion can exist as to how Christians are to legally and Biblically proceed. We would do well to clear that up.
Are Alabama Baptists wrong to minister to illegal aliens? I don’t think so. I don’t think that the government says that we are nor do I think that the resolutions committee thinks that we are wrong if we are showing Christian love to illegal immigrants. I actually think that they all very much want to show love to all people and minister to people, whether they are here legally or not. If that is the case, then we should state that clearly so there is not any confusion. Perhaps we will do so in the future. But, as for now, something seems to be holding us back.
They did ask me to resubmit the resolution next year. I was thankful for that. God willing, I will do just that. Resolutions can be important barometers of what we think is important at the time. I am confident that we will begin to see this issue differently and I pray that Baptists in Alabama will begin to lead the state in this area. In the meantime, we should seek to help all those in need despite where they come from and pray that Christians will see clearly the person that God has put before us. Whatever we do for the least of these, we do for Him.