Friday, November 4, 2011

25 years of my own spiritual amnesty, of the Reagan amnesty, and a missing sense of fear and trembling

Twenty-five years ago, I received amnesty.

It was June. I was thirteen. I was with my youth group in Greenville, South Carolina, on a university campus - North Greenville University, I think - not Furman, and definitely not Bob Jones.

The campus had been rented out by a Southern Baptist youth camp program called Centrifuge, and we were there for the week.

For the previous six years or so, I had been aware of the concept of a making a lifelong spiritual commitment to God - to Jesus. In the Baptist world and elsewhere, making that commitment is alternately described as committing your life to Christ, going down the aisle, getting saved, or getting born again.

The idea is that you recognize your general pattern of doing things wrong in life, and your separation from God, and that you ask for an unearned (by you) reconciliation to God.


I was thirteen, and I really was aware of my shortcomings. I don't look back now and think that such an attitude at that age was silly. It's actually sillier that 25 years later I am less aware of and repentant of my shortcomings.

But getting back to 1986, there I was, ready to make that spiritual commitment, and I called my youth pastor Harry Rowland aside. I told him, although not in so many words, that I wanted to receive amnesty.  He thought that I had already done this, and I explained that I hadn't, and that was that.  We spoke with my parents.  We must have spoken with pastor Bill Sherman.  And then, days later, at Woodmont Baptist Church, we all marked this significant spiritual reboot with my baptism.

The wrong thing to do would be to forget that it happened.

In Psalm 2:11, David said
Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.
In Philippians 2:12, Paul said,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling
These instructions to fear and tremble were directed at people of God - insiders, not outsiders.

Sometimes it feels like Americans, many of whom self-identify as Christians, have a sense of entitlement (even those who would otherwise complain about "entitlements"). We are the ones in the right, we think, and someone else is in the wrong. Funny how it almost always turns out that way.

As a result, we are more inclined - individually, collectively, politically, spiritually - to inflict fear and cause trembling. And we sure do resent it when someone inflicts it on us. But to choose to fear, to choose to tremble, with no outside enemy the object of our fear?

How rare is that?

Since it's the 25th year of my own amnesty and the 25th year following the immigration amnesty of Ronald Reagan, I think of how we have very little national fear and trembling about how our law treats immigrants.

We have little fear and trembling about how we as American Christians readily accept spiritual forgiveness and even legal forgiveness, but we deny legal forgiveness to the foreigner, especially those in poverty who make up the bulk of the population without papers. We have little fear and trembling about spiritual instructions to us to take extra precaution to give justice to the poor and to the foreigner.

In 2011, my own denomination - the Southern Baptist Convention, whose church in Nashville shepherded me to salvation 25 years ago - issued a statement on immigration. It was an attempt to be less harsh on the issue, but at the same time it contained this one key phrase that is antithetical to the denomination's treasured tenet of forgiveness:
RESOLVED, That this resolution is not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant
That antipathy toward amnesty in immigration is delivered with little fear and trembling, despite 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.
I mean, for crying out loud, that's the first thing out of Jesus' mouth after He sets out the model prayer to God.

To America's credit, Ronald Reagan signed one such forgiveness of trespasses. That was twenty-five years ago this Sunday - November 6, 1986.

But who is God going to hold accountable for America's national refusal to forgive immigrants since then? There are ways for America to grant measured, reasonable amnesty that make plenty of legal and Constitutional sense in the same way we provide amnesty to ourselves as Americans in other contexts. But the politicians don't want to do it.  And here we are, with millions in the lurch. When God calls America to the mat for denying justice to the foreigner, the politicians are going to be pointing fingers at us, and we're going to be pointing fingers at them.  You don't have to be a parent to know how badly that is going to end.

America needs amnesty, and not just for the so-called "them."

Some of the sins we could confess in the immigration context are below:

We have arrested pregnant mothers under claims of driving offenses that don't stick.
We have used vocabulary as a weapon.
We make our own conduct consequence-free. 
We slander. 
We are flirting with lynchings.
We are living in the modern version of the Chinese Exclusion Act.
We condone "amnesty" but we have no problem receiving it.
We overlook the lawbreaking of the powerful while we condemn the lawbreaking of the poor.
We receive without thanking.
We have "fresh starts" for ourselves but not for others.
We don't talk to people before we form opinions about them.
We ignore the voices echoing Martin Luther King's cry for moral, just laws.

As for me, I will try to remember my own missteps, acknowledge my new ones, and seek correction - all in fear and trembling, as I give thanks for and continue to ask for my own spiritual amnesty.

As we talk about, watch, and write (or withhold) laws on immigration, either in Congress or in statehouses and city halls across the country, may we remember our own missteps, acknowledge our new ones, and seek correction - all in fear and trembling, with our own need of forgiveness front and center in our hearts and on our minds.

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