Monday, June 27, 2011

Southern Baptist Convention refines immigration stance; supports legal path but not unconditionally; denounces nativism, bigotry, and harassment

Primera Iglesia Bautista, Nashville, Tennessee
Celebration of the church's first anniversary in its own building
My wife is one of the faces in the middle; I took the picture.

The immigration stance of the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention is personal to me. I was raised at Woodmont Baptist Church, a Southern Baptist church here in town. When I was at home between college semesters, I attended Sunday School at Primera Iglesia Bautista.  The Spanish-language offspring of First Baptist Church Downtown was still meeting in FBC's building at the time.  My wife and I later joined "La Primera," as we called it, after they moved into their own building off of Murfreesboro Road.  If you've ever driven to the airport, you've been within a few hundred yards.

We learned a lot about immigrants and immigration at La Primera.  In time, we found out that some of our dearest friends had no immigration papers. So we built up an appreciation for and awareness of their lives, their journeys here, their health care, their jobs, their legal limbo, and their character.

None of that learning had to do with the pulpit or Sunday School.

The Southern Baptist platform has been relatively silent about the U.S. immigration bureaucracy and about the immigrants stuck in it, even as congregations such as La Primera grow in the denomination, and even as other denominations and faiths have spoken up.

A few years ago, leadership first said that Southern Baptists were divided about the issue, so they couldn't take a position one way or the other. Mere months later, they seemed to take an enforcement-only approach. Then, in June 2006, Nashville's Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention's political issues arm - and other evangelicals - joined liberal Teddy Kennedy and others to promote compassionate immigration reform.  Delegates to the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention meeting also issued a resolution "On the Crisis of Illegal Immigration," which at least admitted that
Many of these hardworking and otherwise law-abiding immigrants have been exploited by employers and by others in society, contrary to James 5:4
But the 2006 statement also seemed to usher these hardworking and otherwise law-abiding immigrants out the door, since it urged member churches "to encourage them toward the path of legal status and/or citizenship," which for most people means leaving the country for more than a decade.

Now, at the Southern Baptist Convention's 2011 annual meeting in Phoenix in June (note that the SBC did not boycott Arizona over its immigration laws), attendees have called for a path to legal status.

In this latest position statement, titled "On Immigration and the Gospel," the denomination also denounces nativism, bigotry, and harassment - and in those words.  At the same time, the Baptist Press Twitter account is touting the multi-ethnic emphasis of the meeting, a Spanish edition of Baptist Press itself, and 524 conversions at a "Hispanic event" under the Crossroads banner.

Is the Southern Baptist membership ready for this frank embrace of diversity and legal renewal?

Funny that Baptist Press should mention Crossroads - that reminds me of an outreach effort a few years ago in which visiting Southern Baptist congregations were coming to Nashville for a regional or nationwide event, and a few of those groups were designated to partner up with La Primera to do outreach in Hispanic neighborhoods near the church.  Those congregations never showed up.

In Phoenix, there was rancor over this immigration statement.  The support of a majority of the delegates for a path to legal status was razor-thin until they added a disclaimer opposing "amnesty."  They agreed that a proposed path to legalization (not citizenship) would have to be earned, not freely given.

It bugs me to no end that Southern Baptists still have such hostility towards a concept that is the very essence of the denomination faith - an unearned gift.  Consider how Southern Baptists define "salvation," under "Basic Beliefs"on the SBC web site:
offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. In its broadest sense salvation includes regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.
It probably would have been harder for this 2011 statement in Phoenix to include an explanation of how that definition of salvation plus the members' antipathy toward immigration "amnesty" jives with the you'll-be-forgiven-only-if-you-forgive-others message of Matthew 6:14:
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
For what it's worth, here is the full SBC statement "On Immigration and the Gospel":

On Immigration And The Gospel
June 2011

WHEREAS, The Kingdom of God is made up of persons from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language (Revelation 7:9); and

WHEREAS, Our ancestors in the faith were sojourners and aliens in the land of Egypt (Exodus 1:1-14; 1 Chronicles 16:19; Acts 7:6); and

WHEREAS, Our Lord Jesus Christ lived His childhood years as an immigrant and refugee (Matthew 2:13-23); and

WHEREAS, The Scriptures call us, in imitation of God Himself, to show compassion and justice for the sojourner and alien among us (Exodus 22:21; Deuteronomy 10:18-19; Psalm 94:6; Jeremiah 7:6; Ezekiel 22:29; Zechariah 7:10); and

WHEREAS, The Great Commission compels us to take the gospel to the nations (Matthew 28:18-20), and the Great Commandment compels us to love our neighbor as self (Mark 12:30-31); and

WHEREAS, The gospel tells us that our response to the most vulnerable among us is a response to Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:40); and

WHEREAS, The Bible denounces the exploitation of workers and the mistreatment of the poor (Isaiah 3:15; Amos 4:1; James 5:4); and

WHEREAS, The United States of America is increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, language, and culture; and

WHEREAS, Approximately 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants live and work within our borders; and

WHEREAS, The relative invisibility of the immigrant population can lead to detrimental consequences in terms of health, education, and well-being, especially of children; and

WHEREAS, Recognizing that Romans 13:1-7 teaches us that the rule of law is an indispensable part of civil society and that Christians are under biblical mandate to respect the divinely-ordained institution of government and its just laws, that government has a duty to fulfill its ordained mandate, and that Christians have a right to expect the government to fulfill its ordained mandate to enforce those laws; and

WHEREAS, The governing authorities of a nation have the right and responsibility to maintain borders to protect the security of their citizens; and

WHEREAS, Undocumented immigrants are in violation of the law of the land; and

WHEREAS, Many of these persons, desiring a better future for themselves and their families, are fleeing brutal economic and political situations; and

WHEREAS, The issue of immigration has prompted often-rancorous debate in the American public square; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, 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; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we declare that any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we deplore any bigotry or harassment against any persons, regardless of their country of origin or legal status; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we ask our governing authorities to prioritize efforts to secure the borders and to hold businesses accountable for hiring practices as they relate to immigration status; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we ask our governing authorities to implement, with the borders secured, a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country; and be it further

RESOLVED, That this resolution is not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant; and be it further

RESOLVED, That we pray for our churches to demonstrate the reconciliation of the Kingdom both in the verbal witness of our gospel and in the visible makeup of our congregations; and be it finally

RESOLVED, That we affirm that while Southern Baptists, like other Americans, might disagree on how to achieve just and humane public policy objectives related to immigration, we agree that, when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to His church, the message, in every language and to every person, is “Whosoever will may come.”

Phoenix, AZ

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