PC(USA) response to Texas migrant tactics falls short

The state of Texas is flouting human rights law, and the PC(USA)'s response rings hollow, opines Robert Lowry.

American flag and barbed wire, USA border

Alxey Pnferov

In a letter to the church addressing widespread concern following an action of the General Assembly (GA) in 2022 claiming that Israeli policy in the West Bank met the definition of apartheid under international law, former stated clerk of the PC(USA) J. Herbert Nelson wrote, “Speaking truth to power is inherent in the theological underpinnings of a prophetic voice.”

Amen! On that point, we agree entirely.

The church is indeed called to speak truth to power because that is a foundational piece of our theological calling as a community of hope in Christ. Although I believe the action of the GA was wrong on the law and wrong on history, it cannot be faulted for lacking prophetic voice and speaking what the commissioners discerned to be truth to power. They answered that call to courageous witness and we, as a church, should thank them for it whether we agree with their conclusions or not.

Sadly, in recent months, this theological value so readily embraced at the cost of historic relationships between Presbyterians and Jews two summers ago has become a dead letter when confronted by the escalating human tragedy befalling immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

In recent months, the governors of Texas and Florida have continued to cravenly use immigrants as political pawns. In their efforts to remain in the news, in the zeitgeist, and on the wrong side of history, these governors have trampled on the basic rights and dignity of vulnerable people “yearning to breathe free” (Emma Lazarus).

The human rights violations these state governments have embraced as public policy include erecting dangerous and life-threatening barriers on the border, preventing medical aid from reaching injured migrants, and threats of arrest if undocumented migrants report crimes against their persons or property. Perhaps most draconian among the unconscionable policies adopted by these men is the coercive migration of people from Texas and Florida to cities as far away as Los Angeles, Denver, Chicago and New York. Put another way, they have embraced forced migration and human trafficking as legitimate tools of public policy.

Forced migration through state action is a violation of international law. Human trafficking for any purpose is a violation of international law.

When our GA declared Israel an “apartheid state,” taking the wrecking ball to more than a century of Jewish-Presbyterian relations, Israel’s alleged violation of international law against the Palestinians was cited as the assembly’s reason. Surely, the response of our denomination to violations of international law (and basic human rights) here at home would be equally as strong in its prophetic voice and the speaking of truth to power.

The official response from the PC(USA) has been limited to enforcing a policy adopted at the 2010 GA to refrain from holding national meetings in states where “travel by immigrant Presbyterians or Presbyterians of color or Hispanic ancestry might subject them to harassment.” I agree wholeheartedly with the Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell that this step is an important act of “look[ing] out for one another.”

When I learned about this action, I hoped it was a first good step that would be followed by language like what was voiced about the atrocities in Palestine. I fear that hope is misplaced.

Atrocities in Palestine, we burn the house to the ground.

Atrocities in Texas, we cancel hotel rooms.

Why the disparity in our response to two contemporaneous human rights crises?

Why are we willing to speak more forcefully against the actions of the state of Israel than we are against those of the state of Texas?

A Jewish friend and colleague answered that question without pause and without reservation, “There are no Jews in Presbyterian pews.”

In my heart of hearts, I pray that the reason is not quite so cynical. However, it bears notice that a leader outside the church perceives our silence in such stark terms.

Perhaps the reluctance is rooted in fear of angering part of an increasingly “purple church.” That is certainly an increasing reality as the unbending nature of our political culture infects our faith communities. Whatever the reason, by remaining silent on this occasion our denominational leadership fell short of our calling to stand with and speak truth to power about our immigrant neighbors. Thankfully, many individual Presbyterians and congregations have picked up the ball dropped by our national church.

Seeing what local churches and presbyteries are doing to reach out to the immigrants stuck in the middle of this political stunt reminds us that there is still a passion for mission and serving neighbor on the local level come what may. In the face of this intolerable treatment of their neighbors and despite the political minefield that is immigration policy, individuals and churches have stepped up to stand for the values of the gospel and answer the charge to seek justice and love one another without counting the cost.

I pray that the denominational offices on Witherspoon Street will take notice of what is happening in congregations on Main Street and follow suit. Silence just isn’t cutting it.

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