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Churches Caught in a Dilemmacomment (0)

June 30, 2011

By Bob Terry

Since Gov. Robert Bentley signed House Bill 56 on June 9, the debate over the impact of Alabama’s new immigration law has been widespread and the emotions high, especially the debate over illegal immigration.

True to their promise, state legislative leaders did not wait for the federal government to deal with the illegal immigration issue. Instead the Alabama Legislature passed a law that is acknowledged by most people involved in the debate to be the most restrictive immigration law in the nation.

Caught in the middle of the argument are the state’s churches. In light of the new law, what should churches do related to illegal immigrants?

Some contend the responsibility of churches is to obey the law of the land. Thus churches that knowingly provide assistance, transportation or shelter to an illegal immigrant could find their pastors and other church leaders in jail.

Others argue churches should always be open to ministering “to the least of these,” including illegal immigrants.

That same tension was illustrated recently when messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting adopted a resolution titled On Immigration and the Gospel. The resolution recognizes that Romans 13:1–7 teaches that “the rule of law is an indispensible part of civil society and that Christians are under biblical mandate to respect the divinely ordained institution of government and its just laws.”

The resolution also outlines the biblical commands to “show compassion and justice for the sojourner and alien among us,” take the gospel to all nations and care for the most vulnerable as Jesus cared for them.

But the resolution is unambiguous when it comes to the ministry of the Church. In its first resolve clause, the resolution says, “The messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Ariz., June 14–15, 2011, call on our churches to be the presence of Christ, in both proclamation and ministry, to all persons, regardless of country of origin or immigration status.”

Do not miss the last phrase: “regardless of country of origin or immigration status.”

This is not the pronouncement of some left-leaning political group. Few national gatherings are more politically conservative than the SBC’s annual meetings. It also should be remembered that Richard Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, played a guiding role in crafting the resolution. Land is a nationally recognized conservative leader both religiously and politically.

Yet if Alabama Baptist churches follow the resolution’s guidance, then they could find their pastors and other leaders arrested and jailed. That may say something about where the new law falls on the political spectrum.

Some may try to discredit the resolution by pointing to the debate it generated at the annual meeting. But that debate was about whether one paragraph advocated amnesty for illegal immigrants. Messengers opposed amnesty.

Messengers were equally clear that they recognized and supported the responsibility of churches to share the gospel in word and deed with everyone regardless of immigration status.

At its best, the Christian church has never allowed the government to dictate to whom its message and ministry may be directed. Baptists, especially, have championed the separation of church and state. Anytime the government attempts to tell the Church with whom it may share the gospel, that government is out of bounds. Baptists have bled and died to keep the government from ruling the Church. The government may not use its power to control the Church’s ministry.

It is unfortunate and unnecessary that Alabama churches have been drawn into this debate. The state Senate adopted an amendment to this bill that would have allowed churches to minister to illegal immigrants without fear of government reprisals. But that amendment was purposefully removed during conference committee considerations between Senate and House members.

The Alabama Legislature knowingly attempted to insert itself into the sacred space reserved for God alone in dictating to churches to whom and how they might minister in Jesus’ name.

Now churches find themselves in that untenable position of facing the possibility that a youth director could be jailed because he allowed an immigrant child without proper papers to ride in the church van to Vacation Bible School. That should not be.

It is no wonder the immigration law has evoked the ire of most of the state’s major denominations. The Roman Catholic statement says the law violates the First Amendment to the Constitution, “in particular by criminalizing our Gospel imperative of serving the poor.” The Episcopal bishop said the law “will make it impossible to love and be hospitable to our neighbors as we ought to do.” The United Methodist statement reads, in part, “We also believe it (the law) contradicts the essential tenets of the Christian faith.”

It should not be surprising that an Alabama Baptist missionary declared he is willing to go to jail, if necessary, in order to continue ministering to Hispanics.

Whether the law will be good for Alabama, no one knows. Whether the law will have the intended economic impact is unclear. A Birmingham News story quoted Samford University economics professor Jeremy Thornton, saying, “It is probably a fallacy for people to believe cracking down on immigrants will create that many jobs for Alabamians.”
Eagle Forum of Alabama President Eunie Smith countered that lots of state residents who are unemployed or underemployed will be eager to claim those jobs.

As the SBC resolution says, “Southern Baptists, like other Americans, might disagree on how to achieve just and humane public policy objectives related to immigration.”

Where we must be united is that Alabama Baptists will share the gospel with all whom the Lord allows, regardless of the cost. How can we say we are willing to share the gospel to the ends of the earth, even if it costs us our lives, if we refuse to share the gospel with those in our own communities because they do not have the right papers?

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