January 17, 2007

be not afraid

Ched Myers' speech at the Posada sin Fronteras last month entitled, “Be Not Afraid: God’s Solidarity with All Who are Displaced by the Push and Pull of Empire":
I want to thank the intrepid organizers of this extraordinary public liturgy for the great honor of bringing a brief Word to this gathering. I too want to remember and honor Brother Ed Dunn, who I knew only a little, and especially Roberto Martinez, my friend and colleague with whom I worked for many years at the AFSC. Roberto tirelessly, courageously and compassionately defended the rights of immigrants at this very border—and of course, was one of the founders of this Posadas sin Fronteras tradition. I spoke to Roberto Thursday night—as you know his health has been failing and he wasn’t able to join us—and he sent his greetings to you all. So I want to call upon his spirit to join this wonderful gathering of companeros/as on the journey toward justice.

We gather here this afternoon to reenact the ancient pageantry of Posadas, which remembers the story of a poor couple, pregnant with a prophet, who became homeless because of the push and pull of imperial forces. The center of this liturgy is a conversation that takes place through a door, a tense, dramatic exchange between insiders and outsiders. This door represents the ultimate liminal space, the threshold between home and homelessness. And here we stand, bearing witness to a story that continues in our time.

We are gathered at the new “Golden Door,” to borrow Emma Lazarus’ metaphor for the Statue of Liberty. But at this door what immigrants and economic refugees see first is not the hospitable face of a woman holding aloft a “lamp,” which a century ago meant to welcome the poor “yearning to be free.” Rather they encounter the stern face of the Border Patrol, whose intent is to apprehend, incarcerate and deport the “homeless and tempest-tossed.” It is difficult not to be afraid.

At this conflicted, contested, and increasingly militarized door we again re-enact, for the 13th straight year, the old, sacred story about how God struggles to enter our world, and about our hard-hearted inhospitality. The word “hospitality” comes from Latin roots; it originally connoted the room set aside for the guest or stranger. Which is exactly what is lacking in the drama of Posadas.

We find this story in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, two distinct narratives about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth that have few details in common, but which agree on one important theme: namely, that God-in-Christ slips unnoticed into a world of brutal rulers and hard-pressed refugees; and that a few ordinary people manage to recognize the divine Presence, and act conscientiously.

The classical literature of antiquity focused exclusively upon powerful and famous personalities—not unlike the media in our culture. Our gospels, however, portray poor people as the true protagonists of history. The central characters in the Christmas story are a rural peasant couple displaced by political, economic and military Powers beyond their control and understanding. Maria and Jose are not pious super-heroes, but peasants of low estate. Their qualifications to bear the One Christians call Messiah had nothing to do with social stature, but rather with their sensitivity to dreams, as in Matthew’s story, or to visions, as in Luke’s; and with their courage to endure harsh conditions and to make hard choices.

This struggling couple is surrounded in the story by equally marginal folk: animal herdsmen and elderly women and fellow refugees. Yet they are also accompanied by angels, who offer startling interpretations of these obscure events at the margins of history. These mysterious messengers assure the Holy Family and their companions not to be afraid, and furthermore suggest that somehow Maria’s back-alley birthing will pose a sharp challenge to the rule of domination by Caesar (Lk) and Herod (Mt), and that this humble family will bring up the greatest of prophets, who will remind his nation that God calls them to become a House for all peoples.

The Holy Family is indeed buffeted by the winds of empire. In Matthew’s account, Maria and Jose are pushed out of their homeland by the national security policies of a paranoid king named Herod. Jesus thus begins life as an undocumented political refugee, as his parents flee across the border to save his life. In Luke’s account, they are pulled from their home by the imperial demand for a census: “All the world should be registered” (Lk 2:1). Residents of colonially occupied Palestine were compelled to travel to the village of their ancestors to be counted, so that they could better be “managed” by the military government. Maria and Jose thus end up homeless and give birth to Jesus in the feed trough of a barn.

We forget that the very scenario we enact in the Posadas litany tells us a lot about the struggle of poor folk to survive the profound social disruption of empire. It would have been inconceivable that Jose’s relatives would have denied him and his pregnant wife lodging in Bethlehem. This can mean only one thing: all the people they knew from their ancestral village had also been displaced by the push and pull of empire. Just like our sisters and brothers today from villages in Oaxaca or Zacatecas or Chihuahua; or from Chalatenango or Morazan; or from Jalapa or Coban.

Our churches need to recover these Christmas stories as real-world sagas, ones that are all too familiar to poor people forced to do what it takes to support their families in a world of violence and exclusion. We must rescue the Nativity from its trivialization by both pietism and commercialism. Similarly, we cannot grasp the issues of migration today—particularly here at the US-Mexico border—without also taking into account the push and pull of global economic and political forces, past and present. This is perhaps why Pope John Paul II, during the Church’s Jubilee Year in 2000, suggested that amnesty for undocumented immigrants would represent a proper form of reparation for the historic wrongs done to Third and Fourth World peoples around the globe.

Yet unfortunately the opposite is happening. For example, Tuesday this week, on the Fiesta de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, Federal agents raided Swift & Co. meat processing plants in six states—Colo.; Neb.; Texas; Utah; Iowa; and Minn—a similar sweep was carried out at the Smithfield hog processing plant in Tar Heel, NC several weeks ago. In order to exonerate the company and instead to scapegoat these low wage workers, however, this time agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies are charging undocumented workers with “identity-theft”—a new wrinkle in the war on immigrants.

To criminalize undocumented immigrant workers—already the most vulnerable among us from both an economic and human rights perspective—is to willfully obscure the deeper and wider issues of justice, the push and pull of empire that forces people to leave their homes in order to survive. This is the Christmas story, then and now, and we Christians need to get it right. Identity theft indeed! It is we who have lost our identity as an immigrant nation, our identity as citizens of a nation that used to raise the lamp of Freedom beside the Golden Door, and most importantly, our identity as Christians who follow a refugee Messiah and call upon an utterly undocumented God.

As we stand here on the U.S. side of this threshold, beside the not-so-Golden Door, taking on the role of the hard-hearted casero in the Posadas litany, let the words of inhospitality we must recite cut our hearts open as citizens and disciples. Then let the angels’ assurances not to be afraid, and the power of this Posadas liturgy, give us courage to stand ever stronger with those who today retrace the footsteps of Jose and Maria. For only by offering solidarity and forging justice will the gospel be vindicated and our nation healed. Amen.

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