A Response to Rev. Dr. David Gushee’s “Ethical Analysis of the ‘New Sanctuary Movement’”

Hearing Rev. Dr. David P. Gushee speak at The Reformation Project’s 2014 National Conference remains one of the more powerful experiences I have had in my time with our organization.

I, a Venezuelan immigrant, sat in the front pew as he spoke a convicting and prophetic word.

This word made me weep for my adoptive Jewish grandparents, Hedwig and Ernest, and their journey from Germany to the United States during World War II:

Eventually the centuries-old tradition of disdain for this group, which lay deep in the marrow of western civilization and survived the transition into secular modernity, metastasized into a massive eruption of state-sponsored violence. By the time it was over, 1/3 of all members of this group in the entire world had been murdered. I am one of the scholars who have sadly documented that most Christians stood by doing nothing to help the targeted group. 

Perhaps you have by now figured out that the targeted group I am talking about is the Jewish people, victims of an unchristlike body of tradition generally called Christian anti-Judaism, which fed into and married up with a broader economic, cultural, and political anti-Semitism.

He continued: "I will say the word 'unchristlike' 14 times in this address. When you hear it, think: in violation of the nature, ministry, and teaching of Jesus Christ. Or just think: harmful and unloving, the opposite of what Christ was and is like."

And today, I ask: Where was this man, this heart, as he wrote Sunday’s piece, “An Ethical Analysis of the ‘New Sanctuary Movement’”?

In the piece, Gushee describes an invitation from the New Sanctuary Movement of Atlanta (SMA) (a website that was fairly easy to find despite his claim that they’re not online, which implies a lack of legitimacy). The invitation was to have his congregation, First Baptist Church Decatur, join them as a sanctuary church.

Gushee uses the remainder of the article to lay out his reasons for not partnering with the organization. 

I don’t take issue with the decision not to partner with SMA. I have no loyalties or relationship with that particular group and can’t speak to their effectiveness or legitimacy. What I take issue with is Gushee’s questionable reasoning for his choice not to partner and the lack of foresight shown in choosing to write such a dangerous piece.

Some big leaps are made in his interpretation of SMA’s expectations and beliefs. Two stand out to me in particular. First, SMA requests that partnering churches “provide support to an immigrant and/or family living in a Safe Sanctuary Church.”

Gushee concludes: “Under this heading is included apparent plans for housing (hiding) immigrants facing deportations in churches or church-owned properties, and meeting all their relevant needs on site.” 

It’s important to note that what the website actually states is, “provide support to an immigrant/and or family living in a Safe Sanctuary Church in one or more of the following areas." The list of ten areas includes items like praying for immigrants and families, donating clothing, providing meals, and hosting entertainment for immigrants and families.

There is no stated expectation that a church meet all the needs listed or that they are not permitted to opt out.

Second, Gushee says, “The problem surfaces very early in the SMA request letter, when it states that ‘all human beings are loved by their creator and deserving of a safe place to live, work, and worship,’ so therefore U.S. immigration policy is immoral." (Emphasis mine.)

He continues: "It is undoubtedly true that God loves everyone, and that people need a safe place to live, work and worship. But this cannot mean that every human being has a right to live in any country that they might choose. This would imply that either there should be no immigration laws in any country, or that such laws should never be enforced.” 

I reviewed SMA’s website closely, and it is not stated anywhere that all immigration laws should be abolished. They do not say that their value—“all human beings are loved by their creator and deserving of a safe place to live, work, and worship”—means that U.S. immigration policy is immoral. Whether Gushee's assumptions are accurate, we do not know. What we do know is that none of his assumptions, which are the basis of his disagreement, are explicitly stated by SMA.

I read his article twice last night and once again this morning—repeatedly drawn back to it because of my disappointment, anger and sadness. It had happened once again: the betrayal.

White/straight/cisgender men build careers and reputations upon their allyship. 

Their intellect is heralded, their compassion praised, and their leadership highly sought after. So why do I repeatedly doubt their commitment to marginalized communities? Repeatedly choose to wait and see in what ways their allyship is conditional? 

Because I know these allies, eventually, will do something to remind me that they are not as committed as I am. I don’t truly expect them to remain in the fight once sacrifice is required. Not because none ever have—but because so many have overwhelmingly failed to do so. They only understand so much, and they will only risk so much. I need to know that the person standing beside me in a fight is willing to lose it all. Their solidarity needs to extend beyond the respectable and the comfortable.

Already a highly respected Christian ethicist, in recent years, Gushee has broken through the walls of academia to establish himself as a leading voice on issues of justice for marginalized communities. This is a (not so) surprisingly easy task for White male clergy. 

He is author of Changing Our Mind, a call for full acceptance of LGBTQ Christians in the Church, and he has spoken nationally on the Church’s relationship to the LGBTQ community. Interestingly enough, it was only a month ago that Gushee wrote about signing the Matthew 25 pledge and his commitment to “protect and defend vulnerable people in the name of Jesus.” 

The three areas of focus for this pledge are immigration, policing, and solidarity with Muslims.

Interesting indeed.

Frankly, it was not Gushee’s place to write this article. An individual outside an oppressed community does not get to decide when that community has endured enough or when action is warranted. My question is, “Why write this piece at all?” If you don’t want to be a sanctuary church—don’t be one. It is truly as simple as that. It is as easy as opting to be the “bystander” Gushee so often warns the church not to be. 

Gushee’s article provides a seemingly (but not actually) credible argument from a respected (and therefore powerful) voice against sanctuary churches to those who would oppose them for xenophobic and anti-immigrant reasons. To choose to write such an article seems like an odd choice. This is not just a failure to live up to the Matthew 25 commitment. It is in direct opposition to it. 

I’m not speaking to the choice not to formalize as a sanctuary church. I'm speaking to the reasons put forth for that choice.

Gushee writes:

One way to frame those questions is this: does US immigration law, or the government’s current enforcement of it, represent such a clear and profound violation of the purpose of law, of justice, and of human rights, that conscientious Christian churches and individuals are permitted or even obligated to violate the law in response? There are many such cases in human history.

Despite my sympathy for undocumented immigrants, I do not believe this is one of them. We have to draw a distinction between laws that we think could be improved versus laws that are an inversion of the very purpose of law, and therefore fundamentally unjust.

The implication here is that our country’s immigration laws and their enforcement do not rise to the level of being so inhumane that the church has a moral obligation to intervene—even to the point of civil disobedience.

The voices from within immigrant communities and the grassroots organizations dedicated to just immigration reform continue to see and name the violent impact of immigration laws upon undocumented individuals and their families. One would presume that they are best able to assess if there has been a “profound violation of the purpose of law, of justice, and of human rights.” 

Do these most-impacted communities not have Gushee’s ear?

If not, then who are the leaders in this movement from whom Gushee accepts direction and correction? 

I have to wonder what Gushee is basing his assessment upon, because the morally objectionable nature of our immigration system, from its inception to now, is well-documented and hard to refute.

Lana Heath de Martinez, M.Div., for example, is a dedicated immigration activist and the Welcoming All Coordinator for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, an organization working to create congregations, schools and localities where all people are safe and free. She provides a strong assessment of the bias and immorality of our immigration system—one that is affirmed by a wealth of anecdotal and concrete evidence.

She states: 

US immigration laws have always been built on racial bias to create and uphold the white majority in this country. The application of these laws today affirms and exacerbates the bias of their foundation through disproportionate detention and deportation of People of Color and the intersections therein with the money-hungry private prison system and the prison industrial complex.

Second, a theological critique: Gushee extends safety, security and welcome only on a conditional basis. The welcome that Gushee extends does not go past the communion table. Such words are meaningless and empty, banging on a brass gong where there is no love. We have a particular history of creating safe and inclusive spaces - ‘sanctuaries’ - for wrongly accused criminals, immigrants, those abandoned and vulnerable. But offering welcome only within the confines of our religious constructs (communion and baptism) is not envisioning God’s shalom on earth. The US has for decades been complicit in creating the conditions in the developing world which drive desperate people to our [constructed] borders.

This compels me to ask, what stick is being used to measure the ethical merit of immigration in our country?

Does it account for the conditions people are being subjected to in detention centers (physical and psychological abuse, 24-hour solitary confinement, overcrowding, rotten food, poor sanitation, "high-risk" and "low-risk" detainees being housed together and limited or no access to family [via visits or phone])? All of this is carefully documented in assessments such as this March 2017 report from the Office of Inspector General. 

What of the trans and queer communities for whom Gushee so passionately advocates? 

Our allyship to these communities must take into account the most vulnerable among them. This means a clear commitment to advocating on behalf of those LGBTQ refugees and immigrants that face unique challenges and particularly awful treatment in detention centers.

In his article, Gushee continues:

While for over a decade I have supported a much different approach (“comprehensive immigration reform”) for dealing with our broken immigration law and its haphazard enforcement, I cannot agree with the SMA’s blanket claim that heightening the enforcement of our existing immigration laws is obviously "unjust" and "discriminatory" or motivated by "fear" or "hatred."

This is the crux of the “intent vs. impact” argument, isn’t it? What we intend does not negate the harmful impact. 

Our good intentions do not absolve us of responsibility. 

The reality is, immigration laws in the United States are harming people in some truly horrific ways—especially under the direction of a xenophobic leader such as Donald Trump. As Christians working for justice, we cannot allow the enforcement of those laws to take priority over the preservation of human dignity. And it has done just that. 

The Center for American Progress lays that truth out in their Dignity Denied: LGBT Immigrants in U.S. Immigration Detention report. It states:

While the Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, does not keep data on the sexual orientation or gender identity of people in its custody, reports of treatment of LGBT detainees obtained through Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, requests and through complaints filed by immigrant rights groups reveal that much like in the general prison population—where LGBT inmates are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general population —LGBT immigrants in immigration detention facilities face an increased risk of abuse in detention.

The U.N. Special Report on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment went as far as finding the treatment of LGBT immigrants in U.S. detention facilities in violation of the Convention Against Torture after it received information on gay and transgender individuals who had been subjected to solitary confinement, torture, and ill-treatment—including sexual assault—while detained in U.S. immigration facilities.

How deep is the commitment of Christians working for justice to shield people from that fate? 

How many people must be subjected to this treatment before we are required to act?

Just this past Sunday, Gushee gave a compelling sermon, The Cross as Moral Example and Invitation, that we would all do well to consider as we—as individuals and as a Church—decide how to respond to the treatment of immigrants, documented and undocumented, in our country. He relayed the story of Dutch Christian rescuer Corrie ten Boom and her father’s response to a pastor who questioned the wisdom of sheltering a Jewish mother and child in their home. 

‘Give the child to me, Corrie,’ he said. Father held the baby close, his white beard brushing its cheek, looking into the little face…. At last he looked up at the pastor. ‘You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family.’ [...]

Caspar ten Boom and several members of his family did in fact end up laying down their lives for Jewish babies and mothers and grandpas and a whole lot of other people. And it was indeed the greatest honor that ever could come to a once obscure family that will always be remembered for taking the Way of the Cross. Implications, let’s see how all of this comes together.

1 John 4 says that God is love, that Christ’s people must love, and that if you want to know what love looks like, look at the Cross. So we try to look a bit harder at the Cross. We see an innocent person, the God-Man Jesus, making a fundamental decision to deny himself and do God’s will. We see him in his ministry teaching and embodying God’s will, in such a radical way that he earns for himself criticism, rejection, and threats. We see those threats finally being enacted as he is unjustly arrested at night, mocked, tortured, and finally crucified as a criminal. And we are taught – Love Like This. [...]

Like Caspar ten Boom, Love Like This in being willing to sacrifice your very life to rescue the innocent in obedience to God’s will. Self-denial. Absorbing unjust criticism. Paying a price to stand with the outcasts. Even dying for Jesus, if that is what is required of you. The Cross of Jesus Christ sets the ultimate moral example. And there God offers the ultimate invitation. Love Like This. That’s what we signed up for when we got baptized. We were volunteering to die, choosing a voluntary death to self so that we could live for Jesus. Do we know it?

Sisters and brothers, at God’s invitation, and following Christ’s example, let us take up our cross and follow Jesus.

Let us then take up our cross, Dr. Gushee. 

I hope we may wield our words carefully, particularly when we have a great degree of privilege and social influence. I hope we may know our words have power to move people closer or further from Christ’s example of sacrificial love.

Photo provided by AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez (left), pictured with Betty Mulamba, Jenn Walton, and Laura Cox at the #NoMuslimBan march in Washington, D.C.

Comments (2)

I appreciate AnaYelsi's thoughtful engagement with my essay, and many kind words about my earlier work. I definitely was not, in my article, offering any defense of US immigration law and enforcement, as if it is not broken, because it is. Wearing my pastor's hat, responding to a congregant's request, I analyzed six different dimensions of the new sanctuary movement as it came to me in a letter from an Atlanta group. I said yes to our church undertaking five dimensions of sanctuary, and no to a sixth dimension: breaking the law by hiding undocumented immigrants in our church. I don't know what it says about my essay, this debate, or our culture, but the response I got to my essay was this: some were mad that I was for "sanctuary" and some were mad that I was against "sanctuary." I was for 5/6 of what I understand "sanctuary church" to mean. But we are in all all-or-nothing cultural moment, and perhaps the nuance was lost. I urge readers to go back to the original article and give it a fresh look. Meanwhile, I regret any offense my article caused.

Dr. Gushee,

I wonder, in your pastoral reading and interpretation of the Gospel, where do you see Jesus drawing the line in his walk with the oppressed? Particularly on this Saturday, the day before Resurrection Day, one cannot help but ask what it means that the Savior we worship faced the criminal justice system of his time; was arrested; served an unjust sentence; and walked through hell before the resurrection. I'm not sure we can call ourselves disciples of Christ, or wait expectantly for our own resurrections, while we continue to draw lines in the sand and limit our commitment to our neighbors.

The most disturbing element of your original article for me was the absence of any analysis of systemic injustice. Our immigration laws aren't just a mess; they are violently oppressive. Tearing families apart, leaving folks in desperate poverty - this is state violence. And I cannot understand calling it anything less, or failing to protect our impacted neighbors.

Finally, Ana-Yelsi is more gracious than I am. If you put a sign in your church yard that says "all are welcome" or offer ministries to the Spanish-speaking community, or make any kind of public statement or resolution promising solidarity with your immigrant neighbors - you had better be prepared to stay in solidarity ALL. THE. WAY. You have made the statement or put up your yard sign. So what happens when a young mother arrives with an infant in her arms and a toddler at her side, desperate for Sanctuary? For a safe place? To stay with her babies in her home? What will you do? You have made a public commitment of solidarity and support, so what will you do? Close the door in her face? Look the other way? Words, yard signs, resolutions, sermons, prayers - all are empty without embodied faithfulness, without action that breathes life into those promises.

Sincerely,
Lana Heath de Martinez
Welcoming All Coordinator, Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy

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