Last Friday, probably around the time I was at one of my church’s Good Friday services, thirty-eight individuals were sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens at a ceremony in Portland, Maine. Immigrants from all over the world—Argentina, India, Iraq, Somalia and likely several other countries—pledged their allegiance to their adopted country. In an instant, they were legally converted from “aliens” to citizens. Under the law, they are now as American as me or anyone else born into this country.
In some ways, Good Friday is an appropriate day for a naturalization ceremony because it was at the cross of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified for my sins and for the sins of the world, that I (and, very likely, you) became a citizen. As a Gentile by birth (though no one asked my opinion on the matter in advance, I was not born a Jew), Scripture teaches I and all other Gentiles were “excluded from citizenship in Israel” from our birth and thus “foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12). Bummer.
Most Americans, in my experience, take their citizenship for granted. We don’t often reflect upon what a unique privilege it is to possess American citizenship, or upon the almost laughably illogical conclusion that we inherently deserve rights and privileges so few other human beings have merely based on having been born within a particular range of latitude and longitude that defines the borders of the United States. There are people amongst us who know what it’s like to yearn to be included but are not allowed. A law stands in their way; because they happened to be born elsewhere—in Mexico, Poland, or the Philippines, for example—they are not U.S. citizens. The law makes it impossible for many of these people to become citizens, because the hand they were dealt at birth (that they do not have U.S. citizen relatives, they did not have the opportunity to earn an advanced degree so as to qualify for a work-based visa, etc.) makes it impossible for them to meet the law’s demands.
I occasionally do presentations on immigration law at churches where most of the congregants are immigrants. In Spanish, or sometimes with translation to another language, I explain how our immigration laws work and what options are available to those who are already U.S. citizens (voting, petition for close family members to immigrate), to those who are Lawful Permanent Residents (the requirements for naturalization are, which limited categories of relatives they could petition for, etc.), and to those presently without permanent legal status whom the law might allow to obtain it. But there are always a number of people in the audience—often, as much as half of the congregation—who are simply undocumented and permanently ineligible, without a change in law, for legal status. It doesn’t matter if they go back to their countries of origin and try to come back “the legal way”: they simply won’t be eligible. It doesn’t matter their young children are U.S. citizens born in the U.S. That doesn’t change their status, and in most cases never will. They are excluded from citizenship in the United States.
I usually end my presentations with some good news, though. I cannot promise them they will ever be eligible for citizenship in the United States, but the good news—literally, the gospel, as described in Ephesians 2—is that each of us can be naturalized into God’s Kingdom. Through Christ’s death on the cross, which we commemorated last Friday, we “who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (v. 13). Jesus set aside “in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations” (v. 15) so that we—the Gentiles who receive Jesus’ grace—“are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people” (v. 19). Our only role is to receive this offer and take our oath of allegiance to his kingdom. Where the law left me excluded, Jesus made a way through his death on the cross: I was naturalized at Calvary.
That’s why I think Good Friday is an appropriate day for a naturalization ceremony. The analogy isn’t perfect, of course, because citizenship in God’s Kingdom is actually immeasurably more valuable than American citizenship. But it might serve as a reminder to those of who are both Gentile Christians and natural-born American citizens, that we were once excluded, too, and brought in only by grace. While the role of the government is distinct from that of the individual Christian—which is why most Christian groups have called for an earned legalization process that includes a financial penalty for those who have violated immigration laws, as opposed to simply forgiving and forgetting the offense—our attitude as individual Christians and as local churches toward undocumented immigrants should extend the grace and unmerited welcome that we ourselves have received.
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.
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