Monday, March 7, 2011

Could Jesus Get A License?

The debate in New Mexico about who can get a driver’s license is part of a bigger national conversation. We’re asking who’s a citizen, who belongs, who’s entitled to public services like healthcare and education, who’s an insider and who’s outside the circle of our compassion?

Who is my neighbor, as Jesus put it? It’s illuminating to think about this debate in the context of Christian history. Back in the time of Jesus, of course, Rome was the world’s superpower, like America today. Big armies, gap between the rich and poor, a veneer of republican government laid over a corrupt regime. And back then, being a citizen of Rome was a big deal, just as having an American passport is a big thing now.

If I recall my Sunday School lessons, for example, Paul was a Roman citizen. Remember Paul? That’s how he managed to do so much traveling. He was in Corinth, Thessalonica, Galatia, Rome, planting churches and spreading the gospel. Old Paul had his travel documents. Nobody quite knows how or why he managed to claim citizenship, but being a bona fide citizen saved him more than once. Because being a citizen back then, as now, meant privileges. You couldn’t be arbitrarily imprisoned if you were a citizen. You couldn’t be flogged or crucified. Being a citizen meant you had protection of the laws.

In contrast, for example, to a man like Jesus who wasn’t a citizen, who was undocumented, an illegal, who probably never traveled more than 50 miles from the place he was born because he didn’t have his papers.

Jesus wasn’t exactly a slave, but was still the lowest of the low in a caste system where some people had rights and other people were expendable. He was the kind of guy who of course didn’t have any right to a fair trial. The sort who associated with questionable characters …was suspected of criminal activity … lacking any visible means of support. And of course Jesus spent his life caring for and ministering to the underdogs, the outcasts, the foreigners and aliens and other outsiders like himself that were looked on as human trash by respectable society.

We need to remember our Sunday School lessons as we participate in this current debate in New Mexico. We need to ask not just “What would Jesus do?” but “Who would Jesus be?” if he were to appear again here, now, this legislative session.

Maybe he’d be a child, born into this country, but now threatened with being relegated to throw-away status. Maybe his parents would be working people, like so many undocumented laborers, doing janitorial or agricultural work or the other dirty jobs that have to get done and that proper citizens don’t want. He probably wouldn’t even speak Latin, or English, or whatever the official language is. That’s probably who he’d be: a brown baby, a child living on the margins.

And if he were here today, he’d be reminding us and reminding our Governor that everybody is somebody. That the tens of thousands of residents of New Mexico called “illegals” are actually mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, they’re employees, taxpayers and contributors to our economy, not contraband or sub-human refuse but human beings like ourselves. Maybe not citizens of the United States. But still citizens of that kingdom of justice and compassion that Jesus spoke of.

I know there are more practical arguments for why it makes sense to make sure all the drivers on our public roads are licensed and tested, insured and registered. But I’m no expert on traffic safety or public policy. I’d just like to ask our legislators and Governor to ask themselves the religious and moral questions that should be part of this debate:

“What would Jesus do? And who is my neighbor”

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