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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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An Unholy Rapture

A road sign just west of Toledo, Ohio still announces as of September that the world will end in May, 2011.  Perhaps the rapture did occur and took only the owners of the sign, leaving the rest of us tricked into believing that we’ve dodged the latest eschatological bullet that, in fact, will soon be upon us.  The rapture has sold millions of volumes of Christian fiction and provided us with endless license plate humor – “When the rapture comes this car will be driverless,” and its rejoinder, “When the rapture comes, can I have your car?”  But the latest “rapture” is no joke.

For many in Alabama it must have seemed the world came to an end last week when a Federal judge upheld Alabama’s new anti-immigrant law promising highly intrusive efforts to identify and deport persons without proper documentation and very invasive surveillance of anyone who might have problems with documents – i.e., anyone who “looks” Hispanic.  Campbell Robertson in Tuesday’s New York Times reports on the flight of Hispanics from Albertville, Alabama, population 20,100:

“The vanishing began Wednesday night, the most frightened families packing up their cars as soon as they heard the news.  They left behind mobile homes, sold fully furnished for a thousand dollars or even less.  Or they just closed up and, in a gesture of optimism, left the keys with a neighbor.  Dogs were fed one last time; if no home could be found, they were simply unleashed.  Two, 5, 10 years of living here, and then gone in a matter of days to Tennessee, Illinois, Oregon, Florida, Arkansas, Mexico – who knows?  Anywhere but Alabama.”

One hundred and twenty three students withdrew from the Albertville public schools this week and scores more were absent.  One businessman who rents and sells homes to Hispanics reported that occupancy has suddenly dropped by a quarter.  In anticipation of the draconian new law an immigration attorney spent the summer helping Hispanic clients fill out forms appointing friends or family members as guardians of their children, in many cases American born citizens.  This would ensure that children will not be transferred to social services should their parents be arrested or deported.  Last Thursday and Friday the phones rang off the hook with nervous clients asking what they should do.  By Monday the phones were quiet.  “He did not know for sure,” the reporter wrote, “but he figured his clients were gone.”  “In certain neighborhoods,” the article goes on, “the streets are uncommonly quiet, like the aftermath of some sort of rapture.”

Is this the kind of country we want?  For some people, apparently so.  The governor of Alabama is proud of what he calls “the strongest immigration law in this country.”  The head of the prison’s work release program is pleased because local poultry plants now have available slots to fill in their staffing ranks.  One man interviewed by The Times, unemployed for over a year, assumes he will suddenly find a welcoming job market now that the immigrants are leaving.  Isn’t it wonderful to live in a country that pits desperate refugees from dire poverty in their home country against desperate prisoners searching for a way out of jail against desperate workers unemployed for months and years?  Sadly Alabama will not be alone as state after state falls to anti-immigrant hysteria and responsible national immigration reform is thwarted in our increasingly toxic political environment.  Soon even states that might not normally resort to this kind of extremism will be under severe pressure to step into line for fear of becoming the refuge of last resort for immigrants, documented and undocumented alike.

The “raptured” residents of Albertville and countless other Alabama towns owned homes, rented apartments, held jobs, worked hard, sent their children to school so that they could have a better life, paid taxes, and contributed to the local economy.  In other words, they were not invaders, but neighbors.  But in a cruel irony, those taken in this perverse rapture are not the chosen ones; they are the rejected ones.  We tend to think of Alabama as a state firmly rooted in the center of the Bible belt.  In Alabama Biblical literalism is no fringe perspective but part of mainstream culture.  It’s also a place where Bible believing Christians assume that the tenets of their faith ought to govern life for everyone.  I wonder, then, what they do with this rather straightforward word from Leviticus:

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt:  I am the Lord your God,” (Leviticus 19.33-34).

For that matter, where do they think the Holy Family found refuge in its flight from Herod and what documents do they think they carried with them from Bethlehem?

John H. Thomas

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