“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
In the calendar, Christians mark this as the sixth week of the Easter season. These adherents believe they stand in the presence of a risen Savior Jesus Christ who triumphed over sin, death, and the grave. He triumphed in such a manner its impact will shape the universe, our city, and our humanity.
Revelation is the close of a religious text read by so many Christians around the world. This New Testament text provides descriptions of the culmination universal, human and salvation history as seen through the eyes of an elderly and exiled disciple, John. The Apostle John was the disciple whom Jesus loved in such a profound manner and John has been afforded the opportunity on the island of Patmos to look beyond the veil of time and space.
Revelation is the unveiling of mystery, the breaking of seals, the roar of thunderous trumpets, and the outpouring of God’s bowls of wrath. It is the period the saints of God have been anxiously waiting for and now, “Behold, God!”
The Apostle John sees Jesus “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father” (Revelation 1:5)? “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings on earth” (Revelation 1:5a). The Apostle offers a praise and announces an expectation, “to him be glory and dominion forever and ever” because “he is coming with clouds, and every eye will see him” (Rev 1:7). If you do not believe John, I invite you to look with the eyes of an old man, exiled on island and see the where our life is headed. I want to invite you to hear and see our very existence which moves through so many triumphs, defeats, sufferings, and praises will arrive at a new reality in which the universe will be made ready to hold a city of people who live in the presence of God’s glory.
Change of the Universe
The Apostle John sees a change of the universe as the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. Genesis 1 lays out for us the creation of the first heaven, earth, and sea. It lays out for us the Trinitarian God establishing creation for the purpose of his glory. God in his great wisdom and creativity stands on the stage of eternity and like a profound spoken word artist, offers the poetry of creation. Every stanza begins with “Let there be…” and with an indescribable rhythm offers a poem which lays the groundwork for an even greater poetry. And what does the psalmist say about God’s creation of heaven, earth and sea filled with great lights, great creatures, and beautiful works? “You have set your glory above the heavens,” (Ps 8:2). “The heavens declared the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork”(Ps 19:1).
Every wonderful poem has its end and John sees the removal of this current great creation and the arrival of a new heaven and new earth.
What is significant about this universal change? This new heaven and new earth, this new universe will reflect the infinite glory of God. No longer will the beauty of creation be obscured by sin. The universe in which we currently reside is unable to fully bend towards justice and have justice flow down like an overflowing stream. We have a hope this current creation will birth something far greater. Our universe resembles a woman in childbirth, anxious to bring forth a universe of freedom, joy, glory, and love. This is what John is seeing. A universe made ready to hold a city and a people who will enjoy the full love of God revealed in Christ Jesus.
What does this mean for the people of God? The new universe which is to come is meant to humanity. As written above, our current universe is unable in its own suffering to bring about the full revelation of justice. We anticipate a form of justice which men and women of various ethnic backgrounds will experience infinitely. A form of justice in which the life of man and womankind is equitable, matching the deepest longings of our souls. Therefore, we work today, in a variety of callings to make real the hope of this future form of justice. We work today in hope, for the redemption of human bodies and a life characterized as loving and just. We work today in hope, for the men and women to live in a manner which God is glorified and humanity displays the love of God to God and others.
Change of the City
John sees the universal change which will reflect the full glory of God who creates an environment of fully realized justice. Secondly, John sees the change of the city which can inspire us towards social, political, and economic change.
The new city is described as New Jerusalem. The city of peace is a gift from God descending from heaven to earth. The universe has been prepared similar to a new home and now the new city like a bride is brought to her new home. God as a good father presents his precious daughter precious daughter to live in her new home. The new city is perfect in shape, clothed with a variety of precious jewels, and radiates the glory of God. This city is not meant for our existing universe. This city could only be gifted to a new universe capable of holding such beauty and majesty. This new city will be a city of love, justice, joy, and freedom.
If we would reflect on our own city, we will observe the various social, political, and economic dynamics which exist. We live in a city in which citizens experience the difficulties of social alienation manifesting in depression, anxiety, anger, and in some cases the loss of life. What about our economic difficulties? I would ask you to remember the people of Brookside Trailer Park. My organization, The City of Hope Outreach (COHO) has served this community for seven years with education support, relational support, and community development. Recently residents were notified they have till June 30, 2019 to find new living accommodations. Men, women, and children who are on limited means, some disabled, and elderly, must now live elsewhere or be homeless. Think about our city. Are the political dynamics reflective of a city in which love, justice, joy, and freedom are supported?
The vision of John, seeing a new city which is marked by the glory and righteousness of God offers the people of God the present motivation to conduct acts of charity and justice on behalf of those who are experiencing social, political, and economic alienation. So you may be asking, “What would God have people do in the city now in preparation for this new city?” I would encourage you to read about another group of people who experienced alienation.
“Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare (peace)of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare (peace) you will find your welfare (peace)” (Jer 29:6-7).
Therefore, stand in solidarity with those in your city who are not like you, who do not vote as you do, or have the economic resources as you do. Love your neighbor as Jesus commanded us to do. This is the royal commandment. It is the executive order of the President Jesus Christ. When I mention solidarity, I am referring to the behavior of inter-dependence which any person of any age can demonstrate on a daily basis. Solidarity is the demonstration of a behavior which acknowledges my need for another human being to move forward in life and also the demonstration of a behavior of compassion with someone for the common good. Motivated by love, we would want to pursue what is best for other people while not taking advantage of them and creating a different type of injustice. When Christians demonstrate this behavior towards one another and to those who are not Christians, a great testimony of a living faith and hope pervades the city. When we as Christians behave in this manner, we are bringing a future hope into the present. A future hope for a new city which is like a beautiful bride marked by God. A city marked by love, peace, and solidarity for all.
Change of Humanity
Finally, John observes a third change. While the first two changes are seen with old eyes, the third change is heard with old ears. A change announced with a loud voice from the throne!
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
What has changed? God is dwelling with humanity. God in Jesus Christ has fulfilled his promised in Jesus Christ. The resurrected Jesus Christ who sits on the throne is dwelling with humanity forever. And what is the result of his presence with humanity?
Joy and life.
Human freedom and human flourishing.
Why is it important God dwells with humanity? It is important because our humanity is affirmed by the presence of God in Christ. The dehumanization of bodies and souls because of skin color and nationality will disappear. The dehumanization of bodies and souls because of we did not live up to the expectation of an abusive husband or wife will be eviscerated in God’s presence. No longer will the tears of young women saturate their pillows because they believed love would be found on Snapchat or Instagram. For young men, gone will be the pain of these small children in adult bodies who believed manhood is affirmed in violent activity. God dwelling with us is not based on whether or not men or women accept us on the basis of our ethnicity, economics, social standing, or politics.
The Good News is God dwells with humanity because of the finished work of Jesus Christ.
This week the Christian tradition enters the fourth week of the Easter season. We celebrate the triumph of God in Jesus Christ who conquered sin, death, and the grave. It was four weeks ago, Christians around the world participated with the host of heaven, creation, and echoed the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“Behold your God! Behold the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him, He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are young” (Isaiah 40: 9b-10).
In this fourth week of Easter, Christians continue to celebrate Jesus Christ who used his might (power) and his rule not for the use of unbridled power and conquest. He used his might (power) and arm to gather people together in his presence. Jesus Christ gathers persons made in his image and likeness. He gathers various ethnicities, nationalities, economic, political, and social groups into this new community which is defined by love, sacrifice, and a shared vision of concern for all persons, especially those who are the poor and orphaned.
A faith which resides in Jesus Christ who uses his might and power to announce good news to the poor is significant. One can understand this living faith involves participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table. Christians demonstrate faith as they join Christ dying in water and rising in new life. Secondly, they demonstrate faith gathering together around the table and ingest within their bodies the body and blood of Christ. Yet there is another demonstration of a living faith. A living faith which echoes the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ himself, a life which uses power to embrace the poor.
In James 2: 12-26, James the Just takes to task the notion of a faith which is exclusively a profession in God yet lacks the works addressing the needs of the poor. He has set the tone of his letter concerning the poor in two places,
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas 1:27).
“Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom…” (Jas 2:9).
James questions the inability of persons who have the resources to alleviate another person’s poverty condition. In Jewish thought, “a poor person is considered like one who is dead” (Devarim 15:10). Jewish commentators state, “so one who gives charity lights up the eyes of the poor and receives his blessing from him” (Devarim 15:10). What are we to learn then from this question and about ourselves? Our goods and our ability to use these goods to help a person experiencing poverty is similar to raising a person from the dead. Our charity and justice can be the very act which gives light to the eyes of people and in their raising up, we have the opportunity to receive a spiritual blessing from them.
As is usually the case, in America, and when addressing the human experience of poverty, objections arise. Even in the first century, in the infancy of the church, James had to address those who simply wanted to remain comfortable in the use of words and not the execution of action to help neighbors in poverty.
Are there any examples of persons using power and resources to help the poor?
I want call your attention to Job. He was a rich man turned impoverished which can convince us of the use of power for the cause of the poor thus demonstrating a living faith. So Job himself testifies,
“I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy and I searched out for the cause of him whom I did not know” (Job 29:13,15-16).
Why is this so important to the Christian journey? The incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ produces in his people an ethic to embrace every person because we are all men and women of the dirt. We are shaped out of soil and united with the imago Dei. We are neighbors. Men, women, and children who possess a shared humanity. Thus we are to work. Why? Anglican pastor Harold T. Lewis, writing on “Christian Social Witness” stated, “the God who is incarnate in Jesus Christ is,…a being who is at work in the world-not a remote deity, but a God who is close at hand and active in the lives of all humankind” (p.34).
This mass of humanity exists inside the Christian community and outside of this wonderful community. Inside and out, men and women who share the imago Dei are afforded the opportunity to work for the poor. Inside this community of faith, when one becomes aware of the needs of poor brothers and sisters Christians are to act and therefore confirm the professed faith and in a sense reenact a dying in baptism and unity around the table. Outside this community of faith, when Christians become aware of the needs of the poor, they are to act, confirming this professed faith to a watching world. In either case, Christians are demonstrating a faith which indeed saves the person's own humanity and offers people the life to say “Behold our God!”
But there is so much on my Facebook feed, my twitter feed, my IG, the television, and in the news, there is this need everywhere. I can understand that when we are exposed to so much suffering and poverty from across the world, we can be desensitized, and become numb.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stated, “Our sense of involvement with the fate of others has been in inverse proportion to the distance separating us and them. What has changed is that television and the Internet have effectively abolished distance. They have brought images of suffering in far-off lands into our immediate experience. Our moral sense is simultaneously activated and frustrated. We feel that something should be done, but what, how, and by whom?” (Sacks, p.30)
A living faith for the poor expresses itself in actions which are the combination of verbal blessings and the sharing of our goods. The body of Christ animated by a living faith demonstrated in baptism, the Lord’s Table, and care for the poor offers the clearest picture of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians continue to celebrate this Easter season and head into the celebration of the promise of God’s Holy Spirit during Pentecost, we should be observing a professed faith and use of power to help the poor. As persons profess faith in Christ, they should wrestle with James the Just probing question,
“If you gain knowledge of a poor person or family and pray for them without giving them what they need, what good is that?”
CONTEXT OF IMMIGRATION
In 2012, President Barack Obama published an executive branch memorandum which authorized persons, specifically children, who were brought into the United States through no fault of their own. The memorandum titled “Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion with Respect to Individuals Who Came to the United States as Children” was issued within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security led by Secretary Janet Napolitano. This memorandum provided a new label to these men and women as DACA Recipients who arrived in this country under the age of sixteen, who have lived in the country for five years without break, and not above the age of thirty years old. Two years later, President Obama chose to expand his memorandum to include any persons who did not access the legal means for immigration. During this same presidential administration of issuing the memorandum and expansion of DACA, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (USICE) reported 409,849 persons were deported during FY 2012, 368,644 persons deported in FY2013, and 577,295 persons deported in FY2014. The USICE department was clear in each instance deportation was related to crimes committed by these persons.
In 2015, Donald J. Trump a Presidential candidate for the United States announced, “I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me. I’ll build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I’ll have Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” As we all know, Donald Trump became President in November 2016 by winning the electoral vote over Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary R. Clinton. Since his presidency, President Trump has offered much commentary in the form of tweets and interviews concerning immigration. A fair summary of his comments is his focus on what he identifies as the murders, drug dealers, and sex traffickers coming across the border.
Our current context and perspective on immigration and those persons who have specifically arrived here through means other than the Congressionally mandated process falls in to one of two descriptions, illegal or undocumented. If one possesses a strict understanding of immigration as a violation of federal law a description of these persons leads with the designation of “illegal” immigrant. Whereas, those persons who are strictly focused on the human needs and situations of these persons use the descriptor of “undocumented” immigrants. Where a person starts offers an insight on what policies he or she favors.
Finally, to conclude the context in which we exist regarding immigration and how it relates to the state of Arkansas, let's turn briefly to sanctuary cities. A sanctuary city refers to any municipality which limits through ordinance, resolutions, proclamation, or policy its cooperation with federal authorities charged with immigration enforcement. The Center for Immigration Studies, which is nonpartisan, reports the following cities, counties, and states which possess this identification: states (8), counties (143), and cities (34). The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2018 reported a more extensive number of sanctuary jurisdictions at 564. FAIR reported sanctuaries grew from 11 during the presidency of George W. Bush in 2000 to 40 sanctuaries during the presidency of Barack Obama to 338 sanctuaries in 2016 and 564 sanctuaries in 2018 during the current presidency of Donald Trump. This is an increase of 5,000% over an eighteen year period.
THE ARKANSAS PAST
In 1868, the Arkansas Legislature debated passage of a law which would give Negroes the opportunity to participate in the voting process. During the debate, J.N. Cypert of Searcy located in White County, gave testimony against the enfranchisement of Negroes -supported by Republicans - on the basis of racial characteristics in comparison to Caucasians. Mr. Cypert stated, “They(Negroes) pick up more quickly whatever knowledge reaches the child through the natural organs of sight and hearing. But the mind of the Caucasian race expands, looks to the future; it leaves edifices behind it, it builds governments and kingdoms, it rears structures that stand forever as monuments of the race. When was that ever done by the African? I mean, the negro” In this discussion of citizenship and suffrage, Mr. Grey, a Black man of Phillips County rose up as representative of the freed persons in Arkansas. His response was multifaceted as he addressed the determination of citizenship among African descendants, the intelligence of poor Whites, and what he perceived as the inevitability of Negroes gaining citizenship and suffrage. Mr. Grey addressed the racism of Mr. Cypert,
“Settle once and forever the question of human rights, by giving us equality before the law.
Then, and not till then will peace come to our borders. I have no antipathy against the white people of this country, and am not surprised at their strenuous opposition. But time has a softening influence on all human prejudices. I am willing to forget the past, and to wrap the winding-sheet of oblivion over the sod that contains the bones of my wronged and oppressed ancestors…Give us the franchise, the right to protect ourselves, our wives, and children, and we are content”(p.159).
Is this what we saw and heard this week coming from the 92nd General Assembly? Are one group of people described with such racial antipathy?
THE ARKANSAS PRESENT
The 92nd General Assembly of Arkansas concluded this week. During the state legislature, Senator Gary Stubblefield introduced SB411, “An Act To Prohibit Municipal Sanctuary Policies.” The bill was introduced February 26, 2019, passed out of the City, County, and Local Affairs Committee on April 3, 2019, passed out of the Senate on April 5, 2019 with a vote of Yeas (24) , Nays(5), Nonvoting (5), and Excused (1). SB411 was then referred to the House Committee of the same name and passed out of committee on April 9, 2019, and passed out of the full house on April 10, 2019 with a vote of Yeas (71), Nays (24), Nonvoting (4), and Present (1). SB411 awaits Governor Asa Hutchinson signature.
The question I have for myself and for Arkansas is the following, “Was the SB411 rooted in racism similar to the opposition of Black citizenship and suffrage in Arkansas post-Reconstruction? Did politicians in the Arkansas Senate and/or House express racist thoughts and intentions regarding immigrants in Arkansas?”
Reviewing testimony on SB411 from the House and Senate which you can review much can be learned from the testimony and questions of the participants. During the House City, County, and Local Committee Hearing, SB411 sponsor Senator Stubblefield opened his testimony to address the bill’s foundation involved following the law and not discrimination against a particular ethnic group. Senator Stubblefield outlined three important elements of the bill to include sanctuary policies preventing law enforcement from protecting citizens, fulfilling oaths, and defying federal laws. Being consistent with his starting point of the legality of the immigration process, he did seek to justify his bill by appealing to crimes committed by persons who are identified as “illegal” as a need for this bill. Finally, Senator Stubblefield addressed all are immigrants, he believes the process should be followed, and welcomes all people.
In the Senate testimony, racial profiling was mentioned multiple times. Racial profiling involves targeting persons on the basis of racial characteristics, rather than an individual behavior. Those who were against SB411 made allusions to the state being racially insensitive or not a welcoming a place for entrepreneurial persons who are immigrants. In the same Senate testimony, those who supported SB411 proceeded from a law enforcement perspective. Therefore, in both the Senate and House Committees groups supported and opposed SB411 spoke passionately, clearly, and offered facts and anecdotes to support positions.
ARKANSAS MOVING FORWARD
It is very important we as Arkansans not repeat the mistakes of our past. The Arkansas Legislature post-Reconstruction testified with racially charged language consistent with the culture of the defeated Confederacy. I would hope to believe the state of Arkansas has matured from that period, matured from its failures under Faubus and the Little Rock Nine, to a point in which its capital city is led by a Black Mayor. When the charge of racism is leveled against a person or group-without fact- instead of engaging with the substance of an argument the opportunity for learning diminishes. To announce someone’s thoughts, policies, or legislation as racist resurrects horrible periods of our history to include lynchings, cross burnings, and segregated schools.
There is much we need to learn from each other regarding immigration. On both sides of this important debate are men and women who are talking past one another, placing important value in what it means to be a citizen, and desire to see persons have a new opportunity. Somewhere in the middle is the solution and we can only arrive at these solutions if we engage in honest and humanizing discussion. Clear or veiled charges of racism will only cause persons to double down on a position. Characterizing a group of people only in terms of legality, not their humanity, causes persons to double down on a position reinforcing a bias which may in fact may not be true.
I have served Arkansas immigrants for the last twelve years in my nonprofit work. These men and women have hailed from many backgrounds. I understand the perspective of those who advocate from the undocumented perspective. At the same time, I have sought to understand the perspective of those who hold the illegal perspective. There is a sincere desire for persons to abide by the law. Which is equally necessary in order to protect the humanity of all regardless of citizenship.
I hope better things for our state and our nation. I hope we see the progress we have made and at the same time recognize the work before us. Arkansas has the potential to be a great house and it will take all of us to recognize who we are as humans, agree to standards which protect this great house, and continue to create opportunities for all of us to flourish as Arkansans.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
8 Debates and Proceedings of the Convention which Assembled in Little Rock January 7, 1868, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=coo1.ark:/13960/t6sx6w64j;view=2up;seq=160;size=125 (p.151)
9 Ibid., p.159