Immigrant Rights, Latino Evangelicals, and the Premillennial Trap Door

Editor's Note: I'm delighted to have Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh back in the blog saddle again. Arlene keeps her own blog at Patheos and teaches at Azusa Pacific University. She is also a Lakers fan, but we won't hold that against her just now. Below is a piece she originally prepared for another publication, but I'm delighted to host here. 
by Arlene M. Sánchez-Walsh 

Front Cover

Historically, the Deep South has not been the most welcoming place for people of color. As of the 1990s, one of the ways certain states have continued various exclusionary projects has been to do what scholar Jaime Winder says “fused new regional racial demographics to new national border anxieties.” Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia among others have bought into the post 9/11 rationale that “every state is a border state” (reference at end of post).  These states have enacted laws, in the guise of safeguarding borders, protecting economic interests, and even preserving  a way of life-hospitality (as Tennessee lawmakers rationalized in their attempts to “stem the tide of illegal” immigration).   So, Latino immigrants, who have had the unenviable task of being desired demographic consumers, sources of cheap labor, and routinely a well-organized threat, have once again found themselves cast as the source of a state’s economic anxiety and once again, aside from a few voices in the Latino/a evangelical community--there is silence.

The spate of anti-immigration laws and ordinances throughout the South begins in the 1990’s, with the growth of Latino/a population, let’s examine the growth in the one state at issue here--Alabama.  There were 33,000 Latinos in Alabama in 1980, out of a total population of 3.8 million. By 2010, the population quadrupled to over 185,000  with Latinos/as at about 3.9% of Alabama’s nearly 5 million people.  The 1990’s then saw a meteoric rise in the Latino/a population--it would take one decade for Alabama to catch up to their Southern neighbors in seeking their own version of anti-immigrant laws meant to stem the tide of “illegal” immigration.

One does not have to look too far back into history to see that Alabama’s addition to the immigration wars is nothing new. Within the past several years, Arizona, South Carolina, Texas, and Georgia have promoted laws meant to stop “illegal” immigration to their state by making it harder to live in these states. Even states with little or no immigration, like West Virginia, has begun to have debates about how to stop the immigration problem--the triumph of rhetorical illogic is to convince a economically depressed population in an economically depressed state that their problems stem from the phantom called “illegals.”

Towards the end of 2011, in a surge of activism that found various interfaith organizations marching, writing letters, and praying for the repeal of Alabama’s HB 56 anti-immigration law. These candlelight vigils and marches drew thousands and even raised the specter that at least a segment of the Latino/a church would finally make a statement. In November, a contingent from the conservative evangelically-oriented Hispanic Church Leadership Council visited Alabama to add their voices to the other groups such as the Episcopal, United Methodist, and Roman Catholic churches who had gone further than their evangelical brethren and asked Gov. Robert J. Bentley to repeal the law.  Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the Hispanic Church Leadership Council, called HB 56 “anti-American, anti-Christian, and anti-family” (Samuel Rodriguez, Interview w Christine Scheller, Urban Faith, November 6, 2011) but stopped short of calling for its repeal as his fellow clergy did. Rodriguez did not think there was enough support in the Latino/a evangelical community to stop HB56 and he further commented that this spoke to a “Christian apathy” and “malaise” among congregations. It is to this apathy and malaise that I would like to explore for a bit, since it may not be as simple as Rev. Rodriguez thinks.

The theological underpinnings that many Latino/a evangelicals hold that offer some sense of ethereal security and comfort--has historically and today, done little to provide them with the theological tools to see that part of their theological safety net (premillennialism), is really a trap door where pastors and church workers who have no desire to actively pursue justice, conveniently fall into when they fear upsetting their more conservative congregants, and are unsure themselves about what more their faith asks of them. Examining some of the statements of Latino/a evangelical pastors, Pastors Raul Zacarias, and Carlos Aybar offers us clues into the theological underpinnings of the problem with Latino/a evangelical churches.

In an interview with WHNT (Huntsville) news, Pastor Raul Zacarias of Eben-Ezer Pentecostal church responded to why he believes HB 56 is unjust:  “the bible says persecution will happen to all of us sooner or later, but this church is going to stand by our faith.” While the interview cuts away, Zacarias continues to speak off the air but while the mic is still on saying that he believes HB56 is good for him and his church because it allowed them to exert their faith knowing that they believe in a higher law. “We can stay here [in Alabama] because they were doing the will of God...we are still going to preach the word of God.”

Pastor Zacarias sentiments are all to familiar and, given the urgency of the immigration legal battles, all too inadequate to help a vulnerable population whose day-to-day lives have been criminalized (have you ever been worried about being arrested for carpooling to work?).  The key here is to realized that when Zacarias mentions persecution, it is not a persecution rooted in the suffering Christ, the suffering poor, the oppressed--he is referring to an all too familiar reliance on a premillennialist trope that views nearly any and all obstacles to faith as precursors to the ultimate persecution of the “Last Days” where all true believers will be tested as to their veracity and strength.

What over-reliance on premillennial trap door does is blunt the idea that people of faith have any other mandates than to literally “preach the gospel” and inoculates them from having to counter the systemic oppression that has befallen immigrants (legal and otherwise) throughout U.S. history.

The Latino/a evangelical church’s activism has been largely silent and symbolically present in the guise of “national” leaders, who have little resonance with the very grassroots driven Latino/a church. To be fair, the premillenialist trap door is not the only reason Latino/a evangelicals don’t engage in their own political liberation, especially when fear of deportation and family separation trump theology.

That suffering is a trope most American evangelicalism (including Latino/a) that has been re-wired into a more palatable, otherworldly, premillennialism is a story too complex to discuss here, suffice to say, it has created a false choice among many Latino/a evangelicals--one that pits a biblicist rationale on a historically contingent idea (biblical prophecy), and dares believers to cross yet one more line of orthodoxy.

Perhaps the most ironic of the many ironies of this sad story are the myriad of stories, (do the Google search yourself) of the families that have been separated, the children who have feared going back to school because they did not want to arrive back home after school to find their parents deported. News reports vary, but from October to December 2011, school districts in Alabama with a Latino/a population reported absences ranging from the dozens to the thousands. For a movement that has staked its claim to supporting family values, fixated on personal piety as its moral glue--family dissolution seems to mitigate against families that praying together staying together.

Worst yet is that amidst this sad state of premillennial co-dependency, Latino pastors like Zacharias, and Foursquare pastor Carlos Aybar, and no doubt, many many others, have seen what the end result of non-action is, Aybar confiding to my colleague, Jonathan García, that he personally knows of churches that have closed this supported by a recent spate of stories in newspapers like the Los Angeles Times but Aybar’s theological trap is not only a reluctance to discuss HR 56 as a problem, but actually ignoring it, “we don’t focus on the problem, but focus on God.” Aybar continues for several more questions, hesitating to discuss any tangible actions his church has committed to see HR 56 reversed--no doubt because Aybar has done little in terms of practical work to see the injustice of a law that blatantly targets Latino/a immigrants come to an end.  Seeing the fight as a purely spiritual battle between unseen forces and not a natural fight among misguided and craven politicians is one rung in a misplaced theological ladder that has led way too many Latino/a evangelicals away from acting on their own behalf and seeming to support a premillennialist schema that was born late in the 19th century.

In the 1920’s the premillennialist schema actually had Mexico as one of its potential signs that God was ready to make a final visitation. For a brief, shining moment, when Mexico was viewed as being in the grasp of godless Communism, and American Protestant missionaries were viewed as part of the ushering in of the last days, Mexico was part of the solution, not part of the problem. As it is now, most premillennialists are unaware of the changing foundations of their own theological certainties, and way too many Latino/a evangelicals have decided to walk away from their homes, from their schools, from their churches without fighting. Take this case from an Alabama Baptist church as a clarion of Latino/a church inaction:

This church has seen a loss of Latino/a members, a rise in distrust, and an uncertainty over their Latino/a outreach.  Perhaps most ironic is that the church chose to follow a part of HB 56 that had been struck down as unconstitutional, (the transporting of people without adequate proof of legality), and painted over their bus sign “Misión Hispana” just to be on the safe side--such is one of the many ironies of evangelical churches, whose main reason for being is to bring as many people on buses like that, to their churches--will soon have no reason to drive that bus around on Sunday mornings, why? Because by many accounts, Latinos are leaving Alabama and will do what they have always done and continue to do--find a place that needs their labor more than it dislikes their presence.

Winders, Jaime, “Bringing Back (B)order: Post-9/11 Politics of Immigration, Borders and Belonging in Contemporary U.S. South.” 2007  Antipode


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