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Immigration Marches & Ambivalent Activism

May 1st, 2006 by Jason · 7 Comments

Marchers coming down Cota St.Coding away this afternoon I was interrupted by the rumble of many feet and voices marching just outside my door. I hurried up to the roof of our downtown office and was astounded to see a flood of white shirts, American flags, and brown faces stretching back for as far as I could see (more photos of the march by Greg are here). For Santa Barbara, a relatively small town (pop. ~100,000), this was a huge march. The newspress estimates that somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people turned out for the march. Honestly, it was inspiring. I felt as though I was experiencing the kind of political power Isaac has been posting on lately: power that is “diffused all around us, passing through us, enveloping us, forming us, shaping us, disciplining us.” Chants of Si, se puede! (Yes, we can!) filled the air, mothers pushed strollers, junior highers walked self-consciously on the edges, young women and men strode confidently in the middle, grandmothers waved mini American flags, and impromptu drummers sounded out beats on 30 gallon water jugs. “So this is what democracy is like,” I thought. The voiceless finding a voice, the overlooked demanding to be looked upon.

And then this thought: “so why am I not out there?” Why am I on the sidewalk, smiling and waving ocassionally, yes, but not actually in that pulsing river of life and movement?

Mostly it was because of fear—not fear of rejection or violence, which weren’t even remotely present, but of commitment. I’m an ambivalent person by nature, and seminary has only deepened that characteristic. The funny thing is, I want solid, straight, and unassailable answers to my questions. However, I also hold a deep conviction that my faith calls me to listen to the other—those who don’t look like, think like, or talk like me. As Miroslav Volf puts it in Exclusion & Embrace (an incredible book, BTW):

The open arms of Christ on the cross are a sign that God does not want to be a God without the other—humanity—and suffers humanity’s violence in order to embrace it (154).

Thus, I have listened intently to the voices of the marginalized, those who have most likely been denied a voice in the discourse, the undocumented immigrants. But I have also tried to hear those on the other side of this debate, people who want to tighten down the borders and impose tougher penalties on immigrants who cross the border illegaly. My instinct is to go back and forth between these “sides” until I have a certain opinion born from hearing all the stories and facts. Unfortunately, that’s impossible as only God has a perfect view of it all. Only God can know the truth with certainty. If I can only approach the truth, but never attain it with absolute certainty, then what’s left? Faith. A wager. And in a conflict like this one I cannot wait until agreement is reached or I’m 99.9% certain of where I stand. I must act. Volf again:
Praxis brings with it forced option, one that cannot be avoided. When praxis is called for, puzzled immobility before contradiction or indifferent acceptance of plurality of options must both cease—for to exist humanly we must wager, and must enact on our wager (253).

I deeply admire activists both because they do something and because they seem so certain. Who knows if they are all really that certain of their causes, but I know that if I’ll ever march in something it’s likely going to entail making a wager. And I really don’t like wagers—they’re too damn risky. But wager I must if I’m ever going to get off the sidewalk and into the street.

Tags: current events · immigration · political power

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Camassia » Wake up and smell the blogwatch // May 2, 2006 at 8:58 am

    [...] Jason, meanwhile, shows that he’s not an acolyte of St. MacGyver but is caught in terminal uncertainty. Boy, do I ever identify with this. [...]

  • 2 isaac // May 2, 2006 at 11:38 am

    Great post. I wish I could have been there to see those calm and pleasant streets of Santa Barbara flooding with joyous marchers.

    I’m wondering about this indecision, or uncertainty, that you talk about. Shouldn’t we also call listening to or obeying your “nature” or “instinct” a decision? And could we also think about your listening position inbetween the two sides of the debate also as the product of a decision? You are where you are because of decisions. And where you are might make a particular decision more possible than others, or even rule out some possibilities to begin with. I imagine that there are many folks who don’t have to think twice about what the right choice would be simply because who their friends are. I also imagine that many folks think it’s inappropriate to to learn about the debate by perusing the internet or watching the news. Instead, they have placed themselves in places where the demands of their neighbor and the network of information that flows through the neighbor makes this issue a non-decision—what to do is self-evident. I guess what I’m wondering about is all the decisions you made to get where you are so that you find yourself in a position that makes uncertainty an option. Does that make sense? What do you think?

  • 3 Jason // May 3, 2006 at 8:06 am

    Isaac, I think you’re right, being in a place of indecision is, in some ways a decision, a decision to wait it out, to listen to the other. I’m not sure that what I’m doing would “make a partciular decision more possible to others,” though. I have thought, however, that my ability to remain in terminal indecision is, in some ways, a privelege that not all have. Because new immigration laws won’t directly affect me I can sit on the sidelines rather safely, but, I have to wonder, if I was the one who would be ousted from my home by some new law wouldn’t I be far more likely to be out there marching?

    Not sure if that answers your questions. But I would be interested in hearing more about what you mean by And where you are might make a particular decision more possible than others, or even rule out some possibilities to begin with.

  • 4 anon // May 6, 2006 at 6:41 am

    Forgive me if I jump in before Isaac has a chance to respond, but I wanted to address Jason’s query about Isaac’s statement that position or place matters for ethical considerations. I think part of the significance of Stanley Hauerwas’ project has been to shift the landscape of Christian ethics from the ‘decisionist’ model to ‘character-formation’ issues. In this ‘character-formation’ model (or ‘virtue ethics’) what is primary is not issue-focused ethics (i.e., the ‘decisionist’ model that methodologically considers every option in a crisis moment), but what sort of community and what sort of people does one surround oneself with in order to live faithfully. So, the ethical center is a concern about who you read the Bible with, or who you worship God with, or who you decide to live by—what are all the ways we are formed into an faithful person so we are already prepared to act ethically in crisis moments.

    The decisionist model thinks about ethical activity abstracted from real life, from a history of decisions—all the ways we are formed to think and act. So, what is primary for Hauerwas is nurturing the sort of community that displays Christ’s story so we are already preparing ourselves for those crisis moments. Then, interestingly, what some outside the community call a ‘crisis’ moment isn’t really even a moment of decision for those inside the faithfullly formed community. So, for example, where the decisionist considers the crisis of Nazi Germany and the mass murder of the Jews through the lens of Bonhoeffer, the character-formation ethicist will turn to pastor Andre Trocme and his church at Le Chambon. They were formed into a poeple who didn’t have to think twice about what to do during the rise of Nazism: they extended hospitality to the stranger, of course. They saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. But the decision to be a community that housed and protected the Jews from the Nazis was made before the crisis moment.

    So, to pick up on what Isaac was saying above. There are some people for whom this so-called immigration ‘crisis’ is nothing of the sort. It’s a non-issue. If you already worship with so-called ‘illegal’ immigrants, then of course your church will challenge this new legislation. The livelihood of the body of Christ in which you are a part depends on the lives of those ‘illegal’ immigrants. You would challenge any power that seeks to rip apart that church, that body of Christ. Or, let’s say you chose to raise your family in a neighborhood of ‘illegal’ immigrants (and I know of many of such neighborhoods in Los Angeles). Your life and the lives of your children will be intertwined with those of the neighborhood children and families. Of course you wouldn’t let the powers that be rip away those people on whom your life depends.

    Jason, does that make sense of Isaac’s comment? And Isaac, is this the sort of thing you are talking about? I seen that you read Hauerwas as well, so I imagine these are the lines along which you think.

  • 5 Jason // May 8, 2006 at 9:55 am

    anon, thanks so much for your thoughtful explanation of virtue ethics. I do remember learning about it in college, but that was a while ago, and your concrete explanation jogged my memory of what that was all about. I suppose my problem is that I’m part of multiple communities, and those communities compete to form me in different ways. I live in an immigrant neighborhood and work with many undocumented immigrants and also attend a church which is silent on the issue (except for expressing worries about uncontrolled popuplation growth) and also am part of a nation that places great emphasis on obeying laws. So, I suppose part of my indecision arises from the fragmented nature of my life. Does that make sense? Does Hauerwaus or others say much about the fragmented nature of many modern lives?

  • 6 anon // May 30, 2006 at 7:06 am

    Jason, sorry it took so long for me to get back to your question about my comment. Life sure gets busy sometimes. I think you question gets to the center of some problems with virtue ethics: What happens to virtuous formation when we live at the intersection of so many different communities? I think what Hauerwas ties to help us see is that ethics is misunderstood when taken primarily as something we think about when a tough situation arises. We need to start thinking about ethics and our formation in faithfulness during the ordinary, the everyday. That’s one of Hauerwas’ points: we need to start thinking about how we are preparing ourselves ethically in order to see all the ways the destructive and enticing forces of evil invite us into their systems of oppression and injustice. So, it seems to me that wise people have already formed you in ways that help you at least see that there are injustices going on. That’s an achievement. That’s the product of your formation in faithfulness, in virtue, that was beyond your control. That’s what we call grace. And it looks like it’s a grace that passed into your life from somewhere other than the place you worship since this issue doesn’t even register as a blip (by the way, great name for your website) on their “gospel” radar screen.

    But what does virtue ethics say about your current situation? I’m not sure. And I don’t know Hauerwas’ work well enough to work through how he might answer. But I think one way to work through this issue is to bring the Bible into things. And I don’t mean something like, “hey, why don’t you start a topical bible study in your church where you get together and figure out what you think the bible says about immigration.” The problem with that is that you set up a hermeneutic that is going to produce the same old readings you’ve had. Why not go out and read the bible with those people who are your ethical quandry? And maybe this can be a beginning of a new practice that trains you in faithfulness, in a new virtue—something like seeking the voice of the Spirit in the strangers. I don’t know.

  • 7 Jason // May 30, 2006 at 9:26 am

    Anon, thanks for more clarification. And your point about not coming to scripture with a pre-formed hermeneutic or set of questions is a good one. Reading Scripture with the people who are in the midst of this issue is one of the soundest ideas I’ve heard yet.