Paul L. Caron
Dean




Sunday, June 12, 2022

Race, Immigration Law, And Christianity: Despair Or Hope?

Jennifer Lee Koh (Pepperdine), Race, Immigration Law, and Christianity: Reflections and Tensions Raised by United States v. Wong Kim Ark:, 23 Pol. Theology ___ (2022):

Political TheologyIn 1898, the United States Supreme Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizenship to the children of immigrants born on U.S. soil. The case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, involved the son of Chinese immigrants who was born in and had spent the vast majority of his life in the U.S. Immigration officials denied his claim to citizenship when he attempted to return to the country after a trip to China. Its direct legal holding—that birthright citizenship is a constitutional right—continues to have salience for immigration law debates and discourse today.

This Essay, written for a joint symposium between the Journal of Law and Religion and Political Theology on Wong Kim Ark and James Baldwin’s 1955 essay, Equal in Paris, reflects upon several themes—and tensions—present in the case and echoed in contemporary society. The Essay first explores the influence of race in the development of immigration law, along with the simultaneous discomfort with race as a basis for legal rights and remedies. The second theme, raised by Wong Kim Ark’s holding and subsequent history, is the necessity and shortcomings of law as a source of protection, particularly in the context of bureaucratic systems with the power to incarcerate. Finally, the conclusion briefly highlights ways in which Christianity might serve as a source of both despair and hope for the future.

IV. Christianity in America as a Source of Despair and Hope
The Wong Kim Ark decision is now over one hundred years old and stands for a relatively simple legal assertion about birthright citizenship. But the decision, along with the historical context and personal experience of Wong, offers various moments of resonance with contemporary conversations around similar themes present in the case: citizenship, belonging, formal law, actual practice, and the impact of incarceration on the value of the self. What if any relevance does Christianity in the US have on these themes? I suggest here that Christianity can serve as either a source of despair or of hope, depending on one’s perspective and which aspects of American Christianity receive emphasis.

On despair, some sectors of the American Christian church have long displayed indifference to, if not outright support for, practices and policies that exacerbate racial hierarchy in the U.S. The rise of Christian nationalism—including virulent strands of white Christian nationalism—was on full display in a panoply of signs referencing Jesus during the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In some quarters, “religious freedom” operates as a proxy for the maintenance of existing power structures. Some voices have equated religious freedom with the expulsion of teaching about the history of race in the United States from public school education. Some politicians treat harsh anti-immigrant policies as consistent with “Christian values.” A number of Christian leaders who have called for racial and gender justice have experienced exclusion and isolation from their denominations or circles of influence. It is tempting to conclude that Christianity is the culprit, and for those of all spiritual orientations to experience a range of emotions including frustration, disappointment, anger, outrage, and disgust.

But reasons for hope, grounded in many core teachings of the Christian faith and the Christian scripture, endure. In addition to the multiple scriptural invocations to love the immigrant and the least amongst us, locate our citizenship in heaven and remember the prisoner, the core of the Christian faith arguably reflects a subversive relationship to the power of law. A common understanding of the Christian gospel asserts that obedience to law is insufficient in its power to redeem, but that the antidote to law is grace, love, and costly sacrifice through the work of the Cross. Followers of Christianity believe that the faith reflects deeper truths, and many find power in the belief that those truths both upend conventional wisdom and embrace those at the margins of society. The profound relinquishment of power and privilege is reflected repeatedly in the Christian story—and most acutely in the unjust trial, public torture, and execution of Jesus at the hands of the state. Alas, Christianity in America today is multifaceted, and not necessarily represented by those with access to political power. Challenging conversations with Christian America about history, the church, society, race, migration, and power are well under way. Movements within American Christianity to seek justice in new and vibrant ways are growing.

The themes identified in this Essay—the uneasy relationship with race as a source of rights despite a history in which race has been used to justify subordination, the necessity and limitations of law as a source of protection, and the ways in which Christianity can both perpetuate and serve as an antidote to injustice—reflect tension. But some would contend that Christianity calls its followers to live amidst tension, even contradiction. After all, the prophet Isaiah promises beauty from ashes, joy from mourning, and praise from despair. The practice of the Christian faith involves expression of both deep lament and deep joy. Many Protestant traditions call for believers to live with the confidence of justification and adoption alongside an admission of sin and need for sanctification. Similarly, many Christians live with knowledge that a new kingdom is coming even while we live in and love the existing one, which promises that evil has already been defeated even while it is permitted temporary reign. Followers of Christ can indeed be unrelentingly critical of injustice and the operation of power, and can live with—and work towards—the assurance of a more profound future redemption to come. Christians working at the intersections of law, faith, race, migration and membership in particular can and should confront the darkness embedded in our law, history and governing systems while approaching the future with joy, hope and freedom.

The themes identified in this Essay—the uneasy relationship with race as a source of rights despite a history in which race has been used to justify subordination, the necessity and limitations of law as a source of protection, and the ways in which Christianity can both perpetuate and serve as an antidote to injustice—reflect tension. But some would contend that Christianity calls its followers to live amidst tension, even contradiction. After all, the prophet Isaiah promises beauty from ashes, joy from mourning, and praise from despair.60 The practice of the Christian faith involves expression of both deep lament and deep joy.61 Many Protestant traditions call for believers to live with the confidence of justification and adoption alongside an admission of sin and need for sanctification. Similarly, many Christians live with knowledge that a new kingdom is coming even while we live in and love the existing one, which promises that evil has already been defeated even while it is permitted temporary reign. Followers of Christ can indeed be unrelentingly critical of injustice and the operation of power, and can live with—and work towards—the assurance of a more profound future redemption to come. Christians working at the intersections of law, faith, race, migration and membership in particular can and should confront the darkness embedded in our law, history and governing systems while approaching the future with joy, hope and freedom.

https://taxprof.typepad.com/taxprof_blog/2022/06/race-immigration-law-and-christianity-despair-or-hope.html

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