The authority of love

From a sermon preached Feb. 8, 2015, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, Calif.

Romans 13:1-10

A little over two weeks ago, I was having dinner in a shelter for migrants in Agua Prieta, Mexico. A man I was talking to had been deported from the United States about four months prior and was contemplating trying to cross the formidable border again, to go back to the taco cart he pushed in Salt Lake City, and the $700 he had hidden under the battery of the car he had left at a neighbor’s house. “I got here, and crossing is much more dangerous than it was the first time,” he told me. “I’m not sure I will try it.” He asked me how long I would be in Mexico. I was traveling with a group of Presbyterians, studying Central American migration issues. “We are traveling from Tucson, Arizona, south through Mexico, through Guatemala, to El Salvador,” I told my dinner partner. “We are doing the migration in reverse.”

“Ah, the difference is,” said Miguelito, “They aren’t going to try to kill you.”

We looked at each other for a few seconds, over our chicken legs and rice.

“That’s true,” I said.

My trip had started on the U.S.-Mexico border, with a visit to the desert, to the fence, with Border Patrol agents who speak of migrants they are trying to catch as “bodies” or “arrests” or “aliens” or “bad guys”—never as people—and the trip ended at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, with a presentation about the billions of dollars the U.S. has poured into El Salvador in order to make it safe for trade of U.S. goods and multi-national corporate interests, not of people.

In Arizona we heard from Presbyterian pastors whose churches were illegally infiltrated by U.S. government operatives in the 1980s, while they harbored refugees from the Cold War military enterprises in Central America. We read about just how dangerous crossing the border in the Arizona desert is: Hundreds have died, and as the border fence grows higher and longer, arrests drop, and deaths increase. In Guatemala, we learned about the dire consequences for overstaying a visa in the United States (felony charges, deportation, permanent exclusion), compared with the consequences of a U.S. passport carrier accidentally overstaying a visa in Guatemala: a fine of about $20 and fixing the paperwork. To apply for a visa to come to the United States costs $160 for every application, every time, win or lose. I didn’t even have to buy a visa to enter Guatemala, or visit a consulate. The power of a U.S. passport.

As Christians, in a country where power and privilege is becoming more and more unbalanced, and where assistance to our neighbors is based not on humanitarian needs but economic interests, how shall we understand the apostle Paul here: “Be subject to the governing authorities. … for rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. … pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants.”

The strange thing is that Paul was writing to Christians in Rome shortly after Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews (and presumably Jewish Christians) from Rome. And Paul writes shortly before a time when Emperor Nero would pin the blame for Rome’s burning on Christians and have them killed and burned right and left.

Paul would not have been blind to this. I want to offer the possibility that Paul was writing this bit of Romans ironically.*

Watch how many times he subtly subverts the governmental authority to God’s law: authority rests on God, God appointed, it is God’s servant, does not bear the sword in vain, servant of God, be subject because of conscience, the authorities are God’s servants.

Owe no one anything except love. For love is the fulfilling of the law.

Love is the fulfilling of the law.

During this reverse migration, Miguelito was right, and no one tried to kill me, not at the embassies or government offices, not at the borders, not in the gang-run neighborhoods of San Salvador. We visited not only “the authorities” but also with church women, with shelters, with migrants themselves, with people who had been kidnapped and maimed on the route to the border, and with people who had returned from the U.S. in order to create more opportunities and relationships in their homeland. We met families who had been torn apart. We met families who vowed not to be torn apart again.

The issue of migration is extremely complex. Most of the people on our seminar trip started with the goal of finding a “root cause” of migration, as if migration is a problem to be solved rather than part of the human condition. We are concerned for the thousands of unaccompanied children, young mothers, babies, poor people crossing our borders and seeking asylum from violence and poverty in their homes.

Most of the “authorities” in the migration system, most of the power, most of the money, most of the voices, are on the side of the governments, particularly the U.S. government, which so far is doing little to facilitate a just and safe migration, but is doing everything to stop migration.

Where is God in this extremely complex system? Is the U.S. government, the fence, the border patrol, the embassy, the economic aid, the detention centers, the immigration courts: Are they subject to God’s authority? Where was God on this 2,300 mile journey? Where is God for the migrants who are still on the 2,300 mile journey?

God’s authority is love. I saw love on this journey. Sometimes it was more visible than others. I saw it in the face of a mother who is raising the baby who is the product of rape by kidnappers. I saw it in the face of Miguelito, a hardscrabble taco-vendor deportee who talked with me candidly about the dangers he knows he’s facing. I saw God in the faces of amputees who had been maimed by the “Beast” train that carries migrants through Mexico. I saw love in the face of a young man who founded a café, and an education center, and an art gallery for youth, so he could reconnect with the Guatemalan identity that the Mayan God of light and hope birthed him into. I saw love in the face of a pastor who was willing to become a felon in order to do the right thing and protect a Central American family.

I saw love too in the face of the Border Patrol agent who quit his job as a teacher because he thought he could save more children faster in law enforcement. I saw love in the face of the Salvadoran government agent who is trying her very best to make sure the 50,000 migrants who will be deported back to her streets know that El Salvador hasn’t forgotten them, and cares enough to help them get on their feet. I saw love in the face of the U.S. AID worker who believes in making Central America safer and more prosperous.

The systems and processes that we have built are extremely complex. Too complex even to find God in them. We had to look really hard to find the authority of love. But we found it. And that is where Paul points us to when he tells us to obey the authorities. In order to do that, we must look really hard. We must find where the love is. That is where God is.

Let everyone be subject to the governing authority. The governing authority that is love.

* Carter, Timothy L. 2004. “The irony of Romans 13.” Novum Testamentum 46, no. 3: 209-228. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 9, 2015).

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Six flags over Samaria

Meditation on John 4:1-22

I’ve been in El Paso now six months, serving two eastside churches, one of which is about six blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. I live downtown, about eight blocks from the border, in a building where every apartment includes people who are bilingual, people who regularly cross the border to visit family, to work, to worship, to play. I drive down Delta Drive past so many reminders of the border. Patrol agents sitting in Jeeps, a steel mesh fence along the riverbed. Chamizal National Memorial, which commemorates the supposedly peaceful settlement of a border dispute caused by the movement of the Rio Grande riverbed between Mexico and the United States.

Imagine Jesus crossing the border into El Paso, sitting near the Rio Grande at Chamizal, a man with different skin, different clothes, a different accent. He’s a close approximation, but not quite at home here. He meets a woman going about her daily work, perhaps on her way to preach at a nearby church. Jesus has lived in the area a long time, he’s a Chihuahua desert native. He knows this place. But he knows that he is in a country that does not claim him. A nation of people that conveniently forgets how many times this very spot of earth has changed names, changed ownership, been surrounded by different fences and barriers. The man knows that his ancestors, too, walked this land, claimed this water.

The woman knows immediately that the man has crossed the border. She is wary. Does he have legitimate business here? Can she cross the street to avoid contact with him? How far away is that border patrol car? Is he going to speak to her? Doesn’t he know that this is her home? She is supposed to feel safe here. The confidence of a person who knows she belongs inside these borders, shaken by the presence of a person who clearly doesn’t belong.

We know when we have crossed borders. How then should we be transformed by them?

Since moving here, I have encountered many many unexpected mixes of cultures and faith traditions. My whitebread upbringing is not enough to understand all I’m seeing: Protestants with Virgin of Guadalupe candles in their home shrines. Catholics who speak in tongues during prayers. None of this is technically Presbyterian. And my initial reaction was one of discomfort. If I’m a pastor of a Presbyterian church, what am I supposed to know or believe about the Virgin of Guadalupe?

I have found that many U.S.-siders don’t know Guadalupe’s story. It varies, but generally follows this line: In the 1530s, around the time the Protestant reformation was starting in Europe, a peasant, an Indian, an indigenous person in what is now Mexico City, saw a vision of a young woman, a virgin with brown skin, who told him that the church should build a cathedral on the hill above the city. Juan Diego went to the local Catholic bishop and told him of the vision. The bishop asked him for proof. So Juan Diego returned to the site, and the virgin reappeared, transforming Juan Diego’s plain poncho into a brightly colored mantle, and giving him an armful of flowers, roses, out of season, to return to the bishop. One hundred years later, in the 1600s, this was recognized as a miracle, and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a cognate of the Virgin Mary, eventually became the most beloved saint in Mexico, venerated among Catholics and non-Catholics.

What I find most beautiful about this story, and most relevant the story of John 4, is that the story of the Virgin of Guadalupe probably didn’t originate in the Catholic church. Many scholars equate her with Tonantzin, or a goddess of the mountain on which the Catholic cathedral in Mexico City was built. She was a goddess of the land, the earth, fertility, of providence. Tonantzin was and still is venerated among indigenous people there. She was transformed by the borders that were colonized and reformed around her.

Even our gods know when we have crossed borders. How then are our gods transformed?

Our woman meeting the man near Chamizal; the Samaritan woman meeting Jesus: No one knows the meaning and transforming power of crossing borders more than they. The Samaritan woman has held tightly to her beliefs, her indigenous identity, despite centuries of occupation and religious co-opting by foreign powers, her “husbands,” Assyrian and Roman resettlements. Shrines to Yahweh had been forcibly replaced by shrines to Greek gods, and then later to a Roman Christian church.

The woman meeting the migrant at Chamizal has forgotten this history. She thinks she owns this land, that the U.S. passport card she carries gives her right of occupation, gives her right of truth, right to pass freely. In a way, she is right. But the man she meets at Chamizal will remind her: You are not the rightful owner. You don’t belong here in the way you think you do. This alliance, this marriage, this spouse of yours, this homeland, it is not truly your husband.

“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)

To be on the side of the empire, the northern side of the border, affords me a particular blindness, blindness to truth, to love, to justice. I don’t have to worry about immigration reform because it doesn’t have to affect me. I often forget that I am lucky to be able to cross the border freely. I can claim a Christian sisterhood with Christians across the border, who in all possibility once were “Americans” or “Texans,” or “Spaniards,” or indigenous pre-national peoples. But I have the luxury of being able to forget that many of them may not legally cross into my home; I cannot or do not welcome them here, although I am welcomed there with all hospitality.

If my Samaritan woman had been traveling to Jerusalem, would she have been afforded the same courtesy that our migrant Jewish rabbi was afforded? Would she have been given a drink, or would she have been shunned?

Our migrant Jesus, sitting near Chamizal, with the northern woman, what hospitality will he be afforded?

We Christians know the power or borders. We El Pasoans know even better. Will we open our eyes and hearts to be transformed by their crossing?

P.S. These musings originated as a sermon I gave at First Presbyterian Church of El Paso