Columns » Ernest Dumas

Letter from the bishop

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The hard-eyed zealots on the religious right will say that the new Catholic bishop of Arkansas has gone to meddling and ought to heed Edmund Burke's warning that politics and the pulpit should have nothing in common.

True to expectations, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor issued a strong pastoral letter last week saying that Christians caught up in the rage against unlawful immigrants were violating the teachings of Jesus. He had for 28 years been a priest in Oklahoma, where he ministered to Hispanic immigrants who flocked to the Catholic church.

The bishop addressed the letter to the Catholic flock because of “confusion among the faithful” but he had a pointed message for politicians, Catholics included, who expected to pass legislation this winter to punish immigrants. It would violate their faith and hurt the state economically. The diocese will send the letter to state representatives and senators.

“Hopefully they'll learn from the mistakes made in Oklahoma,” Bishop Taylor said last week. Oklahoma passed a brutal law making it a felony to transport or shelter a documented worker and forcing employers to verify the legal status of every employee. It chased many immigrants from the state, leaving a shortage of agricultural and service workers.

A sizable band of legislators, mainly in Northwest Arkansas, want to do the same thing in Arkansas in January. One of the leaders is Rep. John Woods, a Republican from Springdale, who happens to be Catholic.  Woods didn't want to comment when a reporter called him last week.

For peace of mind, Woods and the other firebrands may want to leave the 32-page epistle unopened. It closes with 19 excerpts from scripture that command them to welcome and help immigrants, even those who live in Arkansas unlawfully, not try to banish them. “Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien or the poor,” God commanded them in Zechariah.

Isaiah had a more ominous warning for lawmakers like Woods.

“Woe to the legislators of infamous laws, to those who issue tyrannical decrees, who refuse justice to the unfortunate and cheat the poor among my people of their rights* * * .” People's God-given rights include migrating and living wherever they please.

“To whom will ye flee for help?” Isaiah asks the hateful legislators.

That is stronger stuff than Brother Mike Huckabee's warnings to them four years ago. Governor Huckabee, you will recall, had the same notion that Christian faith commanded us to take in illegal immigrants and comfort them. He wanted to give their children scholarships and health services when they needed them. That was before he ran for president and discovered that a phobia of aliens was a main force in the Republican base. He became the fiercest champion of walls and punishing laws.

The bishop's letter is worth a read by everybody, Catholic, Protestants and nonbelievers alike. It provides an excellent analysis of immigration law as well as a passionate explanation of Christian doctrine toward immigrants.

The doctrine is basically this: Joseph and Mary found no welcome in Bethlehem. No matter how they got here, the men and women who make their way to the United States to provide for their families and to flee oppression stand in Joseph and Mary's stead and we owe them the succor that Joseph and Mary should have received. The Bible repeats the refrain that we will be judged by how we treat the aliens and strangers in our midst.

For good measure, Bishop Taylor throws in the Declaration of Independence, written by the deist Tom Jefferson. Government gets its power from the consent of the governed, and the governed include everyone who lives on American soil, citizen or alien.

There will be some who say that the bishop would sing a different tune if the predominant immigrant faction, some 150,000 in Arkansas, were not Hispanic and Catholic but, say, Protestant or Muslim.  Latinos have filled the pews of many Catholic churches. The Stephens Media article about the bishop's letter observed that 88 percent of Mexico's population is Catholic.

But the immigrant doctrine is not a recent cultivation of the church. It is just more urgent.

Bishop Taylor's eloquent letter raises another question as urgent as immigration. Shouldn't the doctrine of Christian inclusion include those who are treated by law as strangers in the land by virtue of their variant chromosomes, gays and lesbians, be welcomed and not be made scapegoats by punitive laws like the adoption and foster parenting bans enacted last week? Some of the scripture the bishop cited suggests as much. Maybe another pastoral letter is forthcoming.  

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