Alabama clergy, as diverse as Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics, are rising up to protest, change and explicitly disobey coming changes in state immigration law. Starting September 1 experts say the law (HB56) makes it illegal for individuals to intentionally rent to, transport, harbor, or have a contract with an illegal immigrant. A lawsuit has been filed by a variety of denominational authorities claiming this is unconstitutional. Their claim states that the law violates a Christian’s religious freedom. In theory, a pastor could be arrested for driving an illegal immigrant to a homeless shelter, a church fellowship event, or more. Showing hospitality to the stranger, a central theme in the Bible, is getting more and more difficult, especially in Alabama.
Should Alabama clergy and Christian laity seek the change this law, and what are the implications globally for Christians observing their Alabama counterparts and for government leaders seeking to suppress Christian movements?
Due to religious freedom, the church in America has had the privilege of shaping American dialogue. The church practices with some degree of understanding from other Americans as to the church’s purpose, intent, and guiding convictions. This, however, is not the case, for instance, in China. More and more reports come from both the church and the media about the growing tension and explicit conflict between Christians and the government.
This past April, for instance, the Chinese state-owned Global Times editorialized the following about a non-registered “underground” church of 1,000 members that was expressing its faith by leading a peaceful public procession through Beijing on Easter Sunday:
“A church should not become a power which can promote radical change in this sensitive issue. Otherwise, the church is not engaged in religion but in politics, which is not allowed for a church.”
As we see in Alabama, the American experience shows the Communist Chinese the purpose of a prophetic and engaged Christian church. Sadly, we know the Chinese are not interested due to the threat any non-sanctioned movement poses to the Chinese regime, yet the mere history of the church in America should show Chinese leaders their course of containment, control and suppression never works.
Many historians and sociologist point to the church’s role in the many movements that made America America: universal education, women’s suffrage, abolition, equal rights, prison reform and more. Today’s relevant churches are deeply engaged in poverty assistance, clean water efforts, domestic job training and job creation abroad, the AIDS/HIV crisis, immigration and the sex trade. Relief and solutions to these very issues is religion exerting power, and exerting it for the good of the polis (city). Political? Yes, and for the benefit of many, Christian and non-Christian.
And yet, as American culture continues to secularize and the voice of the church is marginalized it will be interesting to see how the church is perceived or appreciated within public discourse and political activity going forward. Will the lawsuit of the Alabama clergy work? Bishop Will Willimon, former chaplain at Duke University, has appealed to his elected state leadership with an open letter calling the immigration bill a contradiction to the “the essential tenets of the Christian faith.” Will the leaders listen as perhaps statesmen once did to clerical authority?
Whatever the course of any society around the church, the church herself must continue its prophetic voice and servant minded service which will result in radical societal change, with or without resistance by government authorities. The hope is that this inevitable change is welcomed and non-violent.
H. Richard Neibhur, author of the classic Christ and Culture, writes, “Far beyond the limits of religious groups which seek to make the faith explicit in creeds, (faith in Jesus) forms the basis for our reasoning in culture; for our efforts to define a rational justice; for our endeavors after rational political order; for our attempts to interpret the beautiful and true.” May the beautiful and true efforts of the Christian church emerge peacefully in Alabama, in China, and continue to shape America for another great century.