Compassion, as Henri Nouwen writes in one of my favorite books, is literally “suffering with.” It is joining in the suffering of others and extending Christ’s love to those facing distress. It is much easier, and is the way of the society that surrounds us, to avoid and remain ignorant of suffering. But the model Christ gives us in the incarnation—of emptying himself, taking our human nature, and entering into our mess (Philippians 2:5-11)—calls us to compassion.
Though it’s not always what most outsiders know us for—sadly—Christians do a great deal of compassion-driven work. It’s no accident that so many of our hospitals bear Christian names, focused on caring for the sick and dying. Christians give to charities to care for the poor at significantly higher rates than others in American society, and are at the forefront of the movement to adopt unwanted children waiting in the foster care system for adoptive parents. Lately, almost every evangelical church that I go into is asking what they can do to rescue and extend compassion to those caught in human trafficking, both in the U.S. and abroad.
These on-the-ground acts of mercy and compassion are mandated by our Christian faith; they are an integral part of what it means, as individuals who have received mercy, to love our neighbor. And yet, they’re not enough. Fully loving our neighbor requires that we also address the systems and structures that keep human beings made in God’s image impoverished, oppressed, and marginalized. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., loving our neighbor starts with bandaging up the wounds of the man beaten alongside the road to Jericho and bringing him to get help, but when men and women are beaten and robbed day after day along that same road, at a certain point true compassion points us to seeking justice: to asking what is wrong with the road and what we can do to fix the inherent structural problems.
My sense is that American evangelicals—at least in recent history—are much more comfortable with on-the-ground acts of mercy than we are with shaking unjust systems. I’m not sure if that’s because we doubt the efficacy of government to limit injustice, because we have an individualistic understanding of sin that makes it hard to theologically conceptualize systemic evil, or simply because we’re wary of upsetting people (potentially so much that they stop tithing or go attend the church across the street) by discussing a biblically-informed approach to an issue on which their preferred political party is on the opposite side.
Whatever the reason, I find that advocacy, speaking up on behalf of those whose voices are not heard within our democracy (Proverbs 31:8), is the least comfortable option within the range of responses for many evangelicals as they examine the issue of immigration. But the more that I interact with my immigrant neighbors—hearing their stories over a meal, praying with them, helping kids with their homework, participating in Bible studies, providing legal advice—the more I am convinced that I do not really love them if I am not willing to speak up for immigration reform, for corrections to the dysfunction and injustice of our current system. That means calling, writing to, and visiting my elected officials, doing everything that I can to get others to do so as well, and using my vote on behalf of the interests of those beyond just myself.
For the literally millions of American evangelicals who say that they want to stop the evil of human trafficking, there’s an urgent need to move from passionate sentiment to specific action. The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill this week, H.R. 4970, that would dramatically limit the relief available to foreign-born victims of human trafficking and other violent crimes, and in the process hinder law enforcement’s efforts to prosecute traffickers. Under current law, the Department of Homeland Security can grant a special “U visa” to individuals whom the police or District Attorney certifies have been helpful in the prosecution of a crime. Though there is also a distinct “T visa” specifically for victims of human trafficking, many advocates have found the U visa to be a much more readily-attainable option to assist trafficking victims. Since the majority of foreign-born victims of trafficking are undocumented and fear deportation, they seldom report the crimes committed against them to the police; the possibility of a U visa—with its promise of secure permanent legal status in the U.S.—makes it easier for law enforcement officers to convince victims to come forward and to provide evidence or to testify against their traffickers, and thus to secure convictions against traffickers and stop the vicious cycle of trafficking.
Last week, though—despite the concerns raised by evangelical leaders from groups like the National Association of Evangelicals, Willow Creek Community Church, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, InterVarsity, and the World Evangelical Alliance, as well as various other religious groups—the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would alter the U visa, removing the right of a U visa holder to apply for permanent legal status. That would mean that, after bravely coming forward to testify against her trafficker, a victim of sex trafficking could find herself in a legal limbo after her visa expires, and eventually be deported to the country from which she was trafficked in the first place. Obviously, that leaves a lot less incentive to come forward and report the situation—which is why traffickers should be thrilled by this provision, and Christians should rally against it.
The fact that the Judiciary Committee passed this legislation last week with just one member of the majority party voicing dissent suggests that they do not believe their constituents are upset about this bill, but there’s still time: the full House of Representatives will likely vote on H.R. 4970 this week. I’d encourage you to use World Relief’s tool to find your Representative and send a quick email, then also call his or her office (either in Washington or at a district office, or both), and tell whoever answers the phone (or the answering machine) that you’d like to encourage your representative to strike Sections 801, 802, and 806 from H.R. 4970. It will literally take two minutes—but if enough people call, it will almost certainly stop these bad provisions from going forward, and have a dramatic impact on the lives of women and men stuck in trafficking. Compassion for victims of trafficking is vital, but Christ also calls us to seek his justice, and now is a timely moment to begin.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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