Water in the Desert

Saturday, 15 August 2009

One of the best-known Christian devotional books is called Streams in the Desert. First published in 1925, this book by missionary Lettie Cowman has inspired millions of readers with its devotions for each day of the year. The title comes from a phrase found in Isa 35:6 (KJV): "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert." Like many books of this genre, devotions focus on the impact that a relationship with God has on one's inner life. The goal of these devotions is to strengthen or comfort the reader in his or her Christian walk, to encourage continued faithfulness in devotion and prayer, and to promote the value of personal worship for the individual Christian. This is fine as far as it goes. The problem with this book and others of its ilk is that that is as far as it goes. Christianity, particularly--but not exclusively--conservative Protestant Christianity in the 20th and 21st centuries, has been whittled down to a pale imitation of the vigorous life of Jesus and his earliest disciples.

For all the early Protestant critique of the medieval penchant for reading the Bible allegorically, many of the readings one finds in devotional books offer watered down allegories of the text in question. Take Isa 35:6, the passage that gave its name to Streams in the Desert. This passage speaks of the joy returning exiles will feel when God delivers them from their oppressors. The quiet comfort an individual believer receives from this passage may well be meaningful, but it is a far cry from the exuberance of an entire nation celebration its release from captivity. The language of the blind seeing, the deaf hearing, and the lame walking is indeed figurative, but it is at the same time suggestive of a life-transforming encounter with God.

Those of us who call ourselves Christians claim to have had such a life-transforming experience, or if we haven't had one ourselves, we at least acknowledge that such an experience is possible. Too often, however, we allow self-serving emotionalism to substitute for a change of life. We are born selfish, and when we go through confirmation or an experience of personal salvation, depending on our Christian tradition, our selfishness is not replaced, it is simply supplemented with smugness. Now we're members of the in crowd, God's special, chosen people. Maybe we have the desire to recruit others to join our exclusive club, bound for heaven, but we rarely allow the suffering of those outside our group to bother us.

The sentencing this week of Walt Staton, a member of the group No More Deaths, for the crime of littering mirrors in the political and legal sphere the lack of concern that frequently characterizes Christians in the ethical sphere. Staton was convicted of littering for leaving water in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona for undocumented immigrants. Hundreds of immigrants entering the U.S. have died over the past several years, so No More Deaths and other groups and individuals have begun leaving water out for them to find as they seek a better life for themselves and their families. As a result of their actions, the water-related death rate for immigrants has plummeted. In spite of this, federal prosecutors charged Staton with littering, and a federal judge sentenced him to 300 hours of community service and one year of probation. Presumably one of the requirements of his probation is that he won't leave any more water out for the immigrants.

Now I hate litter as much as the next guy. In fact, I probably hate it more than most, as I have expressed in other pieces I've written. But I hate cruelty to human beings more. Leaving water for immigrants to drink is an act of mercy that far outweighs the transgression of dropping an empty plastic bottle on the floor of the desert. (Note that it is the immigrants, not those who leave the water behind, who do the actual littering.) I have seen plenty of litter in the woods around my house, but I've never known of anyone being prosecuted for leaving small amounts of litter behind. No, this case has nothing to do with litter and everything to do with one's attitude toward immigrants.

Walt Staton and others like him see undocumented immigrants as human beings in need of help. The federal prosecutor in this case, and many others around the country, see undocumented immigrants as people outside the "in-group" and thus unworthy of our consideration. If they have the misfortune of being born in a country with a weak economy, that's just too bad. If their ancestors didn't have the good sense to come to the U.S. when our ancestors did, tough. If after making the difficult decision to leave the home they know and the family they love to travel north in search of better opportunities they find themselves dying of thirst in the desert, that sucks for them. For those of us who call ourselves Christians, who supposedly model our attitudes and actions on those of Jesus, such views of undocumented immigrants are unacceptable.

Immigration is a complex issue, many people say. No one wants criminals, including would-be terrorists, to enter the country. Many people are also worried that immigrants, legal or otherwise, will take jobs away from "hard-working Americans." No matter if the immigrants are willing to work even harder and for lower wages. "It's just not fair!" they say. And they're right: it's not fair. It's not fair that being born on one side of an imaginary line gives a person wealth and privilege that a person born on the other side of that imaginary line doesn't have. It's not fair that immigrants from certain countries (primarily European countries) have historically had greater access to America's shores. It's not fair that those who are victims of imperialism and rampant capitalism perpetrated by the world's developed countries can't share the wealth that they and their ancestors helped to transfer from the Third World to the First.

When you look at it in this way, immigration is not really that complex of an issue. Providing for the needs of oneself and one's family is a basic human right. Freedom to live in the country of one's own choosing is a basic human right as well. The U.S. has always been a nation of immigrants, and immigrants and their descendants strengthen this country. They make it more diverse, more open, more accepting, better in every way. Our borders, and the borders of every other nation, should be open and welcoming to all.

The Berlin Wall was built to keep East German citizens in. The Border Fence along the U.S. southern border is being built to keep Mexican and Latin American citizens out. Both types of fencing are immoral. German authorities finally acknowledged the immorality, and ineffectiveness, of the wall in 1989 and tore it down. Some day Americans will do the same, because freedom of travel, the freedom to live and work wherever one can find a job and a place to live is a matter of simple justice. Until that day, it's our duty as people of faith to welcome the stranger into our homes and communities, to protect and provide for them as they seek better lives, and to leave water for them in the desert.

3 September 2010 update: Today the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Daniel Millis, who had similarly been convicted of leaving water in the desert for passing immigrants. The ruling is likely to affect the case of Walt Staton, who is appealing his conviction, as well.

© Copyright 2010, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology